Just weeks into his political comeback via a return to the D.C. Council, former Mayor Vincent Gray has stepped on a colleague’s toes, drawn fire from Interim Police Chief Peter Newsham, and alienated current and former D.C. police officers and community activists.
It’s not often that Black Lives Matter is an ally of the Metropolitan Police Department, but such is case after Gray, now a Ward 7 councilmember, announced an “emergency” proposal last week to grow the police force through a $64 million expenditure that would reward senior officers not to retire when eligible.
The legislation would fund five-year contract extensions for veterans and double their salaries in the final year—with no impact on pensions. The MPD currently employs fewer than 3,700 officers, and the goal under Gray’s proposal is to reach 4,200.
“I don’t think anyone who knows anything about crime would agree that more police equals less crime,” Newsham tells Loose Lips. “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 transparently, and hastily, positioning himself as a counterweight to Mayor Muriel Bowser, Gray is forgetting that more police means more incarceration, according to advocates who call for mental health, gang intervention, conflict resolution, housing, and job creation services as a means to improve public safety in high crime areas.
“I’m surprised Vince Gray is putting this out without addressing more therapeutic public safety strategies,” says activist, author, and former council candidate Eugene Puryear. He is affiliated with the Stop Police Terror Project, which is part of a network of groups that has joined The Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter to denounce Gray’s bill.
“It’s bound to be divisive in the communities he says he wants to help. This is a message that appeals to newer D.C. residents who, because of race and affluence, are more likely to see more police as the answer to public safety. I think he’ll be surprised by how many people elsewhere are looking for a different solution.”
Adds peace activist Ronald Moten: “In the ’80s and early ’90s, we had 4,100 officers. It was the peak of the crack wars. What we’re seeing now is the residue of a generation of crack babies and families broken up by mass incarcerations, unemployment, and homelessness, and more police officers ain’t gonna solve it.” Moten points to a brazen daytime shooting near the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station recently as a sign that the city’s disenfranchised youth have lost hope. “In their minds, these kids feel like they have nothing to lose. They don’t care if police are posted less than a block away.”
Moten has a different suggestion: “Instead of more money to bring back or retain senior officers who are not looking to get in the trenches and risk their lives, let’s empower the officers we have now, pay them more, and bring back officer-friendly programs along with comprehensive grassroots community initiatives.”
There are other reasons to be concerned with Gray’s proposal. MPD has suffered for years from low officer morale as a result of scheduling, discipline, and salary battles that dragged on under former Chief Cathy Lanier. As City Paper has reported, an insurgency has risen within the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 3,400 of the MPD’s 3,700 sworn officers. They have gone seven of the last 10 years without a contract. An internal petition is under review to recall Chairman Matthew Mahl, who some see as a management shill. Mahl supports Gray’s bill.
So Gray also runs the risk of alienating mid-career veterans who will not directly benefit from his proposal and who neither trust their own chairman nor feel supported by city leaders, including Newsham. They remember that Gray asked for their vote for mayor in 2010 with the promise that he’d deliver them a new contract. Instead, he retained Lanier, who took a hard line at the bargaining table—with Newsham as her enforcer.
“We’ve been screwed by Vince Gray, and Muriel Bowser hasn’t done us any favors either,” says one FOP member who is among the rank and file who see Gray’s proposal as a political stunt that merely offers incentives to seniors in the twilight of their career.
None of it makes sense to retired detective Joe Belfiore. “You’re not going to change a veteran’s notion of what it’s like to work for MPD by throwing money at them,” Belfiore says. “They’re not going to be running around trying to catch shooters. And they’re leaving in five years anyway. You want to improve the morale of the officers you supposedly want to keep? The incentive would be to give them a fucking contract.”
Gray’s “emergency” proposal is not playing much better among colleagues in the D.C. Council. He did not inform Charles Allen, chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, of the legislation until five minutes before he introduced it. (That’s five minutes sooner than Newsham, who says he never received any notice. “I would’ve hoped he communicated with us beforehand,” the chief says.)
And although Gray has six votes lined up—the bill is co-sponsored by Mary Cheh, and co-introduced by Anita Bonds, Jack Evans,Kenyan McDuffie, and Trayon White—LL had a hard time gleaning whether those members feel the same sense of urgency or conviction. (There certainly was no whiff of emergency in the air.)
The legislation echoes a Bowser initiative last year to bring retired officers and detectives back from retirement. Gray’s bill proposes also to fund salary increases for younger officers.
For Evans, the legislation is a re-introduction of a bill from last session that authorizes the MPD to hire 4,000 officers. “This gives the chief more opportunity to be creative in his efforts to recruit and retain good officers,” says Evans spokesman Tom Lipinsky.
Through her spokesman, Bonds says she is mostly interested in workforce housing assistance—which isn’t in the bill—of between $100,000 and $150,000 per officer.
Cheh says she co-introduced the bill to bridge the gap between senior officers retiring and recruits coming into the department. “The idea is to stop departures while we train new recruits,” she says. “I’m not sure if it’s the best answer, but it’s something to get us thinking. I don’t think it’s much of an emergency.”
Councilmember Trayon White sees a need for more and better officers. “But my interests are in wraparound services for the community, such as case management, critical response, and continuous outreach,” he says. “We do need more police, but they haven’t been the solution in the community.”
In the end, Gray’s initiative is little more than an effort to secure a pot of money for the council—not Mayor Bowser—to control. Allen also appears to have his doubts. “I’m not convinced the bill will do what it seeks to do,” he says. “[Gray] wants to grab $64 million on the theory that you get officers to commit to another five years and then double their salary in their fifth year? Do we really want to put that kind of money in a lockbox? If an officer near the end of retirement stays on for five years, how does that affect mid-level officers trying to move up through the ranks?”
Good questions. One might be tempted to say the committee chair has given the matter more thought than the bill’s author. “Part of my job as chair is to not get caught up in the political theater,” says Allen, “but to ensure that we’re making the right policy and budget decisions to improve public safety.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of the group with which Eugene Puryear is affiliated.