D.C. police expect to boost the number of officers on the force to 3,800 this week, bolstering street patrols while meeting a target the department has been struggling to reach for years, police officials said.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey waged a campaign last year to win funding from the D.C. Council to increase the size of the force by 175 officers. Council members gave him the go-ahead and set an Oct. 1 deadline for reaching the 3,800 mark.
"Look at the responsibilities we have in D.C.," Ramsey said. "With the federal presence here, the security issues, day-to-day crime-fighting activity, you go through that number of people pretty quickly. I think it will be a victory to have 3,800 officers on board."
It could be a short-lived triumph. The department's attrition rate has risen sharply this year. At the same time, the number of applicants has plummeted, in part because of tougher education requirements for new officers, police officials said.
Police officials have been attempting to reach the 3,800 threshold for seven years, contending that it would provide enough officers to effectively patrol neighborhoods and handle detective work and other demands. But previous efforts failed because of a lack of money or the force's inability to hire enough recruits.
Through last week, the department had 3,786 officers on the job, including 207 in the police academy. Ramsey said 14 more officers will be on board as early as tomorrow.
For years, the department has been dogged by criticism from community activists and about how its top commanders deploy officers. Ramsey also has been pressured by council members and others to get more of the current officers on the street. About 11 percent of the force is too sick or too injured to handle full duties, police say.
D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, cautioned that it remains to be seen whether more officers will lead to a reduction in crime.
The District already has more police per capita than any other large U.S. city. Yet it is ranked among the nation's most violent cities, although the number of killings is down significantly this year.
"I think the numbers are not the issue, but the effectiveness of the policing and the effectiveness of the leadership are the issues," Patterson said.
Last year, Patterson favored setting a lower target and expressed skepticism that the department would be able to recruit enough officers to hit the 3,800 mark or deploy them effectively.
"We need better policing, not necessarily more policing," Patterson said. "We just need more effective management down the line."
The staffing increase cost the city about $11.6 million.
Ramsey said he is confident that he will be able to keep the workforce at 3,800 by hiring replacements for officers who leave.
Since last October, 214 officers have quit, retired, been placed on disability or died. Police officials said they expect an additional 14 to leave by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
In the three previous fiscal years, the department lost an average of 182 officers.
The exodus this year nearly jeopardized the effort to reach the goal, and Ramsey announced this summer that he was more strictly enforcing regulations requiring 60 days' notice before retiring and 30 days' notice before resigning.
"We lost 72 people in May, June and July," said Assistant Chief Shannon Cockett, who is in charge of the department's human resources division. She said she warned Ramsey that action was needed to "stabilize the attrition rate."
"It was out of control," Cockett said.
Union officials blamed poor management and predicted that many other officers would leave.
"Morale is at an all-time low," said Sgt. Gregory I. Green, chairman of the D.C. Police Labor Committee for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1. The union is so upset about pay and other contract issues that some union officials are talking about inviting other police departments to come to the local FOP headquarters to recruit veterans away from the D.C. force.
Reaching the 3,800-officer mark has not been easy. In addition to the struggle to replace officers who left, the number of applicants dropped after the department required potential officers to have received at least an associate's degree or have completed 60 college credits. Before January, recruits were required to have a high school diploma or GED diploma.
The department has been receiving roughly 140 applications a month -- about half the number it got the previous year. At a police recruiting exposition meant to show off the department last month, fewer than 200 qualified applicants attended. In previous years, more than 500 came.
Capt. Kevin Anderson, who leads the department's recruiting unit, said anecdotal evidence suggests that the force still rejects the same number of applicants -- about nine in 10 -- as it did before the educational standard took effect.
The effect of the new standards was apparent on a recent weekday when Officer Michael Padin and Sgt. Kelvin Cusick of the police recruiting unit visited a job fair at Montgomery College's Takoma Park campus.
Of the first 20 people to stop by the department's booth, only two met education and age requirements -- applicants must be 201/2 years old to join. And those young men probably would not have passed the required background check. Both complained about arrests that had hampered their ability to land other jobs.
Recruiters have been paying special attention to the community college circuit in the months after the new academic requirements took effect. Initially, they also were focusing on four-year schools. But they soon discovered that students with bachelor's degrees were more likely to gravitate toward federal law enforcement agencies.
Although Padin and Cusick did not find any applicants at the Montgomery College job fair, they said they were hoping to set the stage for future success. They hoped that students would think about a D.C. police career when they graduate.
"We're planting the seeds here," Cusick said. "It's important to do that. We want to pique their interest."