While the number of officers retiring each year has generally been on the decline, the number of resignations has remained steady or increased each year since 2015. It hit a recent high with 143 in 2019.
Police Chief Peter Newsham, speaking at a D.C. Council committee hearing this month, attributed the increased resignations in part to a force that is becoming younger.
He said officers are more likely to leave in their first five years, some to join federal law enforcement agencies or other departments offering more money. Newsham also said some officers quickly discover “that this is not the career for them.”
Warning signs about police strength levels in the District were sounded in 2015, when the number of officers dropped to 3,786. Many had joined the force during a hiring binge in the late 1980s and early 1990s and were eligible to retire about the same time.
It appears that “retirement bubble” has now eased; by the end of 2018, the force grew to 3,855. As of early March, the department had 3,805 officers. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has set a goal of 4,000 officers by 2023.
D.C. police continue to hire, offering 12 academy classes each year with roughly two dozen recruits in each session. At the council hearing, Newsham mentioned the possibility of raising starting pay, nearly $66,000 for an officer just hitting the streets, to keep up with a competitive job market.
The department offers several incentives to convince officers to stay — including a tuition loan program and a housing assistance program for officers starting their careers — during a time when Newsham said “they are most likely to resign.”
The chief said these and other initiatives, including a cadet program aimed at drawing young people who live in the District into careers with the department, are crucial to meeting the department’s goals.
“I cannot overemphasize the importance of continued funding for these programs, considering the increased competition for a limited pool of applicants in the region, and the historically low unemployment rate,” Newsham said at the council hearing.
One program that the chief is fighting to keep allows retired senior officers to return for up to five years and collect a salary in addition to their pension. It expires in October, along with the D.C. police contract.
The senior officer program targeted sergeants and detectives and was described in 2017 as a “stopgap measure” to fill the ranks.
Retired officers who join the program before the expiration date can stay until their five years are up. Unless the council continues the initiative, no retirees can be hired after October, and the number of participants, now 123, would dwindle each year starting in 2021, until the last group reaches the end of its five-year term.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, told Newsham during the hearing that the “idea behind the program” was to “solve the retirement bubble.” He agreed that it “had the added benefit of adding quality and experience in terms of leadership,” but he warned the “stopgap is becoming more and more permanent.”
Allen said there would be further discussion during upcoming budget sessions.
Newsham said that experienced officers are needed as the department grows younger and that the “senior police program is not just about numbers and increasing the size of the force.” He described the jobs of sergeants and detectives as “positions of mentorship,” and he said he wants to continue the program “for as long as we possibly can.”
Stephen Bigelow Jr., the chairman of the police union, said his group has reservations about continuing the program and believes the returning officers occupy slots that otherwise would go to officers seeking promotion. “It hurts the upward mobility for our officers,” he said.
Bigelow said he backs the program in general but doesn’t support “bringing back unlimited numbers” of retired officers.
The union chairman attributed the high number of resignations to officers seeking higher pay at other police agencies and to increased scrutiny on police across the country from advocacy groups, politicians and the media.
“It’s a very tough time to be a police officer,” Bigelow said, describing officers as “free agents” who jump from department to department seeking better pay and work environments. He said young officers “are, I believe, being held to unrealistic standards of perfection,” and “people don’t want to do it anymore.”
As a result, Bigelow said, police departments around the country are fighting for recruits. He said that while the District pays starting officers more than some surrounding local jurisdictions, the city falls behind agencies in other large cities.
During negotiations for a new police contract later this year, salaries will be compared with large cities across the country, instead of being limited to agencies in the D.C. region, as they had been in the past.
Bigelow said the District needs to meet the mayor’s goal of growing to 4,000 officers, given the city’s population increase and large-scale events and protests that can require hundreds of officers to staff.
“We don’t have an option,” the union chairman said. “We have so many responsibilities, we can’t have a skeleton force.”