In the year since Terrence Sterling died at the hands of D.C. police officer Brian Trainer, there have been two sets of arguments. The first is a debate between those, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, who blame an overly aggressive cop (she says Trainer disregarded police regulations that forbid chases) and those—like Trainer’s police union—who blame a suspect for threatening an officer’s life and thereby forfeiting his own.
Those who fall in the second set blame a more nebulous party—a daunting opponent known as The System. “We have seen far too many police shootings of unarmed African Americans in our country, and the public is frustrated by the difficulty in getting prosecutions of officers,” Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said in a news release.
The parameters of the debate, then, have been thoroughly polarized. Either the problem here is hyper-local (individual decisions made by Trainer and/or Sterling and/or both) or crushingly diffuse (too many black folks getting killed in America).
But what if Sterling’s death is a function of numbers? The District is the most heavily policed place in the U.S., which means it’s one of the most heavily policed places on earth. There are thousands of police officers on D.C.’s streets. Whatever the individual circumstances of Sterling’s death, might not the laws of probability—X number of cops per Y unit of time—suggest that trouble was bound to happen?
Anton Chekhov noted, famously, that if there’s a gun above the mantle in the first act of a play, it will go off by the third act. Trainer’s was one of thousands of cop guns in the District. How many more are waiting to go off?
In 2015, Governing magazine looked at D.C. police staffing levels and found that, even with declining membership, the District was still the most policed city in the U.S. There were nearly 57 D.C. police department cops for every 10,000 Washingtonians—almost twice the average for big cities and about four times the national average. The next closest city was Wilmington, Delaware, with more than 43 cops per 10,000 citizens.
The folks at Governing, however, were only counting the 3,900 or so cops in the D.C. police department. There are another 1,700 Capitol Hill police and some 460 Metro cops. Park Police add another couple hundred (although spokeswoman Sgt. Anna Rose declined to answer basic questions about the number of officers on the force). Then there’s the D.C. Housing Authority and Department of General Services uniformed officers. The FBI and Secret Service have their own uniformed branches. Ditto for the Government Printing Office, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a special department just for Amtrak police, as well as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Smithsonian, the postal service, and the U.S. Mint. A few years ago, when a lunatic shot up the Navy Yard, an even dozen police agencies responded to the call.
Most of the police departments here are small, assigned to a specific building or agency, and their most ardent defenders will acknowledge that their forces are little more than security guards. But they’re security guards with the power to arrest ordinary citizens, and they carry badges, guns, and radios to summon similarly accoutred fellows.
More than that, the larger police agencies—Capitol, Park, and Metro—aren’t shy about getting off their beats. For years, D.C. police officers have routinely gotten around the general orders against police chases (the ones that Trainer is accused of running afoul of in the Sterling shooting) by outsourcing them to Park Police.
That’s one example of what police-types like to call “interagency cooperation,” but it’s not the only one. The various agencies have also helped each other hide crime statistics by playing the jurisdictional game. Mug someone at Farragut North Metro station, for instance, and the crime will be logged with Metro police rather than the D.C. police. If the suspect is arrested for said mugging on K Street NW the next day by D.C. police, though, it’s logged on D.C.’s books—so the D.C. police department takes credit for solving a crime it doesn’t acknowledge having happened.
Given the number of cops on D.C.’s streets, it might count as a minor-key miracle that we haven’t had more cases like Terrence Sterling’s. But brutality is only one measure of over-policing.
Park Police, for instance, are still hoping that you won’t have the bad taste to bring up that video from this summer, when their plainclothes officers handcuffed six black teens for selling water on the Mall. Video of the heroic bust went round the Twitterverse at speed, and most people seemed genuinely shocked.
But what the hell did you expect, asks Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia.
“Is public safety criminalizing six entrepreneurial boys on the Mall who are trying to sell water?” she asks. “The sheer number of police and police forces you put on the streets increases the number of quote-unquote ‘crimes’ that they can catch.”
Cops often complain that they’re in a lose-lose situation. They have a point, because every drop of scorn heaped upon cops when they abuse or kill someone is overwhelmed by the tsunami of panicked calls for more cops any time a crime occurs.
