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D.C. Council weighs smaller police budget and more funding for alternative justice programs

D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III addresses reporters on Jan. 15.
D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III addresses reporters on Jan. 15. (Bill O’Leary/Pool/The Washington Post)
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D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) wants the city to spend less money on police and nearly triple spending for an office dedicated to alternative justice programs and violence interruption, reflecting in part a push to address crime as a public health challenge.

The reaction to her budget plan, which comes as deadly gun violence is on the rise in the District, shows the challenges officials face as they seek to reshape the city’s approach to crime amid a larger debate between groups who view police as an occupying force and those who say there are too few officers to keep residents safe.

At a day-long budget hearing Thursday before the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, some residents warned that escalating crime is undermining investments in neighborhoods, such as Shaw. Others said the cuts are not sufficient and repeated calls to cut the department’s half-billion dollar budget in half over the next three years.

At the hearing, police Chief Robert J. Contee III said the department already has been shrinking. And while calls to 911 have gone down, response time to serious emergencies has increased, from about five minutes to six minutes.

At the hearing, Council members pressed the chief on ways to steer some 911 calls — such as those dealing with mental illness and parking complaints — away from law enforcement to other agencies. A pilot program to send counselors to calls for people in mental health crisis is underway, and the mayor’s budget would allocate $7 million to the behavioral health and transportation departments for those efforts.

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The public safety committee, chaired by Council Member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), can make changes in the mayor’s budget proposal, and it could vote on the spending package by the end of this month. The full council will then vote on the citywide spending plan, proposed at $17.5 billion for fiscal 2022.

One key beneficiary of Bowser’s budget proposal is the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which she opened in 2017 with a $2.1 million budget and 14 employees. That budget rose to $10.3 million this year, and Bowser (D) is proposing be allocated $28.1 million in the coming fiscal year. The agency could then expand to 58 employees.

The neighborhood safety office runs a variety of community-based crime prevention programs that include hiring counselors who try to prevent feuds from escalating and a job program aimed at helping people who were involved in or victims of gun violence.

Council Member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) thanked Bowser for those extra funds but said the District “still needs to do more.” She noted concerns about crime, saying one of her staff members saw a recent shooting in Shaw in which a young man was killed.

Pinto said residents told her “they have just come to expect shootings and crime to happen, that it is just normal. And that is unacceptable.” But she said that type of violence reflects the “failure of our criminal justice and support systems” and that more funding should be funneled into programs to help stop violence from happening.

Council Member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) said “the safest communities are the ones with the most resources.” The lawmaker blamed increasing violence in part on pandemic-related challenges. “It’s no coincidence that D.C. experienced a surge in gun violence right as thousands of residents were cut off from the support that they need,” she said.

Wren Patton, an organizer with the youth group Sunrise Movement D.C., one of many activists who spoke in favor of cutting more money from the police budget, told lawmakers “we want to defund [police] so we can refund our communities.”

But Alexander “Alex” Padro, the executive director of the business group Shaw Main Streets, told the committee his downtown community has endured a “dramatic increase in public gambling and street drug dealing that has brought gunfire and death to the neighborhood.”

Violence interrupters try to stop violence before it occurs

He said the violence has unnerved diners and shoppers and is threatening millions of dollars invested in revitalizing the area with new shops and housing. He said the police department’s “investment in manpower has not kept pace” with the changes, and “as a result, the sounds of gunfire has become all too common.”

“Visible officers stop crime and save lives,” Padro said.

Bowser is proposing a $514 million budget for the police department, a nearly 6 percent cut from this year. While it would allow police to hire 135 officers, it is far fewer that the 280 hires that had been common in recent years and would fall far short of keeping up with attrition.

The force is also seeing a greater number of officers retiring or resigning. As a result, an agency that counted about 3,800 officers in 2014 — with aims by the mayor to reach 4,000 — is now projected to drop to 3,460 by the end of next year.

Contee said it would be “the smallest police force our growing city has had in more than two decades.”

The chief said that following a pause in hiring, gearing up to recruit and train will take time, and he does not anticipate a resumption in hiring until April.

Contee promised to help agencies replace officers on some types of calls, but he also said police are “an essential element of making our city safer, and the investments in our budget are necessary to combat this gun violence. . . . A safe city makes all other progress possible.”

Greggory Pemberton, who chairs the union representing D.C. police officers, said fewer police is the “wrong way” to fight the battle with crime.

“There must be enough officers to respond to the request for police services,” Pemberton said. He said the volume of work “does not change just because some people believe fewer police are better.”

Reducing police services, Pemberton said at the hearing, “will make the community unsafe.”

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