Bowser (D) said she will put more officers in communities and out of cruisers.
“We know that our hires from now until we hit that 4,000 are going to be foot beat officers,” she said. “One of the biggest things we hear from our residents is that they want to see police officers and actually be able to talk to them . . . and have our officers really get close to the neighbors that they’re working with.”
The District has struggled in recent years to maintain staffing because of large numbers of retirements and resignations. The problem is not unusual. Police departments across the country are reporting difficulties both in hiring police officers and in keeping them on the job, citing in part increased scrutiny of their work and the field’s diminished reputation.
The mayor’s announcement came after a year in which homicides jumped nearly 40 percent and have continued apace in 2019, with a dozen killings reported in the first 16 days.
Police officials have said that although overall violent crime has dropped in the District since 2012, more criminals are using guns and more people who are shot are dying. They’ve attributed the spike in killings to increased lethality and availability of weapons, repeat offenders on the streets and disputes between people who know each other.
Stephen Bigelow Jr., the chairman of the police labor union, supports adding to the force, and he said the mayor’s announcement shows District leaders “finally admit there is a problem” with staffing.
While the District is near the top of big cities in terms of officers per capita, Bigelow and others point out that the population of 700,000 residents doubles on business days with tourists and federal workers. In addition, District officers help with protest marches, mass demonstrations and daily motorcades of the president and other figures that are part of the routine in the nation’s capital.
Bigelow said that during big events, such as the Women’s March on Saturday, the department has been paying overtime to maintain staffing. “This is the most difficult place in the country to police,” Bigelow said.
While the starting salary for District officers is among the region’s highest — $61,000 after completing the academy and probation — Bigelow said suburban departments offer more incentives, such as cheaper living closer to work, take-home police cars and less stressful shifts.
“We’re not just fighting for officers,” Bigelow said of the hiring process, which is competitive across the country. “We’re fighting for the best and most qualified officers. . . . We don’t want to get the bottom of the barrel.”
The District’s police force had more than 3,900 officers in 2015 but dropped to below 3,800 in 2016, a level some top police officials felt was a breaking point.
Department figures show the pace of departures has slowed, from 414 officers retiring or resigning in fiscal 2015 to 335 in fiscal 2017.
District officials say the city has been able to hire about 20 new officers a month, or about 250 a year, shy of filling monthly academy classes that can each hold 30 students. The department can train up to 360 officers each year.
The peak of a retirement bubble in which hundreds of officers hired during a binge in 1989 and 1990 were eligible to retire at the same time came in 2015. To fill in gaps, the department got approval to rehire retired officers, detectives and sergeants for three years.
Police Chief Peter Newsham said the department could not stay ahead of attrition without that program, which has helped give the agency a net increase of about 50 officers in each of the past two years. But as of October, retired detectives and sergeants will no longer be able to serve, which will require eliminating 60 to 70 officers.
“That could set us back on our goal of reaching 4,000,” Newsham said Wednesday.
Bowser said she hopes new officers are recruited from within the District. In recent years, the city has tried various ways to entice applicants, including expanding the cadet program. Authorities say the hiring dynamic has changed in recent years, with people examining jobs across the country, not just in their backyards.
“We’re all competing with the same people who want to have a career in law enforcement,” Newsham said in December, “but we’re holding our own.”
Peter Jamison contributed to this report.