Consider Holmes Norton, who so weepingly joined the chorus over Terrence Sterling’s death. After Park Police handcuffed those six teens on the Mall, she made sure the public knew that she had demanded a meeting with their chief. Yet, for more than a decade, Holmes Norton has fought publicly and fiercely to protect the department’s funding and preserve its staffing levels. (Holmes Norton didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
The ACLU’s Hopkins-Maxwell has grown numb to the ritual. Calling for more cops has become a shibboleth in the public life of the District, she says.
“We as a society have to decide—what is public safety?” she says. “Can we reduce forces and really focus in on stopping crime that has a substantial impact on our society? That’s a choice.”
So far, the choice seems to have gone the other way. In the year after the D.C. Council decriminalized marijuana, for instance, pot busts nearly tripled, The Washington Post reported earlier this year.
And Hopkins-Maxwell isn’t stipulating that brutality isn’t a problem. Just this year, her group settled a lawsuit with Metro police over their handling of a teenage girl Metro cops initially detained for a curfew violation. She was accused of biting an officer, but her lawyers say she only did so after the cop punched her and slammed her head into a bus shelter. Whatever the facts of her case, Hopkins-Maxwell asks you to remember: It all started because a teenager was running late getting home.
Metro spokesman Richard Jordan says that police action against such petty crimes “also deters assaults on Metro employees, other crimes on the system, and results in arrests for people with outstanding warrants.”
Andrew Ferguson, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia, just wrapped up a book he titled The Rise of Big Data Policing: Surveillance, Race, and the Future of Law Enforcement. He admits that he’s ambivalent about policing levels.
“Whether D.C. has too many police really turns on what the police are doing,” he says. “There is no question that post-9/11 D.C. has ascribed to a form of security theater where police presence becomes a proxy for actual public safety.”
Nonetheless, the theatrics “likely had a positive effect on reducing crime in many downtown locations,” Ferguson says, adding that the kaleidoscope of police uniforms may actually help things seem less oppressive to ordinary people.
“On the negative side, because D.C. does not control many of the federal police officers, there is no way to maintain local control,” he says.
“Beyond the question of whether one thinks it is wise for park police to arrest kids for selling water on the Mall is the deeper democratic question that even if locals wanted to change it, they couldn’t because Park Police are not under local control. This lack of local control makes it hard to create accountability mechanisms to monitor what federal police are doing to D.C. citizens.”
The weight of history burdens this discussion. There was a time when living in the District of Columbia was hazardous to your health. At its nadir in the early nineties, the District was dropping nearly two bodies per day. And, even as violence has declined over the past few decades, it still remains relatively—and disproportionately—high in Wards 7 and 8. For many Washingtonians, talk of reducing the number of cops on the streets is a wicked spell that threatens to swing open the very gates of hell again.
“You cannot go and tell someone in Ward 8 and Ward 7 that crime is down. We just had four shootings last week,” says Paul Trantham, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 8. “That makes no sense. If you just go over in Ward 8 and Ward 7, and start asking those people whether they agree with those numbers or not.”
Trantham acknowledges, though, that it may be a deployment and training problem as much as it is a raw numbers problem.
“Yeah, D.C. has a lot of police,” he says. “And it makes no sense that D.C. is still a violent city.”
In their desperation to stop the bleeding of the late eighties and early nineties, city leaders tried just about everything. For a while, for instance, the District tried killing as many suspects as it could, leading the nation in officer-involved fatal shootings until the Justice Department stepped in, beginning in 2001.
Two basic ideas have hung on here. One is the “broken windows” model. The idea is that cops can get ahead of crime by aggressively enforcing quality of life violations. Stop petty vandalism, panhandling, etc., the argument goes, and you can keep a neighborhood from collapsing into a Hobbesian state of nature.
The second idea, related to broken windows, is community policing. That came to town with Chief Charles Ramsey, a veteran bureaucrat who was offered the District job as a consolation prize after having been passed over as chief in his native Chicago. It was Ramsey’s idea to focus on police “visibility” and community relations. Get Officer Friendly walking a beat, the argument ran, knowing her neighborhood and its neighbors, so that she can spot trouble before it starts. (That fetish for “visibility” is also the reason cops drive around with their lights flashing—to the consternation of newcomers, tourists, and epileptics.)
