Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Mayor Muriel Bowser wants to add more officers to the Metropolitan Police Department. Councilmember Vince Gray wants to know why it took her so long to make that call.

For Bowser, increasing the ranks to about 4,000 ought to do it, and the department appears to be on track to meet that goal by 2023, the Washington Post reports.

The increase would add to the number of beat cops who are able to walk the District’s streets and improve community policing.

The mayor’s push comes at a time when spikes in the the homicide rate are alarming District residents. In 2015, Bowser’s first term in office, the total homicide count climbed to its highest point since 2008—162. After a two-year dip, the total jumped again in 2018 to 160, and has continued at a tragic pace in 2019: 12 murders in the year’s first 18 days.

Set aside for a moment the debate over the impact that a larger police force has on crime.

Gray, the former mayor and current Ward 7 councilmember who has not been shy about expressing his derision for Bowser since she defeated him in the 2014 mayoral primary, says the mayor’s action is coming too late.

Following Bowser’s announcement, Gray seized the opportunity to slam the mayor for her apparent opposition to his efforts to beef up the police force just two years ago.

A tweet from Gray’s account links to his Post op-ed from 2016, in which he called for a larger police presence in Ward 7 at a time when the murder rate in that area of the city tripled.

In 2017, after he was elected as the Ward 7 councilmember, Gray introduced emergency legislation that sought $64 million aimed at recruiting new officers, increasing salaries, and slowing officer attrition by funding incentives for senior officers to postpone retirement. The bill also expressed an intention to eventually increase the force to 4,200 officers, a level that former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier recommended in 2014.

Gray says he never spoke with Bowser back in 2017 about her opposition to his bill.

“I never talked to her about it,” he says now. “As you probably know, we don’t talk a lot.”

Bowser’s office did not return requests for comment, but on the Kojo Nnamdi Show today, she said she’s never been opposed to hiring more police officers.

Back when Gray’s bill was up for debate, the mayor wasn’t the only critic of his plan.

Two years ago, then-Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham shot down the notion that D.C. needed 4,200 officers. Numbers had reportedly dipped below 3,700 officers at the time. (There are currently 3,836 sworn officers on the force, according to MPD.)

“I don’t think anyone who knows anything about crime would agree that more police equals less crime,” Newsham told City Paper in 2017. “Does the city want to pay for 4,200 officers when we don’t need them? It’s a tax strain, and there are strategies to reduce crime other than to say let’s hire a bunch of cops. … I’m not so sure a lot of thought went into the plan that was laid out.”

In response to City Paper’s request for comment from Newsham, an MPD spokesperson wrote via email: “It is important that we constantly evaluate the public safety needs of the city.”

Research is inconclusive on whether adding more police officers on its own will bring a decrease in crime. Some studies have shown that more police have had a modest effect on crime reduction, but it’s difficult to draw a direct connection. Cities often hire more police when crime goes up. Statistically speaking, it is hard to isolate those two variables for definitive conclusions. There is also some support for data-driven policing using programs such as CompStat, where officers are directed to focus on certain “hot spots.”

In an interview on Fox5 Wednesday, Newsham appeared to support Bowser’s push to increase the force to 4,000 officers, adding that he intends to use the increase to put more cops on bicycles, scooters, Segways, and on foot in order to boost community policing efforts. Newsham also says his department is focused on getting illegal firearms off the street.

Councilmembers had their own reservations back in 2017 when faced with the decision to devote $64 million to retain veteran cops. Several members, including Ward 6’s Charles Allen, objected to the emergency nature of the bill, but were open to discussing the underlying goals.

“This is why we should go through a hearing,” Allen said in 2017. “The data doesn’t always show that a large number of police officers translates to a safe neighborhood. There are times in our city’s history where we’ve had well over 4,000 officers and we had higher crime rates than we do today.”

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie echoed Allen’s concern that more cops don’t necessarily equate to less crime, but supported the bill because more cops could theoretically lead to more community policing. 

“Earlier this morning there was a homicide … in Brookland,” McDuffie said from the dais. “Do I think increasing the number of officers would have stopped that homicide? I’m not sure, but I doubt it. If somebody wants to do harm to somebody else in that way, it’s going to be really difficult to stop them.”

McDuffie added that a public health approach, emphasizing partnerships between MPD, the Department of Health, and the Department of Mental Health, could be another solution.

Ahead of the vote, Gray’s 2017 emergency legislation also drew criticism from police accountability organizations such as Black Lives Matter, The Movement for Black Lives, and the Stop Police Terror Project.

The bill ultimately failed 4 to 9.

There were fleeting moments last year when the political acrimony between Bowser and Gray seemed to subside.

In October, for example, Bowser announced a community walk through Ward 7 with Gray. But Gray apparently never responded to Bowser’s invitation, and the mayor listed him on the event announcement in error—an olive branch nonetheless.

And in December, Bowser and Gray aligned on a bill to push forward construction of a new hospital in in Southeast D.C. Though Gray still took the opportunity to poke Bowser, saying “Had I still been the mayor, this hospital would have been finished next year.”

Going forward, Gray says he would be willing to work with Bowser’s administration to bring more officers to D.C. and has already re-introduced two bills aimed at doing so. The first would provide free University of the District of Columbia tuition for police officers, their spouses, and children; the second would exclude first responders who live in the District from paying income tax.

“I think there should have been more leadership coming from the executive,” Gray says.