Already beset by a public outcry over the high-profile death of a black man in police custody and a rising murder rate, Baltimore’s police department is facing another headache: it’s shrinking fast.
The number of uniformed officers in the mid-Atlantic city fell 6.1 percent last year and has shrunk by even more in the first half of this year, according to police data seen by Reuters and not previously reported.
The fall in 2015 was the biggest decline in police numbers among nine comparably-sized U.S. cities reviewed by Reuters. The police force in Detroit and El Paso shrank by 4.9 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively, while Denver and Las Vegas saw increases of over 5 percent.
The reasons for the fall are unclear, but it comes at a difficult time when the number of murders and other violent crimes have risen sharply in Baltimore and many other U.S. cities.
Shrinking budgets have pressured police recruitment in many U.S. cities, including Baltimore, where police officials say they also face steep competition from neighboring Washington to recruit and retain cops. Baltimore’s most recent budget slashed municipal government, reflecting a declining tax base, the city’s tepid economy and high unemployment.
While there are no U.S. national statistics on the number of people applying for police jobs, some officers, union officials and criminal justice experts say hiring in Baltimore and elsewhere has also been hurt by high-profile killings by police.
The death of Baltimore man Freddie Gray in police custody in April 2015, as well as those of other black men at the hands of police in cities including New York, Cleveland, and Ferguson, Missouri, has brought increased scrutiny to cops nationwide.
“They’re having trouble recruiting because since Ferguson there has been a lot of negative press about policing,” said John DeCarlo, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven and former chief of the Branford, Connecticut, police department.
The sharp decline in police numbers in Baltimore comes after Gray’s death set off violent protests that put the city at the heart of a national debate over race and police use of force.