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Stella Canino-Quinones

The Baltimore Banner

July 4, 2024

Hope Brown strolled through a spring career fair in Essex, stopping to ask a Baltimore County Police recruiter about ideas for temporary work before she begins law school. Later, she told a reporter, she would never consider police work.

“Nobody respects them,” she said.

Having watched the tense relations between police and her East Baltimore community, then the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in Baltimore police custody, “becoming a police officer would make me feel as though I’m a traitor … especially being Black,” said Brown, a Morgan State University graduate, though she also acknowledged that she met many good officers as an intern at a courthouse.

Gray’s death nine years ago was among a series of police-involved civilian deaths that increased public criticism of law enforcement. Then, in 2021, Maryland legislators passed the Police Accountability Act, overturning 50 years of police protection against prosecution, and a record exodus of officers followed, according to FBI data.

Nobody wants to be a police officer,” said Laurel Police Department Officer Edwin Monarrez, a 10-year veteran. “Nobody wants to go to jail.”

The result has been the hollowing out of police forces. It has also been a boon for private security guard companies, who can step in dressed in uniforms, wearing badges, and sometimes carrying Tasers or guns, though most have no legal authority to chase, detain or arrest suspects.

A CNS analysis of FBI Crime Data shows a nearly 10% drop in law enforcement personnel in Maryland between 2019 and 2023. In four years, some 2,141 employees left the force.

In the most populous areas, the vacancies are much greater. About 23% of police jobs in Baltimore were vacant this year — 589 of the 2,592 officers authorized.

In the last 10 years, Prince George’s County’s vacancies have more than doubled to 19% of the total, or 338 out of 1,786 authorized police jobs.

Montgomery County’s police vacancies stand at 12%, with 30 unfilled positions in 2013 compared to 156 in 2023.

Baltimore County declined to provide police staffing figures. Baltimore County had 11% vacancies in 2023, 214 out of 1,974 authorized positions, compared to 63 vacancies in 2013.

Five Maryland police departments that CNS surveyed — Prince George’s, Montgomery, Charles, Baltimore and Howard — had greater vacancies in lower police force levels in 2023 than a decade ago, according to figures from county police departments.

“The [police murder of] George Floyd and just other sad situations … diminish the positive that law enforcement is actually [doing] out there.” said Capt. Calvin L. Tyson, commander of the recruiting and background investigations division of the Prince George’s Police Department. “Because of that, people just don’t want to participate in this career.”

Competitive wages for less dangerous occupations and a record low unemployment rate of 2.1% last year, which inched up to 2.6% in April, has only made hiring new officers all the more difficult.

On a calm Friday night patrol in Laurel, patrol officer Monarrez had time to reflect on his own ups and downs. He’s gotten to the point in his career that he gets frustrated more frequently, he said.

He gave this example: A few weeks ago, a car suddenly rushed toward him while he was working overtime patrolling a local bar’s parking lot. He braced for impact, thinking the driver must be drunk. At the last minute, the car made a U-turn and then headed straight toward him again. And again.

“So then I turned my lights and siren on,” Monarrez said. But under department rules, “I’m not allowed to chase this person.”

The criminals know the rules, too, and are becoming emboldened by them, he added. “I feel like we’re more like scarecrows than anything else.”

Monarrez recently received permission to switch from patrols to the community engagement unit, which holds events with residents, helps seniors with fraud cases and meets the public for coffee to talk.

He’s looking forward to leaving behind “calls where everybody’s screaming at you or somebody is with a knife.”

“I’m also a human being,” he said. The public acts like “we’re not human beings … like, you know, that you’re supposed to be this robot that’s supposed to have no emotion.”

Before leaving patrol, he often wondered, “Maybe I need to get out of this profession … it’s a struggle sometimes.”

To fill their ranks, departments are competing with one another in a way that used to be frowned upon.

“It’s a dog-eat-dog world,” said Carl Schinner, chief of the La Plata Police Department and president of the Maryland Chiefs of Police Association. “There’s agencies that aren’t in really good shape and they’re looking for bodies. Most of the time, they find them from other police or sheriff’s departments.”

More than 20 municipal law enforcement agencies border Prince George’s County, said Tyson, as well as numerous federal agencies such as the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency, all looking for new recruits. “We’re all trying to recruit from the same applicant pool,” he said.

Another obstacle to hiring new police officers is the routine polygraph, a lie detector test that has been used for decades to verify an applicant’s background.

The nervous job applicant who admits to stealing a candy bar as a teenager is not going to be disqualified by Maryland police departments, said Dan Seiler, a polygrapher who spent his career testing applicants for Maryland law enforcement agencies.

