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Opinion How many police officers does D.C. need? An audit could tell us.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III, at podium, hold a news conference in D.C. on March 15. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in 2020, D.C. put the brakes on police hiring. Anti-police sentiment had fueled a push to cut funding for police and reduce the number of sworn officers. Concern about city finances stemming from the ongoing pandemic created a further damper. But a sharp spike in violent crime that started last summer has dramatically changed the political dynamic; now, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is arguing that the District needs more officers. Although that might be true, we think there is value in the recommendation that the city first commission a study to better assess the staffing and needs of the department.

Ms. Bowser is spearheading an effort that would put the department on a path to have 4,000 sworn officers. There are currently 3,519, a number that is well below the typical level of the past decade. According to FBI data, the department had 3,945 sworn officers in 2010 and 3,766 in 2020. What has changed even more dramatically as the city’s population has swelled is the ratio of sworn officers to population, from 6.6 officers per 1,000 people in 2010 to 5.3 officers per 1,000 people in 2020.

In testimony last week before the D.C. Council’s public safety committee, Police Chief Robert J. Contee III made a powerful appeal for more officers. Citing data from the Office of Unified Communications, he said response times to Priority 1 calls — such as a shooting in progress — increased by almost 90 seconds in 2021. “Ninety seconds may not seem like a long time if you are watching a hearing, but if you are the victim of a violent crime waiting for police to arrive, that can seem like an eternity,” he said. Heightened security risks, he said, required officers to work more than 1.1 million overtime hours in each of the past two years — the equivalent of more than 550 additional officers each year.

While the administration’s goal is to bring the department up to 4,000, the growth would occur over many years. Approval of the mayor’s fiscal 2023 proposed budget would provide for 347 additional officers, but the net gain — because of retirements and attrition — would be 36 officers at the end of the fiscal year. The department projects the force would reach 3,800 in 2028 and 4,000 in 2031.

The emphasis on adding officers is frustrating to members of the Police Reform Commission, who feel that the 259-page report reimagining public safety they produced last year is being ignored. Why 4,000? Where did that number come from? What will these extra officers do? Those were the questions posed by commission members who met with us last week. They said the city should follow the example of other cities that have commissioned audits examining how officers are utilized. Their recommendation is an echo of a suggestion made in 2017 by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson after some preliminary research that showed D.C. officers spent an average of 22 percent of their time on calls for service, a lower proportion of time than that spent by officers in other cities. D.C. is, of course, unique, with its officers also having to handle public safety and security issues associated with the federal government. (Consider, for example, the hours spent dealing with a convoy of angry truckers intent on snarling traffic in the nation’s capital.)

More data would help assist D.C. in answering the question of whether it needs more police and, if so, what the right number is.