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The four-day bloodbath that soaked D.C.’s streets this March cut 13 lives short and inched 1999’s murder count to 73—17 more than last year at the same time—and it also helped re-ignite an old debate. Despite an overall drop in crime, it was only a matter of time before some ambitious politician decided to start uttering the “We need more cops” battle cry. So now, for what seems like the 400th time, the powers that be are trying to beef up the rolls at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).

On March 3, Harold Brazil, defeated mayoral candidate and new chair of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee, proposed to do just that. Brazil confronted Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who was testifying before his committee. Brazil insisted on the idea of raising the number of sworn officers from 3,600 to 3,800. Despite Ramsey’s assurances that greater numbers weren’t necessarily the best fix, Brazil insisted that there weren’t enough cops on the streets. It’s a paper fix to a practical problem, and it won’t work: Although the department is currently authorized to have 3,600 officers on its payroll, it is operating with just 3,517.

But by the end of March, Brazil had both Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams on board in support of his proposal. Brazil proclaimed victory in a quickie press release seconds after Ramsey announced his support at a budget hearing: “I am delighted that MPD, and the Mayor have seen the value of full funding for 200 new officers. By hiring these new officers we will make our streets safer and our communities cleaner.” By this reasoning, all it takes to win the war on crime is a little enabling legislation.

Lost in all the debate over numbers, however, was a simpler question. For a decade, councilmembers and city-financed investigators have been trying to figure out where the cops they already have are deployed. In recent years, Booz-Allen & Hamilton, a consulting firm hired in the mid-’90s to investigate mismanagement in the police department, figured that far fewer than half of all sworn officers—1,190—actually patrol the streets. A better mystery for Brazil to solve might be why Ramsey can’t just move 300 already employed officers to patrol jobs.

When Ramsey first arrived from Chicago last spring, he promised not just to clean house but also to increase staffing efficiency. In interviews, he talked about getting straight answers from superiors and making accountability as high a priority as making busts. He got rid of wasteful commanders and promoted his share of expat experts. In November, the Washington Times trumpeted Ramsey’s no-bullshit philosophy: “Ramsey to Require Ironclad Reasons for Cops to Man Desks.”

Ramsey concedes that the headline may have been a little over-the-top. Getting cops onto the streets is a lot harder than doing a desk sweep. Like many armies, police forces usually end up with too many generals and not enough soldiers. There is a natural pressure to promote—even if it doesn’t leave anybody covering the streets. The rank and file are driven by incentive: If you do a good job on patrols, you will eventually be kicked upstairs to a desk. According to one officer, eight years is a respectable time to reach the rank of lieutenant.

Ramsey has only sped up the process with his recent promotions of Cathy Lanier and Jennifer Greene to inspector. Both had been captains for only two months before they were moved to administrative details. Ramsey has also promoted a few more officers to inspectors or commanders—now up to 14—and increased the number of captains by a third. He argues that his top-heavy approach is necessary to ensure accountability. Ramsey says that when he came on, there were too many untested sergeants serving as supervisors.

If you are a decent beat cop, there are still many detours away from cruising the streets. Officers who make arrests are rewarded with lots of down time—whether it’s sitting in court or sitting behind a desk filling out paperwork. The paperwork for one case can take up to four hours, says Ramsey. According to Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer, on average 594 officers are in court each day, and they spend on average three hours and 50 minutes there.

And there are other distractions from the street beat as well—such as administrative tasks, sick leave, vacation, and days off. Ramsey adds that some police work is disrupted by working presidential motorcades and other events unique to the District. The upcoming NATO conference will drain 400 officers from his force, Ramsey says.

Ramsey notes that there is also a problem in simply deploying officers at the busiest times. While crime calls rise on the weekend, the percentage of available officers shrinks. He says it’s to the point that the number of officers doesn’t meet the demand.

In a March 29 budget hearing before the city council, Ramsey gave a deployment breakdown: The police department is divided into seven districts operating from station houses that dispatch the officers. Of the 2,456 personnel assigned to districts, 1,892 officers are available for patrols. Ramsey admitted that the number can be cut further, to roughly 950 officers who are actually on patrol in a given day. Those blue shirts are spread over three shifts and 83 patrol service areas (PSAs).