“If they didn’t hire people who stole candy bars when they were a teenager, they probably wouldn’t have any applicants,” he said.

The most common reasons for failing are what Seiler calls “major admissions,” a past history of serious drug use or felony crimes.

“There was a lot of drug admissions. There was admissions to felonies. There was admissions to bestiality. There was admissions to other sex crimes,” said Seiler, who retired last year. “You name it and people have admitted to it” — including one applicant who told him he had shot and killed a cab driver.

“On average, when I did a polygraph, if they failed, about 90% of them made a major admission,” he said. A polygraph is supposed to detect an untruthful answer. Polygraphers counsel applicants to tell them about past problems rather than lie about it, as the lie is likely to be detected by the polygraph machine under further questioning.

“You don’t hear about all the people that failed and made admissions because [police departments] just disqualify them and move on. We don’t try to trick people into telling us something in an application then arrest them for it. That’s not the purpose.”

He did, however, inform his department at the time about the applicant who admitted to shooting a cab driver.

To make themselves more attractive, departments in Maryland have increased salaries, benefits and bonuses.

Montgomery County’s starting salary this year is $64,556, a $12,056 increase from 2020. Prince George’s offers $62,911, a $2,996 increase from last year.

Montgomery County also gives out a $20,000 hiring bonus; in Prince George’s and Baltimore County, it’s $10,000.

Departments are adding more money to marketing and advertising, too. Baltimore County has proposed spending $4.8 million on recruiting classes and wants $98,000 for radio, billboards, print and social media advertising for 2024 fiscal year, according to its proposed budget.

The Maryland Governor’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth, and Victim Services this year offered $1.3 million in grants to police departments. The grants included up to $2,000 for bilingual officers, veterans, or recently earned college or university degrees, and up to $1,000 to officers who refer recruits.

To retain officers, the grants can be used for bonuses of up to $1,000 for every three years of service with a cap of $5,000 per officer; up to $1,000 for earning a degree; up to $2,000 for tuition reimbursement per calendar year; up to $1,000 for exceptional performance; and up to $3,000 for dependent care cost reimbursement annually.

Low expectations seemed to dog the row of police recruiters attending the Community College of Baltimore County Essex job fair in April. The District of Columbia recruiter scrolled through his phone, rarely looking up. A Maryland state trooper abandoned his booth to give a woman at another booth his business card. Officers from other departments came and went for snacks, closing themselves off to conversations.

Baltimore County’s recruiter Robbie Wright, meanwhile, stood in front of his booth, greeting everyone who passed. Soon, a group of seven students formed around him as his pitch intensified.

“You’re 22? So you’d be perfect for our entry level program,” he began. “Our entry level program starting salary is over $65,000! One of the awesome parts of that is we offer …” he rattled off, is a $10,000 signing bonus for entry level applicants, $15,000 signing bonus for experienced police officers, student loan assistance and tuition reimbursement.

Six students took a flyer; one told him she had previously applied.

The Baltimore County Police recruiting team has made the same pitch at 30 events its officers have attended so far this year. College career fairs. A Baltimore Orioles game. Churches. High schools.

Sometimes someone fills out an application. Sometimes they pick up a flyer. Sometimes, all they get is a half-smile and a cold shoulder.

Keon Mills, a 20-year-old freshman criminal justice student, stopped briefly at Wright’s, the FBI’s and the Maryland State Troopers’ booths.

He doesn’t want to become a police officer after seeing his father go to prison and hearing his opinions about law enforcement and their treatment of inmates.

“You know, if you go arrest someone for breaking the law, then you’ve got to follow the law, too. You’re not above it,” Mills said.

Jason Shank, a 20-year-old Baltimore resident, stopped at every booth, shaking hands and talking to every recruiter. “I don’t have any trouble with the police, firsthand,” he said. “Anytime I interact with the police I have a nice experience.”

But he also doesn’t want to be an officer.

Wright gets it that people are critical of police. He was, too, after George Floyd was murdered by an officer in Minnesota. “That broke me a little bit,” he said. He almost quit.

“If I leave, who am I helping?” he said he asked. “I probably make myself feel better, yeah, but am I helping people by leaving? Or am I just running from the issue?”

The way forward, he decided, was to talk about these sensitive issues with applicants. “If you want to do this job, want to be a police officer, but you are concerned about … how police treat Black people, come onto the job and help us change that perception,” Wright said.

“Help us fix that. … . Be the police that does the right thing. Be the police that sets the good example. Be the one that makes the change.”

It was a hard sell. On this day, only one young man applied.

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