Just How Many Police Officers Does D.C. Really Need? There is academic research that supports the argument that more police leads to less crime. But D.C. history alone seems to complicate this narrative.
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Just How Many Police Officers Does D.C. Really Need?

Just How Many Police Officers Does D.C. Really Need?

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III stood alongside cadets and recruits during an event in early April to promote Mayor Muriel Bowser's request for money to hire more police officers. Martin Austermuhle/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Martin Austermuhle/DCist/WAMU

Just two years ago, "Defund the police" became a rallying cry for progressive activists and people across the U.S., including in D.C. But a spike in homicides and shootings has since put a damper on that demand, and now Mayor Muriel Bowser says she wants to hire hundreds of new police and grow the force to 4,000 officers.

The debate over the size of the Metropolitan Police Department is hardly new; elected officials long before Bowser have pushed to grow its ranks, largely in response to jumps in crime. Just as then, it remains unclear how adding more officers would measurably change crime rates in D.C., and criminal justice reform advocates say it's an issue worth studying before the city commits to hiring more police.

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Where MPD is now, and where Bowser wants it to be

There are currently 3,519 sworn officers in MPD, down from roughly 3,800 in 2020 and at the lowest point for the department over at least the last two decades. (The last time MPD recorded having more than 4,000 officers was in 2013.) The recent decline in the number of officers comes from a steady rate of attrition of just above 300 officers a year (this includes retirements and resignations), coupled with a slow-down in hiring over the last two years. Recruitment took a particular hit last year, with MPD only hiring 103 officers, down from the usual 300 or so from years prior.

Bowser's proposal is, by her own admission, somewhat modest: she wants to spend $30 million to hire and retain up to 350 officers over the next year, which with the usual rate of attrition factored in would amount to a net gain of roughly 35 officers. But she also laid out a broader goal: continuing that pace of hiring to get MPD back to 4,000 officers, which at the rate she is proposing would take a decade.

Speaking in front of rows of police cadets outside Dunbar High School earlier this week, Bowser explained why 4,000 officers is her goal for MPD.

"Four-thousand officers is the number Chief [Robert] Contee tells me we need to do four things. First, we have to improve our response times. We've seen those times creeping up over the past several years. The time between when you place a 911 call and when an officer can show up is increasing... and that's unacceptable. Second, we need more officers so that we can increase police presence in our neighborhoods. That presence makes people feel better, but it also drives down crime on commercial corridors. Third, we need officers patrolling, we need investigators and detectives making big cases and closing those cases. And fourth, we need to recognize and plan for the fact that MPD is being called on more and more to respond to situations like we had the last three weeks: people coming from all over the country coming to protest this thing or that, and MPD placing its officers on the front line to make sure the city can function," she said.

According to data provided by MPD to the D.C. Council, response times did increase in 2021 to just over seven minutes for Priority 1 calls (the most serious incidents), up from 5:35 in 2020 and at the highest point over the last decade. Additionally, Contee told the council that in each of the last two years his officers have worked 1.1 million overtime hours, equivalent to the manpower of 550 additional officers annually.

"Ninety seconds may not seem like a long time if you're watching a hearing, but if you are the victim of a violent crime waiting for police to arrive, that can seem like an eternity. And if you have committed a violent crime, 90 additional seconds to get away probably sounds pretty good," said Contee at a council hearing last week.

An old debate that keeps resurfacing

Now, it's worth stepping back for a second to highlight that Bowser's isn't the first elected official in D.C. to push for more police. In fact, she's one of many who have done so over the years.

Back in 2011, former D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced legislation to increase MPD's minimum staffing level to 4,000 officers, up from the current 3,000. The bill got a public hearing, but never moved further than that. And in 2017, Evans joined councilmembers Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Trayon White (D-Ward 8), and Anita Bonds (D-At-Large) in proposing an emergency measure that would have increased the police department's manpower to 4,200 officers. The bill was voted down. And Bowser herself made a similar pitch for more cops back in 2019.