The remaining 564 officers are broken into support staff, limited-duty status (such as injury or pending administrative action), and temporary unavailability. The support staff handles everything from taking attendance to guarding cellblocks.

The numbers add up to a lot of stress on the rank and file. Even if you wanted to stay on the streets through your entire shift, you couldn’t. “The majority of my time is taken up by paperwork,” says one 4th District patrol officer, who wishes to remain anonymous. He’s still waiting for a more efficient system. “It’s getting there. But it’s not there yet.”

One of the ways to get more cops onto the streets is a solution that has always been in the budget—turning some of those desk jobs over to civilians.

For his part, Ramsey has raised that issue. But a glance at his department suggests that kicking sworn officers off desk duty and onto the streets hasn’t been a top priority. Ramsey says that there are 722 civilians working for the department, even though its budget allows for more than 800 civilian jobs. That number has not increased in several years and is not expected to in the upcoming budget. Ramsey also notes that he could turn only about 90 of the 210 administrator positions at the districts over to civilians.

Ramsey doesn’t have a program in place to make these transitions, but, he adds, he also doesn’t really have the money. “Without a legitimate civilianization program and the kind of money set aside to do it, we are always going to have these kinds of conversations,” the chief explains. “I acknowledge maybe [the officers] shouldn’t be there, but without a civilian somebody’s got to do the job….It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Kick them out of the desk.’”

The civilianization process has been sidetracked by poor salaries, competition from the private sector, and the need to have sworn officers in certain positions. Officers not on patrol do a lot of crucial tasks, many of them done more cheaply by officers than by contractors who would otherwise have to take up the slack, Ramsey says.

Ramsey adds that many of the jobs that can be turned over to civilians require better salaries than the department and the D.C. Council budget for. He says that during the last few years, when the council has allocated for civilian jobs, it has used the salaries of low-wage clerks as a base. Ramsey says that in the areas of technology and automation, he can’t compete with the private sector.

Ramsey says a majority of the desk-riding jobs the politicians love to bloviate about may in fact be better off staffed by the sworn and blue. Jobs such as evidence and crime-lab technicians should not be given up to civilians, he says. But he is looking to hire ex-corrections officers who leave Lorton when the facility closes in 2001. They would replace police officers who now guard the cellblocks at the station houses. He does see the opportunity to contract out background checks for recruits. The force currently has roughly 16 investigators assigned to that task. He is also trying to get legislation passed through the council that would enable the force to hire police officers working in surrounding jurisdictions more easily.

For now, Ramsey says, the real issue is deployment.

“It’s how we deploy them across time lines that becomes the real issue in my opinion—and how effectively we use them,” Ramsey said in an interview a few days before the hearing. “We are going to put people on different shifts. There will be more officers off on Wednesday than Friday. It’s not just numbers, but how you use the numbers.”

This isn’t the first time the police force has been told to add by subtracting. Jim Nathanson, a former councilmember on the Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1994, remembers discussing the deployment issue on his watch. The issue was then called “preventive visibility.” “It was an issue then,” he says of the late-’80s officer boom that brought the department to a strength of 5,200 officers. “The need arose because there was very little police visibility on the street.”

Nathanson says he and other councilmembers asked for more civilian positions at the prompting of then-Chief Fred Thomas. But when the budget crisis went into effect in the early ’90s, their effort stalled. “You did need extra money,” Nathanson explains. “Frankly, the mayors were not willing to spend money for public safety.”

Bill Lightfoot, who was chair of the Judiciary Committee from 1994 to 1996, after Nathanson’s term, says the trend continued on his watch. “It’s the same old game,” he says. “Apparently, nothing has changed. Deployment has always been a big issue. You have to believe you are fully deployed before you can talk about how many cops you really need. Numerous jobs in the police department can and should be filled by civilians.”

