D.C. Council rejects Gray request to hire 48 police officers

The D.C. Council delivered a brushback Tuesday to Mayor Vincent C. Gray, modifying his move to reduce traffic fines and rejecting his request to hire 48 police officers.

This month, Gray (D) introduced a proposal to spend $1.7 million to hire the officers, an idea he first put forward as part of a broader plan to adjust traffic fines and address road safety.

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But the council chairman, Phil Mendelson (D), asked his colleagues to deny the request, arguing that there has not been enough discussion of the hiring proposal or the funding behind it.

In a memo to colleagues, Mendelson noted that the council has provided money to keep the force at 3,900 officers — a level Chief Cathy L. Lanier has called sufficient in the past. He also noted that the council has pushed the department to “civilianize” more administrative jobs to keep more sworn officers on the street.

Lanier, in a letter sent to the council Monday, argued that the new officers are necessary to meet the needs of a rapidly growing city. Gray, in a statement, called Mendelson’s position “ill-advised and short-sighted,” and some of the council chairman’s colleagues pushed back at him during a breakfast meeting Tuesday.

Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that although he understood Mendelson’s misgivings, he has too often dealt with constituents who want additional officers in their neighborhoods. A vote against more officers, he said, is “not something I can defend.” But Evans voted with Mendelson after he pledged to revisit the issue soon after the new year.

As to resetting the traffic fines, including those issued by speed cameras, what has been a $125 ticket for going 11 to 15 mph over the limit will become a $92 fine under language adopted Tuesday. That’s more than the $75 council members initially considered but less than the $100 Gray recently ordered.

Tuesday’s consideration of more than 120 bills and resolutions closed out a difficult and sometimes tense two-year session that saw two of the council’s members resign ahead of felony criminal pleas.

The rancor and raw emotion were on display at times Tuesday, particularly as the council took a final vote on a bill to help the formerly incarcerated reintegrate themselves into the community.

Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) lambasted the bill and its chief sponsor, Mendelson (D), accusing him in starkly racial terms of failing to address the needs of African American residents. Barry’s separate and farther-reaching bill, which would give ex-offenders the right to sue employers who denied them jobs, failed on an initial vote this month.

“This bill has split us down racial lines,” he told Mendelson. “I urge you all not to let this racial divide happen.” Only one of the council’s seven white members supported Barry’s approach.

On Monday, Barry issued a letter to Mendelson — which was copied to his colleagues and shared with reporters — that compared the chairman to “white southerners” who opposed civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

“I’m going on a warpath against anyone who opposes [my] bill,” Barry said Tuesday.

But Mendelson rejected any racial motive and noted the difficulty of balancing the need to reintegrate ex-offenders with employers’ concerns that they could be exposed to costly litigation.

Barry’s attacks also prompted David A. Catania (I-At Large) to rip into Barry for trying to make a policy dispute into a racial litmus test. Catania called it “the stock in trade of a long-bankrupt public servant who has long, long ago failed to offer constructive solutions for the problems that afflict this city,” and he said, “I have had it.”

In other business, the council passed a broad rewrite of liquor-licensing laws, delaying a proposal that would have made it easier for pharmacies such as CVS and Walgreens to sell beer and wine.

The council also approved an $11 million tax abatement for Howard Town Center, a development near Howard University. The abatement became controversial after city financial officials determined that it was not necessary for the project to proceed.

Members rejected an amendment that would have given the developers an incentive to seek federal low-income housing aid in lieu of the local property tax abatement.

Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large) said it was unfair to put conditions on tax incentives for Howard Town Center, which is being built on university land, after the city has authorized numerous tax incentives for other entities in recent years.

One matter the council did not address was campaign finance reform. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) told her colleagues last week that she intended to pursue an emergency bill banning campaign contributions by money order in excess of $25.

But Cheh pulled the bill from consideration after Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) threatened to attach amendments that others had no stomach to vote on.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first for Anita Bonds (D-At Large), sworn in last week after winning the appointment of the District’s Democratic Party to fill the vacancy created by Mendelson’s ascension to chairman.

It was the last meeting for Michael A. Brown (I-At Large), who lost his bid for a second term in November.

 
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