The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. mayor’s budget would expand police ranks amid crime worries

Many D.C. Council members support the short-term plan but balk at staffing the police force with 4,000 officers within a decade

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), front left, and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, right, have outlined plans to increase the number of officers in the D.C. police department. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this article reported Bowser saying that crime in D.C. was lower when the police department had more officers and that homicides in the District decreased from 2009 through 2014 when the department had more than 3,900 officers. While homicides did go down, this story has been changed to add that overall crime increased 14 percent in that period.

Two years ago, the D.C. Council trimmed the police budget, heeding calls for a smaller force amid demonstrations over social and racial justice, and efforts to shift some duties, such as responding to mental health calls, away from law enforcement.

D.C. police said the reduction forced a hiring freeze, leading to the loss of about 280 officers over 18 months and leaving the department with its lowest staffing levels in two decades.

But that conversation has been turned on its head by rising rates of homicides, gun violence and carjackings coupled with slower responses to critical emergency calls as well as mounting overtime pay for officers.

Facing an outcry from frightened residents as she seeks a third term, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is proposing a budget increase to hire 347 additional police officers in fiscal 2023. Factoring in departures through retirements or other attrition, the net gain would be a modest three dozen officers.

But Bowser’s long-term goal is more ambitious. She wants to expand to 4,000 a department that has shrunk to about 3,500 officers. Police estimate that achieving that goal could take until 2031.

Seven of the 13 D.C. Council members said they would be likely to support Bowser’s call for more police in the coming year. The mayor’s force-expansion plan costs $30 million and includes new incentive packages and money for recruiting. Most of those lawmakers, however, stopped short of endorsing the mayor’s long-term plan.

One D.C. Council member, Christina Henderson (I-At Large), said she would not support the proposed police budget, and two of her colleagues — Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) — declined to comment. Two others — Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) — did not respond to inquiries. Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said he did not have enough information to assess.

3 in 10 District residents do not feel safe in their neighborhoods, Post poll finds

If enacted, Bowser’s police budget would be a stark reversal in D.C. of the defund policing movement born out of the demonstrations that consumed the nation’s capital and cities around the country after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“Our ability to deliver services can only be negatively impacted when we’re down hundreds of officers,” Bowser said in an interview with The Washington Post ahead of an event Monday where she plans to detail her proposed 3 percent increase in the police department’s half-billion dollar budget.

After Floyd’s killing, the D.C. Council formed a Police Reform Commission that recommended sweeping changes to policing in D.C., but commission members say few of their recommendations have been enacted. A key recommendation by the commission was to downsize the D.C. force to “provide more effective and less harmful public safety services to all communities in the District of Columbia.”

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), said he feels that public “sentiment has shifted” away from the defund movement. He and other lawmakers noted that since 2020, the mayor has committed millions of dollars to restorative justice programs and created a new office to address root causes of crime.

“My own sense from listening to folks at community meetings is that they want to see us turn around the size of the force,” Mendelson said. Other cities have also reversed cuts made to their police departments, and President Biden used his State of the Union address to urge, “Fund the police.”

Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) summed up the views of many of her colleagues, expressing support for adding police this year but wariness about committing to a 4,000-officer force.

“We should be talking about what it takes to end violence, and that is more than just the number of cops on the street,” Nadeau said.

Robert C. White Jr., who is running to unseat Bowser, said at a candidates forum in March that he disagreed with hiring more officers. In an interview, he said he could not evaluate the mayor’s proposal because the city has failed to study police staffing.

“The mayor has put us in an impossible position, because we are plagued with violent crime right now, and police are stretched too thin, and the mayor has not developed a plan,” White said. He added that the administration should have ramped up alternative-justice programs, such as the use of violence interrupters, years earlier than it did.

“The conversation is frequently reduced to either more police or more crime, and I think that is not fair to residents, nor is it responsible governing,” White said, expressing doubt about whether the slow increasing of officer numbers would have any significant impact on the crime crisis.

Trayon White Sr., who also is running against Bowser, said through a spokesman, who was first reached Tuesday, that the councilman could not meet a Friday deadline for comment. White has in the past opposed hiring more officers.

Retreat on reform?

Social justice activists have complained that police reform initiatives that were hailed with fanfare a year ago have largely stalled, with crime dominating the conversation as the number of homicides in D.C. in 2021 rose for the fourth consecutive year. Killings this year are about even with last year’s pace.

Those activists argue that adding more police is a politically expedient move that doesn’t help reduce violence. They also say it fails to confront the underlying issues and inequities that drive crime, such as poverty, joblessness, homelessness, substandard education and addiction.

Group seeking to reinvent policing in District calls for sweeping changes

“D.C.’s current approach to public safety is failing,” Ahoefa Ananouko of the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. told city lawmakers at a budget hearing last week. She said that expanding the police numbers risks “destabilizing communities, doubling down on mass incarceration and perpetuating systemic racism and trauma.”

She urged the city to invest in ways to reverse long-standing divestments in communities of color, “rather than doubling down on the failed notion that the solution is more policing.”

The last time the D.C. police department had 4,000 or more officers was 2009, and staffing remained just below that mark for the next five years. The number fell to just under 3,800 in 2015, a reduction that prompted an alarm from the police chief at the time, Cathy L. Lanier. Officials attributed the fall in numbers to a wave of retirements. The level of staffing hovered around 3,800 until the more recent drops. The latest figure, as of late March, shows 3,532 officers on the force, with attrition outpacing hiring.