In April of 1997, Booz-Allen & Hamilton unearthed what everyone knew: The department had serious deployment issues. This time, the council got real numbers. The consulting firm found that half of the on-duty officers didn’t even show up for roll call, and that only 6 percent, on average, of an officer’s time was devoted to cruising the streets. And it found that only 1,190 cops were assigned to beat patrol; plenty more were given desk detail. Booz-Allen recommended shifting 157 officers out of administrative divisions and into squad cars.

According to the Booz-Allen report, cops on desk duty had the task of fulfilling community-relations missions like teaching girls how to jump rope in the Double Dutch League. Twenty-five officers were assigned to performing in the Side-by-Side police band and other educational and recreational programs.

“You had all these officers assigned to special detail, some of which made sense, some of which made no sense,” D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans remembers.

Even after then-Chief Larry Soulsby reorganized the department—which included re-drawing district lines—and abolished or streamlined some of these assignments, there was still the problem of finding officers to fight crime. Although Booz-Allen had called for 15 to 20 officers per PSA, the community rarely saw the numbers on the beat.

You can engineer the police department all you want, but it’s like herding cats. One cop after another will find an excuse to slip through and head back to a desk. Whether it’s the PSA system or re-drawing the districts, the organization may change shape, but the bureaucracy won’t.

“The execution never quite happened,” Evans explains. “The officers figured a way around it. The officers never wanted to go back on duty.”

Last spring, Evans decided to take another look into the department, yielding few results. His Special Committee on Police Misconduct and Personnel Management produced a series of six hearings and in October released a 100-plus-page report that amounted to a little more than warmed-over Booz-Allen findings and ideas. It brought up the same issues. Officers weren’t making it to the streets. “The challenge Ramsey has now is to try and get this system to work,” Evans says.

Even if Brazil and Ramsey get their 200 more cops, who knows where they will go? According to Brazil press secretary Jason Haber, there is still time to do the math. “Obviously, not all of them [can go on the streets],” Haber says. “There’s a strong perception there that we need more police officers on the streets. We believe that…what would be healthy would be to take a hard look at the department and its structural components.”

Another look into the department isn’t the answer. “Nothing makes me madder than continuing to hear the question being raised about how many officers do we really have on the street,” explains police watchdog Carl Rowan Jr. “We’ve heard that question asked and seen it dodged for years with at least three different chiefs. If management can’t answer that basic question, then we have a serious problem. We either have too many officers and officials who aren’t doing their job and carrying their weight, or we have a PSA system that’s simply unworkable. Or, most likely, we have some of both.”

Former New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton believes number crunching won’t tell the whole story. Bratton, who was at the helm of New York’s force during the city’s dramatic drop in crime and who initiated the zero-tolerance policies currently in vogue nationwide, says effective patrols have less to do with manpower than with the ability of the department’s rank and file to mobilize and respond to problem areas.

He says the flexibility of a department is key. The equation comes down to a basic idea: Figure out where the crimes are occurring and follow those figures. “Elected officials need to understand that the most effective department is the most fluid,” Bratton explains. “Crime moves around; needs move around. You have to be in a position to move your resources.”

In responding to the new blip in crime, Ramsey has installed what he calls his “summer mobile force”: a unit of officers willing to work a sixth day on overtime pay. He is also still in the process of moving homicide detectives out of headquarters into the districts and starting up his “focus-mission” teams, which are made up of officers hitting specific trouble areas of crime. He says a majority of these programs will be up and fully operating by the end of April.

Antoine Perry, an officer at the 7th District, worked a PSA all last year on the day shift. He made 300 arrests. Perry says that he worked roughly half his time on the street, but each arrest took anywhere from one to three hours out of that time—sitting behind a desk, doing paperwork. Sometimes his day would be taken up by just waiting for other cops to transport a suspect or, if he had to search a female suspect, waiting for a female cop to show up to conduct the pat-down. Any arrests amounted to a lot of time in court.

And Perry was the only officer on the day shift patrolling PSA 706. When he wasn’t out on the streets, no one else was, either. He asked for help, but he says he was rebuffed. “It didn’t bother me,” Perry says. “There was nothing I could do. It just showed me they don’t give a damn about the PSA. These officials don’t care. It’s politics….I just made all the arrests I could.”

Perry has since left the PSA to become an evidence technician for homicide detectives.CP