The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. needs hundreds more police officers. Here’s how to do it right.

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Robert J. Contee III appears at a news conference March 8 along with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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The Metropolitan Police Department has 411 fewer officers than three years ago because of attrition and struggles in attracting recruits. The force is the smallest it has been in decades, with fewer than 3,400 sworn officers, and D.C. is more dangerous as a result. With 90 percent of D.C. residents now describing the crime problem as serious, it will take years of concerted effort to rebuild the department.

Other statistics also tell the story: The average response time for top-priority calls is one minute and 40 seconds slower than in 2019. The typical patrol officer is responding to 23 percent more calls than five years ago. To perform tasks deemed mission critical, officers had to work more than 1.1 million overtime hours each of the past three years — the equivalent of about 550 additional officers annually.

All of this forces D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III to make agonizing choices about whether to fill vacancies in important units such as special operations and investigations, to build cases, or deploy more beat cops to hotspots, where a visible presence might deter criminal activity. Chief Contee laments that overworking his team with forced overtime isn’t just expensive for the city; the inevitable burnout increases his officers’ compassion fatigue and raises the risks that they make the wrong split-second decisions about using force.

Washington has more officers per capita than many other cities, but the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, offered a reminder of the capital city’s special status as a target — and its unique needs. Massive protests have become routine in recent years. And don’t forget perennial presidential motorcades.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has set a goal of 4,000 officers, the number the city had in 2013. On Wednesday, she proposed a budget for next year that includes $5.4 million in additional bonuses for new hires and $1.2 million to expand educational incentives. This is on top of a $30 million investment in last year’s budget for hiring recruits, luring back retired officers and expanding the Cadet Corps program to prepare local high school seniors for the police academy.

The D.C. Council approved funding to hire 347 new officers during the current fiscal year, but the department isn’t on track to get that many into the ranks. Retirements and resignations mean the net gain may be at best a few dozen.

Money can only help so much. The department already offers $20,000 signing bonuses for new officers, $5,000 bonuses for cadets who complete the police academy, housing allowances for new recruits to buy homes in D.C. and tuition reimbursements. A new contract last summer raised police salaries 10 percent over three years and guarantees an automatic 5 percent bump after five years on the job. Starting pay in D.C. jumped from $62,000 to $67,000 — higher than in neighboring counties such as Fairfax in Virginia or Prince George’s in Maryland.

Nor does policing lend itself to perks — such as the option to do the job from home — that are increasingly available in other lines of work.

One good idea is to civilianize many tasks currently performed by police. D.C. has been diverting some non-emergency 911 calls to mental health professionals. A telephone reporting unit has expanded to handle more types of police reports without having to dispatch officers. Other agencies now pick up calls for service related to minor crashes and parking complaints.

Ms. Bowser’s budget proposes $2.1 million and 18 additional staffers to support civilianization efforts. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who chairs the public safety committee, thinks civilians could help domestic violence victims fill out paperwork for civil protection orders. And the D.C. auditor has contracted with a Michigan criminologist to conduct a comprehensive study on staffing that might help identify more efficiencies.

The biggest change that’s needed, however, is cultural. Nationally, morale has fallen and recruitment challenges have risen, as highly publicized incidents of police misconduct overshadow the fact that most officers perform a vital role with honor and professionalism.

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A reform passed by the D.C. Council in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd made it easier for the chief to discipline and fire officers for misconduct. It stripped the police union of its traditional role in shaping the disciplinary process through contract negotiations. Under the old system, officers could appeal discipline through independent arbitration, which frustrated commanders who routinely had to reinstate officers they’d fired for cause. One of the union’s top priorities is putting the disciplinary process back on the bargaining table. We strongly oppose this. It should be easier, not harder, to get rid of the truly bad apples.

The other complaint by the police union is that D.C. is creating a searchable database of disciplinary records. The fear is that small infractions could tar otherwise-stellar officers and that cops will therefore transfer to other police departments that do not maintain such a database. The solution is not to reduce transparency but expand it. Make the database national so that officers cannot move around to avoid accountability.

One small but significant change that could reassure D.C. officers who are concerned about the additional scrutiny they are under is to allow them once again to review their body-camera footage before filing police reports. This will ensure their recollections are consistent with what’s on tape, and also make it easier to successfully prosecute cases. There could be an exception for officer-involved shootings.

Under no circumstances should D.C. reduce standards to sign up more officers. In the late 1980s, politicians panicked amid a crime wave. Congress voted to withhold $430 million in federal payments to the District in 1989 and again for 1990 until about 1,800 new cops were brought onto the force. The city accepted scores of flawed applicants who had no business carrying a badge or a gun, including drug dealers. Full background checks weren’t completed in many cases. Some rookies didn’t know how to cuff suspects. Several officers from the classes of 1989 and 1990 wound up going to prison.

Chief Contee remembers this period and promises to never weaken standards, even as he warns that it could take more than a decade to get back to 3,800 officers. As urgent as the need is to bring in hundreds more officers, it is vital to take the time to get it right.

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