Gray said at a recent hearing that when he was mayor he proposed returning to a department of 4,000 officers. In an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2016, when he was running for the Ward 7 council seat, he said 4,200 officers were needed.

Bowser first broached the 4,000 number in 2019, when the force had 3,850 officers. She had hoped to reach her benchmark by 2023, an idea that quickly disappeared from public discussion after Floyd’s killing.

In her interview with The Washington Post, Bowser noted that crime was lower when the police department had more officers — the District had some of its lowest homicide numbers in decades from 2009 through 2014, when the department had more than 3,900 officers. But during those same years, overall crime in the District increased 14 percent. Both crime rates and the size of the police force have historically fluctuated, not always in tandem.

“We’ve been at 4,000, and so we know what we’ve been able to do,” the mayor said, adding she cannot allow the department to shrink to levels that pose a threat to basic services, such as officers reaching crime scenes quickly.

Can more female officers fix toxic police departments?

Police say that last year, responding to calls about violent crime took 90 seconds longer than in 2020. The police chief described that as an “eternity” for victims and a bonus for escaping criminals.

“We certainly don’t want to see it when one of our citizens is calling because they need the police and police can’t show up,” Bowser said.

The mayor said her “crime-fighting plan is to focus on the people and places where most of the crime is happening. We think we can drive down 90 percent of the gun violence by doing that.”

She said “the focus is also on making sure we have human services that prevent and support people for not getting involved in crime.”

Bowser pointed to her creation of Building Blocks DC, a program designed to bring together various government agencies to address systemic, underlying causes of crime. Last year, her administration spent $59 million on that initiative and supporting programs, focusing resources on the 151 city blocks where 41 percent of gun violence occurs.

The program has fallen short of expectations, and Bowser described it as “a work in progress.” This year, she is proposing $8 million to expand alternative-justice programs such as life coaching and rental assistance for those most at risk for violence.

But the bulk of new spending would go to recruiting, hiring and retention incentives for police, a challenging endeavor that pits departments across the country against each other for a dwindling number of recruits.

Mayor’s crime-fighting initiative, Building Blocks DC, is shifting its structure

Refilling the ranks

Although the $61,000 starting salary for a D.C. officer is slightly higher than in many surrounding jurisdictions, the high cost of living in the District and the heavy workload makes recruiting and retention a challenge. Also, other departments offer more lucrative incentives.

“We’re looking at how competitive we are in the recruitment process, and I’m telling you, we are not,” Christopher Geldart, D.C.’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said at a recent council hearing.

D.C. is offering new hires $6,000 of rental assistance to live in the District. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III is also asking lawmakers to approve $20,000 signing bonuses and to buy cruisers that new officers can take home on their off hours, an incentive the chief described as widely popular in the many suburban jurisdictions that he said offer the incentive.

Twice this year, academy classes that are typically filled with at least two dozen recruits had 15 and 18 members, according to city officials. D.C. police are even advertising on New York City subway trains, with one poster urging “gamers, foodies, techies, influencers” to join the crime-fighting ranks in the nation’s capital.

D.C. police are not alone. In Arlington County, Va., Police Chief Andy Penn told residents in a video message that staffing had dropped from 376 officers to 290.

That “severely impacts our ability” to deliver services, Penn said, explaining that officers would no longer respond to non-emergency criminal activity but would instead take reports over the telephone. Similarly, he said, investigators would no longer follow up on some property crimes with a low probability of being solved.

D.C. has one of the highest per-capita number of police officers in the country, more than New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston. And that does not include the thousands of federal police, such as those at the U.S. Capitol, in the National Park Service and in the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division.

But comparing police departments by numbers of officers is misleading, said James E. McCabe, a retired New York Police Department inspector and an associate professor of criminal justice at Sacred Heart University who wrote a paper on police staffing.

He said unique crime trends, job descriptions and management duties should be taken into account. McCabe described D.C. as an outlier in that its officers have duties not contemplated by other agencies, such as near-daily demonstrations and assisting with security details and motorcades.

McCabe said that New York City reduced its department from 40,000 to 34,000 officers but was “still able to reduce crime.”

“You can’t do more with less, but if you’re using your resources strategically, you can have an impact,” McCabe said. At the same time, he said, “it’s foolish to say we’re just going to cut because we want to defund.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee and has criticized police as moving slowly on reform efforts, said he is willing to support an increase in the number of officers this fiscal year. The discussion on “the nature of what we want policing to be” will continue, he said.

Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who supports the expansion plan, said public safety is the “most prevalent issue” her office hears about daily from residents. Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) also supports the mayor, calling her package a good balance between adding officers and providing crime-prevention programs.

“At the end of the day, it’s not a big increase in the number of officers,” Cheh said. “At least for next budget year, this is acceptable, but we have to think longer-term on where we want the force to go.”

Henderson, who does not support the police spending plan, said other city agencies could benefit from hiring incentives and having more employees.

“When you talk to folks in the community, there are so many other needs,” Henderson said. “And I worry: Are we reflexively going back to a place where we are relying on law enforcement officers to handle all the failures of society?”