A Tale of Two City Police Departments

Dec 16, 2013

When a plan to overhaul the operation of the Baltimore Police Department was released in November, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake packed the ceremonial room at city hall with community members and the heads of several city agencies. The mayor wanted to show unified support for the strategic plan.
Credit P. Kenneth Burns / WYPR

Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts’ strategy of bringing in a consultant to develop a plan to overhaul the department is nothing new.  He did the same thing at his last command in Oakland, Calif.

But it didn’t go well. The city council slashed police budgets and reduced the size of the force.

When Batts took over in 2009, Oakland was ranked the third most dangerous city in the country.  Homicides and shootings in the city outpaced other large cities in the state, including neighboring San Jose. 

The amount of time to answer an emergency call - as well as the amount of time to respond to those calls - was double the average of seven other departments in California.

The city was using a style of policing known as “complete watch,” meaning the entire city of Oakland was one patrol district.  Here in Baltimore, the city is geographically divided into nine patrol districts.

“Mind you, this is a city of 400,000 people so it was a very inefficient system to try and troll the whole city out of one watch commander,” said Geoff Collins, who was president of the Oakland Police Foundation then.

Batts hired Virginia-based consultant Scott Bryant to review the department’s operations. The two had worked together when Batts was police chief in Long Beach.

Collins said Bryant had to start from scratch; doing a lot of surveys and community outreach to find what was broken.

As part of the plan, unveiled in 2010, the 800 member force was split to work in three geographic districts.

The plan began to work and crime was going down until the department began losing officers through attrition, budget cuts and a cut in the size of the department by the city council.

“Within that year, he was down 150,” Collins said. “He couldn’t continue the geographic in his judgment.  So he split the city in two to two big watch commands.” He said the plan fell apart because city leaders did not give Batts the resources or the support he needed; continuing a historic trend for that city.

“Most of the mayors and the council are really anti-police; they believe that preventive intervention programs can do it; we don’t really need the police.”

Collins said the $285,000 Baltimore plan, developed by consultants Bob Wasserman and recently re-appointed New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, can succeed as long as elected officials support it.

Baltimore Police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said the department is implementing the plan with the support of Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Last month she packed her city hall ceremonial room with community members and a who’s who of city agency heads to unveil the plan.

Meanwhile, Oakland is back to square one.  Officials hired Wasserman last year to develop a new strategic plan for the police department.  Wasserman hired Bratton to look at immediate policing needs prior to Bratton’s being re-appointed in New York.  The overall cost for the Oakland plan under Wasserman and Bratton is $350,000.  Oakland is also looking for a new police chief.

For both cities, Collins called it money well spent.