By Justin George
The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE The latest class of police trainees marched to the podium to accept law enforcement certificates in gleaming black shoes and brass buttons that matched their smiles. The graduates yelled their names proudly during a special roll call and chanted at the end of the ceremony with vigor.
But the name of one member of the class wasn't called. That trainee was seriously injured during a training exercise, adding a somber tone to the Baltimore Police Academy graduation Friday.
"It made it real for them," said Alan Bush, cousin of police graduate Jose Bruno, who attended the graduation. "I think everyone was at a point where they were trying to find themselves. It definitely had an impact on them."
For many in the academy class, the first shooting they experienced didn't come on the streets of Baltimore but on Feb. 12 during a training session at an abandoned building in Owings Mills.
Prosecutors said Baltimore police instructor William Scott Kern fired his service weapon at University of Maryland police recruit Raymond Gray, critically wounding him and blinding him in one eye.
Baltimore police have acknowledged that top commanders were unaware of the drills and that the session didn't follow departmental safety protocols that could have prevented a loaded gun being carried into the training site. The department also was not authorized to use the state-owned facility, which once served as a center for the developmentally disabled.
Even in the face of that tragedy, none of the 39 class members quit, Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said. They chose to complete the program to become sworn officers for a department that's operating with one-sixth fewer officers than full strength, a situation that leads to overtime shifts aimed at ensuring enough police are on the streets to suppress the city's homicide count.
Baltimore County prosecutors have reviewed the training incident and charged Kern, 46, with second-degree assault and reckless endangerment. This month, Gray filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the city and Baltimore County. He seeks $330 million in compensatory damages and another $140 million in punitive damages.
Gray did not attend the graduation ceremony, but his brother did. Baltimore police Chaplain Charles Minetree acknowledged Gray's family members almost immediately when he offered his "greetings to all -- especially the Gray family" before an invocation.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts followed with a forceful address that called on the graduates to do their job with professionalism and unbending ethics.
"Protect your integrity," he said. "Demand that other people respect your integrity."
While he didn't mention Gray's name or the training accident, he talked about safety and ordered the officers to stay disciplined.
"I will not tolerate us hurting each other and being sloppy at what we do," he said.
Class valedictorian Matthew J. Vanic emphasized camaraderie through adversity.
"We remember the many struggles both good an bad that brought us together," he said.
After Batts handed out certificates to each of the graduates, the ceremony paused specifically to honor Gray. He was awarded a special commendation named after Gene Cassidy, a patrolman who was shot in the head and blinded during an arrest in 1987. Cassidy later earned a master's degree and become a Baltimore police agent and instructor.
Cassidy, accompanied by a seeing-eye dog, was on the stage as Batts handed Gray's brother a framed certificate.
While Gray struggled to stay alive in a hospital after the shooting, his classmates were given counseling and given several days off before the academy reconvened a week later.
Many graduates, including Edward J. Cook Jr., struggled with the emotional weight of what transpired.
"He had a hard time talking about it," said Cook's uncle Jack Arseneault. "Obviously the whole class was traumatized for a time. ...In a training environment, it was just so needless."
Arseneault said his nephew is proud to have stuck with the program.
"He's excited," he said. "He feels it's a privilege to wear the uniform of the Baltimore Police Department."
Police say the officers will help fill about 200 sworn vacancies. Another 260 sworn staff positions are empty due to suspensions, military or medical leave. For this fiscal year, police project spending $23.5 million for overtime after budgeting $20 million.
Police brass blamed vacancies on the lack of competitive salaries. While the department's starting salary is competitive with other jurisdictions at $43,000 a year, other agencies pay more as officers climb through the ranks, according to a salary survey. Baltimore County, for instance, pays a sergeant $101,000 compared to $76,000 in Baltimore City.
To make up the shortage, the department recruits more aggressively than ever, Guglielmi said. Officials aim to put four classes through the academy a year, each averaging between 35 and 50 trainees.
They hold recruiting campaigns at area colleges and universities, and visit communities to encourage high schoolers to become cadets and urge even younger kids to become police explorers. They travel to employment fairs and recently had a recruitment table at the city's gay pride event.
Officials also heavily recruit military veterans, expediting their applications, and partnering with groups such as the Armed Forces Foundation and Operation Homefront.
They lean heavily on the cachet associated with becoming a Baltimore police officer. Baltimore's police department is one of the largest in the country, with about 3,100 sworn officers. Few departments nationwide can boast the on-the-job special operations and investigative experience many officers acquire -- a fact burnished in popular culture by shows such as "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."
"If you're looking for big city policing, there's no better place you want to be than Baltimore," Guglielmi said. "This is a tough job. You get the full dinner here."
That's what family members said drew Cook to join the police academy from New Jersey, where his fellow class member Bruno is also from. Bruno joined because agencies in his home state andFlorida, where he also applied, didn't have vacancies, his cousin said.
Luring applicants from out of state is another way Baltimore police have been successful recruiting in recent years. The department's hiring has increased from 171 officers in 2010 to 202 in 2011 to 217 in 2012, Guglielmi said. As of May, police have hired 72 officers this year.
But the hiring isn't enough to make up for retirements or defections for better paying opportunities. While the department's reputation attracts new recruits, it also lures other jurisdictions to poach officers after a few years of big city experience. Just this week, Lt. Col. Ross Buzzuro, a top commander and 28-year veteran, was hired as Ocean City's police chief.
Officers from out of state also often leave the department, when they decide to return closer to home after a few years and take jobs at agencies where they grew up.
Batts mentioned that during his speech Friday, saying he knows Baltimore police's academy and patrol positions offer graduates an excellent "training ground." But he reminded the class that he believed they weren't just taking an oath to serve and protect but to serve and protect people here.
"I expect you to keep your word and your commitment to this city," the police commissioner said.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service
Copyright 2013 The Baltimore Sun