D.C. Police Staffing Reaches Half-Century Low as Homicides Rise

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) greets a police officer during an event last month in Northwest Washington’s Petworth neighborhood.

WASHINGTON – The size of the D.C. police force has shrunk to a half-century low as officers leave faster than they can be replaced, according to the agency’s chief, forcing the department to spend millions on overtime while it struggles to combat gun violence and carjackings.

Despite some hiring in the past year, the force had just over 3,350 sworn officers at the end of March, a net loss of about 450 over the past three years. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said he expected the size of the force could fall to about 3,130 by the end of fiscal year 2024.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has said she wants the department to have 4,000 officers by 2031, though Contee testified at a recent D.C. Council hearing that given the city’s current budget restrictions – along with a dearth of people applying for police jobs across the county – that goal is probably unattainable.

“We are no longer in a space where debating the maximum size of the police force is necessary or productive,” Contee told lawmakers at the March 31 council hearing. “Absent significant shifts in national employment levels, the environment for law enforcement, or the interest of younger generations in long-term government careers, MPD staffing may not recover for more than a decade.”

Police departments in the D.C. region and across the country are struggling to hire and retain officers, competing with one another to offer financial and other incentives in hopes of swelling their ranks. Experts say that fewer people want to work as police officers because of fatigue over crime and civil unrest, heightened scrutiny, low pay, and a lack of interest in government service.

In D.C., discussions about the budget and the size of the police force are coinciding with federal lawmakers’ taking an interest in crime in the nation’s capital. Last month, Congress voted to block a controversial overhaul of the city’s criminal code, in part because it would have lowered the statutory maximum penalty for certain crimes, including carjacking. Republicans in Congress are now targeting a separate bill to overhaul policing that was passed by the D.C. Council, though President Biden has said he plans to veto any effort to block the measure from becoming law.

The mayor presented her budget plan to the D.C. Council last month. In the coming weeks, lawmakers will mark up the mayor’s proposal and make adjustments, and they will then vote in May on the final budget for fiscal 2024, which begins Oct. 1.

Bowser, facing a projected revenue drop due to lower-than-expected commercial tax revenue, has proposed spending $516 million on police in fiscal 2024, a 2 percent decrease from this fiscal year. Her plan – subject to council approval – would maintain $5.4 million for recruitment and bonuses for new police hires, and would continue to fund alternative justice programs.

Police said the proposed budget contains money to allow Contee to continue to hire in fiscal 2024, and he said his goal is to hire 20 new officers each month. But he told city lawmakers the department is losing 30 to 35 officers a month. The chief has said to make up for the shortfall of officers, the department has spent $1.1 million in overtime hours in each of the past two years.

D.C. recently offered $20,000 signing bonuses to entice recruits, and later increased the amount to $25,000. Contee said 71 recruits have received the bonus so far, and there is enough money to pay out another 230 in the coming year. Last year, the police union ratified a new contract offering raises to make the department more competitive.

A survey by the Police Executive Research Forum of law enforcement agencies in 38 states and in D.C. found a similar pattern: Departments have increased the pace of hiring but are not able to keep up with attrition. The institute, which advises law enforcement agencies on best practices, found that the total police staffing of the agencies surveyed dropped nearly 5 percent over the past three years.

The research forum’s executive director, Chuck Wexler, said the number of people applying to be police officers had dropped even before the pandemic and nationwide protests over police misconduct in 2020. But he said even fewer people want to pursue careers in law enforcement “in the wake of the national narrative over policing. It’s pretty negative.”

Homicides in D.C. exceeded 200 in each of the past two years, a threshold the city had not crossed since 2003. Through Monday, killings were up 25 percent from the same time in 2022. A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found more than half of residents across the D.C. area perceive crime to be serious in the District, but more than three-quarters of Washingtonians feel they are “very” or “somewhat” safe from crime in their neighborhoods – up from the same time last year.

Contee has said that in 2021, D.C. officers took 90 seconds longer to reach the most critical incidents, which he said was “an eternity” for crime victims. Statistics for this year were not immediately available.

Some activists, though, argue that having more police officers does not guarantee less crime.

“We know that more policing does not mean more public safety, and so we must challenge that deeply harmful narrative,” said Makia Green, co-conductor for Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, adding that more investments are needed in community-led programs to address underlying causes of crime.

“We must reclaim what public safety looks like,” Green said.

Last month, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee held a hearing with D.C. lawmakers and the chairman of the police union, with GOP members lambasting the city as a crime-ridden enclave run by leaders who have failed to keep residents and visitors safe. Local leaders pushed back, noting federal agencies oversee most of the city’s criminal justice system and arguing they should share in any blame.

Bowser sent a letter to the Oversight Committee last week saying she will accept an invitation to testify on May 16 and plans to bring Contee and the city administrator.

At the Oversight Committee hearing in March, the chairman of the police union, Greggory Pemberton, testified that the policing bill, which restricts some police practices and increases public accountability, “has resulted in a mass exodus of sworn law enforcement officers and an exponential increase in violent crime.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the former chair of the public safety committee, disputed that officers left because of reforms and said that “a transparent and accountable force, which polices constitutionally and respectfully, is the desire of – and benefits – both the public and law enforcement.”

D.C. leaders have long debated how many officers its police department needs. In 2016, police warned that falling below 3,800 officers would make the force dangerously thin. Vincent C. Gray, a former mayor and current Democrat representing Ward 7 on the council, has said he believes the department needs 4,200 officers. The Bowser administration has pointed to drops in homicides from 2009 through 2014 – when the department had about 3,900 members – to support the mayor’s call for a larger police force. While homicides did go down during that time period, overall crime increased 14 percent.

A D.C. reform commission formed after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in 2020 recommended a smaller police department, with money diverted to programs that treat crime as a public health issue. The D.C. Council reduced the police budget by $15 million that year.

Police officials assert that cut forced a year-long hiring freeze that exacerbated the problem of hiring and retaining officers in D.C.

At the D.C. Council hearing at which Contee testified in March, member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) disputed that.

“It’s not a money issue,” Parker told the police chief, adding it was unfair to suggest the 2020 cut is to blame for today’s staffing woes. “It’s about how we attract and retain officers.”

Contee countered that the budget cut had an impact. In 2020, the chief said, “we stopped hiring,” and it took months to restart vetting and training officers once hiring resumed a year later. In the meantime, he said, hundreds of officers left.

“This has been a slow-motion bleed over the past two years,” Contee said at the hearing, “that got us to the point where we are right now.”