When D.C.’s new police chief Charles Ramsey testified in May before the House Government Oversight Committee on the District, he said that miserable pay and crappy working conditions were making his charges easy pickings for other departments. And just in case the lawmakers didn’t catch his drift, he recalled an incident in which a recruiting officer from the Prince George’s County police department had pulled up right in front of the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) 7th District station and started passing out business cards and flyers touting salaries and fringe benefits in Prince George’s County—a neighboring department poaching right on MPD’s turf.

“I look forward to the day when you’ll see MPD vehicles pulled up in front of Prince George’s County police stations, and we’re recruiting their officers,” Ramsey pledged.

Ramsey is attempting to change MPD’s problem with attrition. MPD officers leave so quickly and in such numbers that the department can’t keep its authorized force level—3,700 officers—on the payroll. “They leave faster than we can train ’em,” says an MPD sergeant. Last week, Ramsey appeared resigned to the department’s thinning ranks; he announced during testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee that MPD would make 3,600 its new benchmark number. Ramsey also requested $19 million to recruit new officers and provide incentives for talented veterans to stay put. Also last week, MPD’s new director of corporate communications, Kevin P. Morison, began production on a national recruiting video.

One of the major reasons the MPD can’t fill out its ranks is other departments’ tendency to skim the cream of D.C.’s crop. “We’re looked at by surrounding jurisdictions as a very good training base for their officers,” says Steve Cass, director of the Maurice T. Turner Jr. Education and Training Center, where MPD recruits are trained.

“It’s kind of like duck hunting; you go where the ducks are,” says P.G. County’s head recruiter, Captain William Richards, of his more blatant effort to snag MPD officers at 7D.

Richards’ duck hunt is paying off: Just last May, four MPD officers resigned to join other police departments, two in P.G. County. And more defections are coming. In the next few weeks, more than a dozen MPD officers are waiting to hear if they’ll be tapped to join the P.G. County department’s summer class of new recruits, according to an employee with the P.G. County police department’s recruiting office. The 7th District, in particular, may be devastated. Four of their most experienced cops—”the kind of officers everybody wants,” says 7D Commander Winston Robinson—are currently undergoing background checks for jobs in P.G. County.

The predatory recruitment would be just fine if MPD were surrendering its legions of desk jockeys and unmotivated officers. But it’s not. MPD’s best and brightest hop to other jurisdictions for any number of reasons—better pay, better benefits, better working conditions, and frustrations with MPD. Other departments, eager for experienced cops, grab many of MPD’s more industrious officers like so much low-hanging fruit. The streets of D.C. ultimately provide the police departments of other cities and counties with the best on-the-job training around.

Of the 87 officers who resigned from MPD in 1997, 19 cited employment at another law enforcement agency as their reason for leaving the force, according to MPD personnel Captain Ira Grossman. In other words, 20 percent of the officers resigning from MPD were heading to other counties, six to P.G. County alone. (And this number—a high percentage by any gauge of employees lost to the competition—is a misleadingly low proportion of the total number of resigning officers, which counts both top cops leaving for other opportunities and other, less desired officers who resign pre-emptively because they’re just hours away from being fired.)

“It’s frustrating to lose them,” acknowledges training academy director Cass. “But on the other hand, it’s reassuring to know that so many other jurisdictions…are jumping to get people who have been trained by MPD.”

The flattery doesn’t come cheap. It costs the District $20,000 train each new recruit, after which the freshman officer is under no obligation to stay in the city that paid for his education—unlike, say, in the city of Baltimore, where each newly trained cop is obligated to complete two years of service on the force or repay the city almost $10,000 for training. MPD’s policy is being reviewed, says Cass.

Grossman believes that MPD’s attrition rate is normal for a force surrounded by so many other agencies. “You have to think about how many dozens of police agencies we have within the District of Columbia,” he says. “Everything from…the Secret Service to the Park Police to the Capitol Police. We’re fighting for very scarce resources.” Grossman says people jump ship in part because working in the District is a relatively tough gig. “I might think that Park Police might be a little less stressful than working far Southeast on midnight duty.”

Montgomery County police officer Chris Johnson, formerly of MPD, sounds like an NBA free agent when asked to explain his career move. “It’s much better pay,” he says. “Plus I get a take-home police car.”

Although Ramsey plans to use part of the $19 million request to close the pay gap, he should keep in mind that problems far more nettlesome than salary inequities are driving MPD’s best officers off the force. “Pay is not the No. 1 priority in most police officers’ lives. You’re willing to take a cut in money if the other conditions of employment are satisfactory,” says Claude Beheler, a former MPD deputy chief who was nudged off the force in February 1997 by former MPD Chief Larry Soulsby. Beheler now works as a part-time magistrate in Fairfax County.

As much as anything, the city’s inability to provide basic policing equipment, say MPD officers, drives them into the arms of recruiters for other departments. “In D.C., to this day,” says Montgomery cop Johnson, “they would issue you a flashlight holder, but they wouldn’t issue you a flashlight. They would issue you a baton, but they wouldn’t issue you a baton holder….You had to pay for your own alterations and dry cleaning.”

The Byzantine promotion system in the District doesn’t create much loyalty, either. Many of the fleeing cops say stand-up officers who make arrests, show up for court, and put in overtime are not the ones who get ahead. An MPD rookie who reports having made more than 200 arrests in his brief tenure says the department holds his industriousness against him, while do-nothing colleagues skate on by. “If I miss one [court appearance], they would suspend me for my first time. Meanwhile, officers who don’t do anything—nothing happens to them. I’m out there busting my tail, and nobody else puts in the effort.”

“The fact is,” says a well-respected MPD sergeant considering early retirement, “the department has never rewarded the hard-working officer….There’s no excuse whatsoever for not making one arrest a week.”

Grossman says he’s heard those gripes before. “I would agree that the more cases you have, the more chances you have a missing of a court case.” But he suggests that supervisors order their inactive subordinates to shape up or ship out and will do anything to avoid having “a zero under their command.”

The promotion routine for MPD officers consists of a written exam and an evaluation of leadership skills. That’s it. With the exception of those officers applying to become an investigator or master patrol officer, promotion evaluations don’t take into account the officer’s street record, like arrest and closure rates, search warrants prepared, or cases successfully followed through to prosecution.

“[MPD’s] requirements for promotion do not touch upon completing the actual job of a policeman,” says Beheler, who made it through the ranks all the way to deputy chief. “You study the law—rules and policies and procedures…but it doesn’t gauge your performance on the job.”

P.G. County’s police promotion system, by contrast, factors in officers’ on-the-job performance records before they proceed to the promotion exam. No officer takes the test without first receiving a “promotable evaluation” from his or her immediate supervisor, according to spokeswoman Corporal Kara Kerr. The evaluation assesses “work you’ve actually done” and includes hard numbers such as arrests made in addition to more subjective factors such as appearance and demeanor. “It takes absolutely everything into consideration,” Kerr says.

MPD just finished the first year of a new system for reviewing its employees—the “performance management system”—on March 31. (The booklets are still being prepared for computer tabulation.) The new system formally evaluates each MPD officer with a rank under captain, assessing work based on eight to 10 different “performance dimensions,” such as written and oral communication, job knowledge, behavior at the scene of the crime, and “professionalism.” But, again, the hard numbers showing an officer’s work record are not part of the evaluation system.

Montgomery County’s Johnson, however, hesitates to knock MPD for its evaluation system, among other inadequacies. “I don’t have a whole lot of bad things to say about D.C. I got to do a lot of things I wanted to do; I got to do a lot of training I wanted to do.” And Montgomery County’s police department is no doubt the richer for it.CP

More from WCP