In 1981, when I started my law enforcement career as a 21-year-old Patrolman in Baltimore’s Southeastern District, we were blessed with Iron Sergeants. These first line police leaders maintained discipline, knew themselves the fundamentals of policing, and who understood that young officers needed mentorship. We learned the job from men that walked a beat and who were inspired by the ideal of keeping “their” neighborhood safe.
Such a chain of inspiration was broken on the anvil of arrest and statistics-driven policing wrought sometime over the next decade or so. Hence, Iron Sergeants are now in very short supply in Baltimore. I’m not sure anyone there is anyone left in the Department with the knowledge and authority to reforge them.
The Southeast back then, as were the other eight districts, was divided into four Sectors; each sector comprised of at least five officers and a sergeant per shift. If I tried to use a leave day, my sergeant would first check the roll to see if we had enough officers to man the shift. If not, no leave. In an area once covered by twenty-four officers, it is now not uncommon for the entire District to be covered by only eight officers per shift.
Crime is on the increase, to wit: marauding groups of youths beating pedestrians and a homicide rate on track for another record. And, remember, these new homicide rates are in a city with a population that dropped from 760,000 residents in 1981 to 575,000 today. It is physically impossible for eight officers provide security and safety to businesses and citizenry in any police district and the criminals know it.
The Department is also extremely top-heavy with specialized units, some which appear to be nothing more than self-licking ice cream cones for the sick, lame and lazy. The result of trend after trend in police technologies, psychologies and management styles, none of these positions appear to be subject to sunset clauses. Not surprisingly, those occupying such benighted positions are not policing and certainly not learning to be Iron Sergeants.
A Department run by virtuous leaders – competent, morally courageous, self-disciplined and just – would turn it around to be a citizen-focused organization. Such a change would certainly involve disbanding half those oxygen thief positions in Headquarters and manning Patrol to levels commensurate to what they were 30 years ago. Most importantly, it would demand officers get out of their vehicles and increase police-populace contacts.
All of this is a dream, however, if officers doing the right thing don’t have the political top-cover to shield them from fiscal and criminal liability from inexperienced, shallow and politically motivated persons. Some say Baltimore deserves the leadership it elects. As a born and raised Baltimorean, I am not so quick to throw it onto the Detroit Express.
In the tumultuous Sixties, the State of Maryland rested control of the Department from the City of Baltimore. Commissioner Donald Pomerleau, the man who signed my first set of credentials, brought discipline and order the policing from 1965-1981. Perhaps, it is time to do the same thing again. It would provide shelter for both police and populace from a helter skelter environment that plagues each.