These periodic pushes for more police are invariably linked to spikes in crime; when murders and shootings go up, elected officials tend to push for more cops on the street. "There is no single remedy for reducing violence in our communities, but there are important actions government and elected officials must undertake," wrote Gray in a 2016 op-ed. "First, we need more police in our neighborhoods."

Do more cops lead to less crime?

This, ultimately, is the heart of the debate around Bowser's push for more police officers. And it's a contested question in discussions around public safety across the country.

There is academic research that supports the argument that more police leads to less crime. In a 2020 paper cited by Contee in recent testimony, Barnard College economist Morgan Williams Jr. looked at 242 U.S. cities over a 40-year period and found that each additional police officer hired "abates approximately 0.1 homicides," with a larger impact among Black communities. For D.C., Contee said that would amount to 48 fewer killings a year once MPD reaches 4,000 officers.

Similarly, Anna Harvey, a public safety expert at New York University, told Vox last year much the same: "[As] far as the research evidence goes, for short-term responses to increases in homicides, the evidence is strongest for the police-based solutions," she said.

But D.C. history alone seems to complicate this narrative.

A graph provided to the D.C. Council by MPD shows the city's population, calls for police service, arrests, and violent crime. via/MPD hide caption

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Back in 2011, MPD had roughly 3,900 officers and the city recorded over 7,000 violent crimes and made 44,000 arrests. Last year, though, MPD had about 300 fewer officers — and there were just over 4,100 violent crimes and 16,900 arrests. It is true that homicides have spiked over the last two years, hitting a 16-year high in 2021. But killings can be a complicated measure of overall public safety — they are among the most serious of crimes and traumatic to many, but recent research commissioned by the city showed that deadly crimes tend to be committed by a relatively small universe of people.

Still, the debate over policing isn't just about what makes people safe, but also what makes them feel safe. That's a point Contee himself made late last year during a Washington Post live event, when he admitted that ascribing deterrence to police presence is a challenge.

"How do we know how many crimes don't occur because of the presence of police officers? We don't know that," he said. "What we do know is that when residents don't see police out in community, they feel unsafe."

It is, of course, worth noting that those feelings seem to be real — a Post poll conducted in February found that three in 10 residents don't feel safe in their neighborhoods, rising to four in 10 in areas east of the Anacostia River where a majority of homicides take place. And it is an election year, with Bowser vying for a third term in office.

"Public sentiment has changed considerably, and people are feeling unsafe in the city and want to see more law enforcement," said Council Chairman Phil Mendelson earlier this week, speaking to the potentially political side of Bowser's push. "They don't want to see police as occupiers or abusers, but they want to see more law enforcement."

That view was echoed by Ward 6 resident Trevor Kincaid, who testified to the council in favor of more police. "It's not about the number, that's arbitrary. It's about more. It's what the situation demands as crime rises and they are asked to do more and more and more," he said.

But hiring more police to address a rise in crime and to counter a perception that public safety has worsened doesn't have the greatest track record across the country, according to a 2017 academic paper by James McCabe, a former New York City police officer and now professor a Sacred Heart University.

"As crime levels rose, more police officers were hired to address it. At first blush, this approach seems appropriate. In actuality, it is a particularly inefficient approach to staffing. Consider the following: When the police are ineffective at combating crime more police are added. When the police are effective at combating crime, fewer officers are needed. This model essentially provides incentives for poor performance and disincentives for superior performance. Additionally, we know that crime rates are influenced by many factors other than merely the level of police response," he wrote.

Still, speaking this week Bowser made the link between police staffing, public safety, and the perception of public safety. "We've gone from over 3,800 officers to just over 3,500 officers. And we've seen our response times tick up," she said. "You can't argue with the math."

So what is the ideal number of police officers for D.C.?

Well, someone could argue with that math — and plenty of criminal justice reform advocates do.

They say that D.C. already posts some of the country's highest numbers when it comes to officers per capita. According to the FBI, over the last decade that number has fluctuated between a high of 6.6 officers per 1,000 people in 2010 to a low of 5.3 per 1,000 in 2020. (That's just MPD; the national average is 2.4 officers per 1,000 people.) City officials counter that other places don't deal with the same challenges that D.C. does, which includes national-level protests (trucker convoy, anyone?) as well as in pre-pandemic times the country's biggest per-capita inflow of office workers from surrounding areas.

