Baltimore City Police uses a telephone reporting unit that allows street officers more time in the communities. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun video)

Amid criticism of a nearly $8 million projected shortfall in their overtime budget, Baltimore police say they have found one solution to troubling staffing shortages: a new unit that handles some 911 calls by phone so patrol officers can concentrate on emergencies.

The Telephone Reporting Unit carries an additional benefit, police say. Officers restricted from street duties by injuries or health problems can use their experience to handle many calls, including those about property damage or stolen vehicles.

"Having officers take reports over the phone enables more officers to stay on the street responding to calls that are in progress," said Lt. Deanna Effland, who oversees the communications section.

Officials say up to 10 percent of responses could eventually come by phone — challenging a long-held assumption: Call 911 and police will show up. The shift can be jarring, as one resident found out recently when he called the Northeastern District police station to report somebody rifling through his car.

Chris Bingel of Hamilton said information he wanted to provide was ignored when his call was forwarded to an officer taking reports over the phone. He said he supports boosting the effectiveness of the city police force. "Unfortunately, as a citizen," he said, "I get people telling me, 'Why are you calling me? Why are you bothering me with this?'"

That officer wasn't part of the new telephone unit, and police pledged to offer better customer service as they roll out the program.

Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has faced questions recently from the City Council about why — given the soaring overtime costs and rising homicide and shooting rates the nation's eighth-largest agency can't keep more officers on the street.

The department has about 3,000 sworn officers who carry guns, but a wave of retirements and departures has created about 220 vacancies. Earlier this year officials said another 260 sworn positions were empty due to suspensions, military and medical leave, though the agency could not provide more recent data.

Batts said he wants to keep as many officers on patrol as possible, and the agency expects to spend $27.9 million on overtime this year, well over budget and an increase of more than $10 million compared with 2010.

Other law enforcement agencies agree with the Baltimore police strategy, noting that not all reports are emergencies. Agencies such as Baltimore County police have kept patrol officers on their beats and free from obligations that can be handled over the phone and online.

On the fourth floor of Baltimore Police Department's downtown headquarters, officers in the new unit stare at a giant flat-screen television flashing all the dispatch calls coming into 911. If a call is classified as a stolen vehicle, property damage, larceny or other complaint for which police believe an officer on scene is neither necessary nor beneficial, an officer call the resident and takes the report over the phone.

"Hi. You called about the unauthorized use of a vehicle," Officer Angeline Todman told a resident during a recent shift. "Can you tell me what happened?"

Todman, a Southeastern District patrol officer suffering from high blood pressure, is among the officers currently assigned to the unit, which began operating Aug. 12. Previously, officers under medical restrictions — typically called "light duty" — were assigned tasks such as answering phones, making copies and manning the front counters.

Officers cycle in and out of the unit as they return to their normal assignments. Currently, 12 officers are assigned to the unit, which is staffed from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. They respond to reports including lost property, stolen cars, larceny, property destruction and unauthorized use of vehicles.

As calls come in from dispatch, officers in the unit look at the board for those that fall into their jurisdiction and call residents back for more information. Some calls — such as a woman asking for an investigation of a hypodermic needle she found in her alley or another wondering when the neighborhood grocery store opened — do not require reports.

Since its start, the Telephone Reporting Unit has made about 5,000 calls and filled out 2,229 police reports.

Such tasks add up for officers on patrol. On average, police say, it takes officers 48 minutes to fill out a police report. There's no estimate for how long it takes to respond to a call that proves unfounded or does not require a report.

Dispatchers will still send officers to the scenes of ongoing crimes and serious incidents, police say. For other matters, telephone officers typically respond within five minutes.

Often, Effland said, officers listen to residents who want to vent about their neighborhood. Many times, people just want to file a stolen property report for insurance purposes and don't want to wait for an officer to knock on their door.

In the cases of stolen cars, some people are emotional and fearful, or frustrated over being victimized, and a call back doesn't seem reassuring, Effland acknowledged.