(CNN)The Baltimore Police Department is planning to become one of the first law enforcement agencies in the country to hire civilians as investigators in its detective force as it continues to face staffing shortages amid rising homicides and shootings.
Baltimore aims to be one of the first cities to address police staffing shortages by hiring civilian investigators
Mayor Brandon Scott and Police Commissioner Michael Harrison announced on Wednesday that under the plan the city would hire civilian investigators to focus on low-level property crimes, cold cases, background checks, intelligence gathering, and internal affairs matters.
The new civilianization classification, included in the city's proposed $4 billion budget for the upcoming fiscal year, would build additional staff capacity to "maximize the effectiveness of limited sworn resources," according to the city.
Baltimore's plan comes as some police departments in cities across the country have raised the alarm on current and future staffing levels, citing Covid-19, the great resignation, low pay, the climate for law enforcement, and local reform efforts that are making recruitment and retention difficult.
The plan is cost neutral, Harrison told CNN, because the city will convert 30 sworn officer positions that are currently vacant into 35 civilian roles that would have a starting salary of $49,000. Police officers in Baltimore have a starting salary of $60,000, the highest in the state of Maryland, according to the mayor.
Nine civilian positions will be dedicated to support the mayor's Group Violence Reduction Strategy and 12 civilian support positions will enhance capacity at the department's Telephone Reporting Unit.
The hiring of civilian investigators is "directly tied" to the department's existing struggle with hiring and retaining police officers, Harrison said. The agency currently has a shortage of above 350 positions, he added.
"This plan is not about taking away jobs from sworn members of the department. It is about growing the department and creating additional civilian capacity while being smart about how we deploy officers," Harrison said. "We are aligning our staffing plan and our budget resources to bring qualified professional staff to work alongside our officers to prevent, deter and reduce crime more effectively."
The Phoenix Police Department in March announced a similar plan, which includes hiring 25 civilian investigators and eight staff members to its already active police assistant staff.
Baltimore, like many other cities across the nation, has experienced a rise in violent crime since the onset of the pandemic. The city recorded 96 homicides and 193 non-fatal shootings since the beginning of this year, an increase from 88 homicides and 160 non-fatal shootings recorded during the same period in 2021, according to city data.
"This is an opportunity for us to evolve policing, to focus our sworn police officers on violent folks who are using guns to kill women, children, grandparents on our streets and focus on removing them from the communities," Mayor Scott told CNN in an interview.
As part of the proposal, civilians would only be assisting in investigations of homicides or other violent crimes if they are categorized by the police department as cold cases.
"This is really helping us to become a more 21st century police department," Scott said. "This will help us in the short term, but also in the long term as we're building those relationships, freeing up hours and hours and hours of patrol hours for our officers to do the things we want them to do, but also providing other jobs and opportunities and then a new entryway into our department."
Harrison said the department will design a training program that will identify the needs of applicants who are inexperienced and those who are veteran, highly experienced investigators.
"We want to bring people up to speed to make sure they're compliant with state law, with departmental policy, how we do things governed by policy and the consent decree here in Baltimore before we employ them and send them out to conduct investigations," Harrison said.
Baltimore city has been under a federal consent decree since 2017 that mandates systemic reform of its police department after the Department of Justice ordered a civil rights investigation that revealed a "pattern-or-practice of constitutional violations," including excessive force and racially biased arrests.
Harrison said he anticipates that the positions, which are expected to be posted at the end of May, will attract former police officers of various ranks from different departments who will apply either in retirement or in addition to another role.
Applicants would be vetted through a background check and be required to complete at least a one-month training curriculum before they are assigned to a section.
"We're looking for people who have some law enforcement or investigative experience," he said. "Not all investigators work in law enforcement but [they] certainly know how to conduct investigations."