Reform advocates and many academics make the point that it isn't the number of police you have, but rather how you use them that's critical. But in that D.C. is largely flying blind, because unlike in many other U.S. cities, there hasn't been a comprehensive assessment of what all of MPD's officers are doing — and whether they could be doing things better.

"We need a real staffing study done. You need a time-utilization study," says D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, who in 2017 finished a limited assessment that found patrol officers spent 22% of their time on calls for service — less than in other comparable cities. "If we have a majority of our sworn officers are on patrol and if the numbers we found in a very limited sample were correct, it just begs the question of how are officers spending their time on the job? And that's not to prejudge. That's not to say we don't have a great corps of officers. It's just we don't have the data."

The D.C. Police Reform Commission, which last year published a sweeping report outlining 90 recommendations for changes to policing in the city, has suggested much the same.

"We recommended that somebody commission a desk audit by an independent agency to look at immediate staffing levels and responsibilities, scope of responsibilities, and scope of work to see if those things matched up, if those things were aligned right, that we had the right number of officers for the kind of work that we want them to be doing, that they should be doing, and that they're good at," says Naïké Savain, a member of the commission and policy counsel at D.C. Justice Lab, which advocates for criminal justice reform. "Because we know that there are a lot of officers who are assigned to tasks that they may not be good at that might not be best suited to police."

The closest D.C. got such an analysis came in 2012, when then-mayor Vincent Gray commissioned a full government review to determine where money could be saved. A three-page analysis of MPD's staffing – then around 3,800 officers — found that the department could operate with anywhere from 567 to 266 fewer officers, when taking into consideration how existing officers were using their time and how that stacked up against other departments across the country.

That same analysis also found that "a significant proportion of police officer time is spent on administrative tasks and other non-patrol activities, which substantially reduces officers' ability to engage in core missions — law enforcement and crime deterrence."

When this reporter asked Bowser about any possible studies on staffing at MPD, she said she trusted Contee's guidance and experience in the matter. "You want somebody outside to tell this 30-year police officer how to deploy MPD to best police neighborhoods?" she said. "That's ridiculous."

But not for the Washington Post's editorial board, which has historically been supportive of Bowser. Earlier this week it called for such a study. "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," it wrote.

D.C. Councilmember Robert White (D-At Large), who is challenging Bowser in the mayoral race, similarly called for an audit of MPD staffing in a public safety plan he unveiled in February.

Patterson says there also needs to be a focus on how many civilians work at MPD, and whether they could do jobs that might be done currently by officers. But on that front, she says she's worried to see that the numbers of civilians in MPD seems to be decreasing. According to documents submitted to the council, in Feb. 2022 there were 599 civilians at MPD — down from 681 a year prior.

4,000 as a 'distraction'

Ultimately, Mendelson calls the discussion over whether D.C. needs 4,000 officers much ado about not much at all. "I think it's a distraction to talk about 4,000, because that's not in this budget," he said. "The mayor's proposal, which is a net gain of 35, is fair, appropriate, not obnoxious, and it's also not 4,000."

Bowser said something similar earlier this week.

"Focus on this number: 347. That's what we need this year. You want to argue about next year, have at it. We could lose 300 officers this year and if I don't have this funding we could go down 3,200 police officers. And we're going to have increased response times and more crime. Focus on 347. You can ask anyone who raises the argument 'study, study, study' if that is acceptable in Washington, D.C.," she said.

City officials also point to investments Bowser has proposed for violence interruption and social services, as well as a program that diverts some non-emergency 911 calls to mental health professionals. Still, criminal justice reform advocates say that for as modest an ask as $30 million may seem for more police, it is missing broader considerations about public safety.

"Centering police = asking the question 'how many officers do we 'need'?'" tweeted Eduardo Ferrer, the policy director at the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative. "Centering community = asking the question 'what investments do we need to make in individuals and communities so that we 'need' fewer officers?'"

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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