The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion No one asked for fewer D.C. police doing more work

D.C. police block traffic near the site of a midday shooting in the 1500 block of 23rd Street SE. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)
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Salah Czapary, a Democrat, is a candidate for his party’s nomination for D.C. Council Ward 1. He is a former D.C. police officer and a former special assistant to the chief of police.

In June 2020, the D.C. Council voted to reduce the police budget by $15 million, which limited the hiring of new D.C. police officers. The council promised that those funds would then be reallocated to alternative, non-police responses. The budget cuts came into effect in October that year. Eighteen months later, D.C. police are down approximately 280 officers and detectives while, compared with 2021, the city faces an increase in overall violent crime of about 28 percent, a 55 percent increase in robberies, an 18 percent increase in carjackings and, as of 2021, the highest number of homicides in nearly two decades.

Thirty-six percent of District residents now say crime, violence or guns is D.C.’s top problem. As a Ward 1 resident and former D.C. police officer, I’ve seen this crisis firsthand and have spoken to neighbors who increasingly don’t feel safe in their neighborhood. This is unacceptable.

But even smaller than the police department are the promised alternatives to police response. If you call 911 today, you have the options only of a police officer, emergency medical services or the fire department. No mental health or other professionals are available as assets for dispatch within the 911 network who respond in real time, even though current programs using nurses and behavioral health specialists do exist. Currently, no program responds at scale and limited or pilot programs are not enough for the problems we face today.

No one asked for fewer cops doing more work.

It is public malpractice to do away with a response mechanism before creating new ones to fill the void. Our elected leaders have had two years to innovate in public safety, to make good on their promise that we can do things better. Their failure to act has put all of us at risk.

Legislators say they have invested millions of dollars in violence interruption, but violence interrupters are not part of the 911 system and do not remove any burden from the police department. Furthermore, violence interrupters respond to a crisis that is escalating to violence, but many crises in our community are not violent. Whether it be a family disturbance, a noise complaint or a customer dispute, not every 911 call requires a police officer, but each one deserves a timely government response.

The D.C. Council has reversed course with seven members saying they would be likely to approve funds proposed by the mayor to resume police hiring. The mayor has proposed putting the department back on a pathway to 4,000 police officers. But the damage is already done. Without a significant increase in salary and retention benefits, it will take years for the department to regain its previous force strength. All while 911 call volume and demand will not diminish. The police are being stretched too thin because of understaffing, made even worse by increased violence, and no alternatives exist for residents who need help in nonviolent situations.

D.C. police respond to about 600,000 911 calls each year. Unless someone else responds to a portion of those calls, emergency response time will increase again. We can’t wait any longer. The council must create and fund non-police responses to 911 calls involving nonviolent crisis or conflict.

Activists, communities and law enforcement officers all agree: The police do too much. In this time of heightened violent crime, the police need to be laser-focused on one thing and one thing alone: building strong cases against violent offenders. Strong cases will lead to successful prosecutions, removing bad actors and repeat offenders who harm our community.

According to a study by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, 500 identifiable people are responsible for about 70 percent of the gun violence in our community. We can start addressing this now by providing D.C. police with the structure and staffing to focus on longer-term investigations to hold violent offenders accountable. Social services approaches would ensure that pathways for education, job training and gainful employment are available to our most vulnerable residents.

The problem is not whether we know what we need to do or have enough money to do it; it is whether council members have the willingness and a vision to act on promises already made.

If the D.C. Council can’t take the sweeping actions we need now, during a budget surplus, its members should be held accountable for the violence in our community.

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