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Henry J. Brown

The Capital News Service

May 14th, 2024

Maryland has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, which would typically be considered a bright spot for the state’s economy. But for companies and government agencies searching for workers, Maryland’s low unemployment is a problem that’s leading to labor shortages.

One of the hardest-hit industries is law enforcement.

As police recruitment season kicks off—it generally runs from April to June—police departments across the state are recruiting more aggressively than ever to fill patrol cars. Many are offering larger salaries and bigger signing bonuses.

“There are many occupational categories that suffer worker and skill shortfalls,” said Anirban Basu, chief executive of Sage Policy Group, an economic consulting firm in Baltimore. “But the most visible of these categories are public safety officials or police officers in particular,” he said, adding that “there are so many other occupational categories that are actively hiring right now that naturally it is difficult for departments to recruit sufficient numbers of officers.”

The shortage of police officers is most severe in Baltimore City and the county.

“We’re so short now, we can’t be all things to all people, meaning police departments are taking officers away from paperwork and putting them on more pressing work”, said Dave Rose, president of Baltimore County Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 4.

The department has 235 vacant jobs out of a total sworn force of 1950.

“If you’ve ever watched an Orioles game, we’ve got ‘Baltimore County is hiring’ signs everywhere,” he said.

Baltimore city, Maryland’s largest municipality, is short of nearly 600 police officers compared to its capacity of 3,100.

Baltimore increased its starting salaries to $61,349 last July in an attempt to fill vacancies, but still has a long way to go in filling the officer void, according to the department.

Smaller cities like Ocean City are having trouble competing against larger departments for applicants.

The seaside vacation town announced earlier this year that it is ending its summer hiring program, due to the sharp decline in applicants, and will instead seek to hire more full-time officers.

In a press release on its website, the department explained that “the law enforcement career field used to be very competitive, with few vacancies. As interest in law enforcement has downshifted, most agencies are now competing against one another to fill their spots from a smaller applicant pool.”

Many states, not just Maryland, are having trouble recruiting police officers.

The job is dangerous and the image of law enforcement has been tarnished in recent years by numerous examples across the country of police using excessive force, which in some cases have led to police being prosecuted.

“It is a difficult moment in history to be a police officer,” added Basu.

But Maryland has some unique issues. The biggest issue is salaries, which haven’t kept pace with the state’s high cost of living. For example, home prices in Maryland have risen more than 50% over the past 10 years and averaged $473,442 in March, according to the Maryland Association of Realtors.

Police officer salaries have also risen.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for police officers in Maryland was about $76,000 in 2023, slightly ahead of the national median average of $74,910.

But police union leaders and some politicians argue that salaries in Maryland still aren’t high enough when compared to other civil servants. Education administrators, for example, had median wages of $125,720 in 2023.

The high cost of housing has prompted a growing number of workers to leave the state and move to less expensive areas. That out-migration includes many people who might have been attracted to police work.

“If you could find a superior employment market in the south or a less expensive cost of living, why wouldn’t one pursue that?” asks Basu.

Recruitment has also been hurt by growing anti-police sentiment in the aftermath of several high-profile police encounters across the nation that led to protests and charges of excessive force. That includes the 2015 death of Freddie Gray Jr., a 25-year-old African American who suffered fatal injuries while under custody of Baltimore police officers, after he was apprehended for possessing a knife.

Some police officers believe that the attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, on Jan. 6, 2021, by supporters of then-President Donald Trump also turned some potential recruits away from policing.

“On (a day like) Jan. 6, officers were put in a position where their lives were at risk. I think that was an eye-opener for a lot of our candidates who were interested and backed out,” said Lt. Sean Schwartz, a hiring strategist for the police department in Bowie, the largest city in Prince George’s County.

Bowie is currently short eight cops out of a 67-officer minimum.

“We’re all hands-on in putting in our effort in speaking to people…and sharing the good things about the police department,” Schwartz said.

Bowie City Councilman Michael Estéve has spent the past several years trying to lift police pay and benefits. While initial salaries aren’t as high as he would like, he notes that officers who remain on the job will do well financially in the long term.

“The benefits accrue, so if you stay in the profession for 25, 35 years, you can retire very comfortably,” he said.

Bowie currently offers a starting salary of $59,020, and the department tenders signing bonuses between $15,000 and $20,000 depending on an officer’s prior experience level.

Meanwhile, Bowie Police Chief Dwayne Preston is scrambling to find new recruits.

“I’ve done a lot of talk shows, I’ve done a lot of advertising with social media, we’ve changed incentives and raised signing bonuses with the support of the city council and city manager to make us competitive,” he said.

The department also attends career fairs and looks for new ways to engage with younger members of the community, which it hopes will help with recruitment in the future.

One recent Saturday afternoon, a dozen Bowie police officers squared off against Benjamin Tasker Middle School’s basketball team in a friendly exhibition game. Though the edge went to the students, the mission succeeded in helping officers interact with students in a positive atmosphere.

“We start to get busy with a lot of the community events that we do throughout the spring, throughout the summer, but these are the things that are most fulfilling to us,” Preston said. “That’s one of the things that allows us…to serve this community in such a way that they feel like they appreciate it.”

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