People of goodwill can argue about whether either strategy is or was effective. The plain fact is, crime in D.C. has plummeted over the past two decades, as it has in most other major cities. Things haven’t improved equally—Trantham’s Ward 8 remains the city’s most dangerous—but improved it has, in every measure and in every neighborhood.
Now, the only “changing” neighborhoods in this city are the ones where wealthy (mostly white) people are coming and poor (mostly brown) people are going.
The whole question of petty versus serious crime is also warped, like so many other questions, by the District’s colonial relationship with the federal government. Whatever else the Romans have done for us, the Justice Department has always set a hard ceiling on just how bad D.C.’s bad guys can get.
In the 1980s, the leaders of Chicago’s El Rukn street gang were indicted for trying to buy stinger missiles from Libya so that they could shoot down airliners at O’Hare. Angelinos occasionally have lively public debates over their nastiest serial killer. New York’s Five Families has been run as a multinational since FDR was in the White House. Many Bostonians still swell with a kind of perverse civic pride when they hear the name “Whitey Bulger.” Here in the District, if you want to meet supervillians of that caliber, you’ll have to check into one of our fine comic book shops: The feds simply won’t abide those kinds of shenanigans in their backyard.
Yet, as defenders of the status quo will quickly point out, 911 calls have continued to rise, even as crime has dropped. For critics, that’s no coincidence. One of the effects of community policing/broken windows is to have forced cops to take on roles as social workers, therapists, and neighborhood fence-menders.
“More police is easy,” Hopkins-Maxwell says. “The true solution to safety and to getting healthy, vibrant communities is hard. And we have to do the hard work ourselves.”
Last year, the D.C. Auditor’s office measured D.C. police department response times, emergency calls, and available manpower. It found that, on average, a D.C. cop can expect to spend 22 percent of their time on emergency calls. (In Ward 8, cops spent an average of 33 percent of their time responding to emergencies, the auditors found.)
By way of contrast, cops in Kansas City spent 35 percent of their time on emergencies; in San Francisco, between 30 and 50 percent, auditors said, citing research by the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit think tank based here in the District. Tallahassee set a goal of 50 percent, and Memphis 42 percent.
“This raises the obvious question of how the remainder of patrol time is spent, and could indicate that the number of patrol officers now deployed could be reduced without a significant impact on public safety,” Auditor Kathy Patterson wrote in an April letter to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. “We recommend that [D.C. police] undertake a comprehensive time utilization study to see whether our very limited review is an accurate picture and a factor that should be taken into account in assessing the need for additional police officers.”
Patterson spent her hot youth as a journalist covering cops in Kansas City, and says she’s always had “tremendous respect” for the work they do. She has been raising the issue of police staffing since she first was elected to the Council in 1995 to represent Ward 3.
“I was a chorus of one, though, on the Council, in arguing that we didn’t need more officers,” she says. “More training, yes, but not more numbers. So the number of officers and the dollars spent have gone up.”
It’s not just a question of resources, Patterson says. Every officer in uniform, “visibly” walking a beat, is an officer who’s not investigating complex cases or the nexus of crime in the neighborhoods. “Elected officials can be part of the problem here,” Patterson says, “always wanting more on patrol, because residents complain they never see officers.”
Asked for comment, a spokesman for D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham issued the following statement: “Chief Newsham believes we have sufficient staffing for policing the District of Columbia and our great relationships with the other law enforcement agencies in the city is beneficial to the communities we serve.”
For Hopkins-Maxwell and other critics, people like Terrence Sterling are going to continue to suffer—and, occasionally, to die—as long as the District commits itself to flooding the streets with cops. Her points are arguable and perhaps even rebuttable, but the arguments won’t be had unless and until there’s a public leader willing to raise the questions.
That person may already be amongst us. Patterson recalls a youngish police commander she met when she first took public office in the District in the mid-1990s. Even as everyone around Patterson was screaming for more cops, this commander “shared his own view at the time that we had sufficient manpower, and he cared more about quality than quantity in officers,” she recalls.
The commander’s name was Peter Newsham.