blue, red, and white police lights
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/File

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A year ago this month, a movement to defund the police gained momentum in D.C. and around the country. Protesters that took to the streets in droves last summer called for diverting public dollars from the police budget to violence interruption and the social safety net.  

So what happened? Last summer, when protesters called for defunding the police, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration opted to increase dollars for police in her fiscal year 2021 budget (which took effect Oct. 2020) and zeroed out violence interruption and other programs. The Council revised the mayor’s proposal by cutting the Metropolitan Police Department budget by $32 million (or 5.4 percent) and redirecting $9.6 million dollars from police to violence interruption. 

This summer, the Bowser administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget (which takes effect in October) simultaneously cuts the MPD budget by nearly 6 percent and increases the budget for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (the leading violence interruption agency) by 172 percent. MPD’s budget would still be a lot larger than ONSE’s, and would employ a lot more people. MPD’s proposed operating budget is $514 million and the agency would have 4,823 employees. Meanwhile, ONSE’s proposed operating budget is $28 million and the agency would expand to 58 employees. It’s important to note that ONSE is a newer agency, created in 2017. 

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, says the mayor’s latest budget is a 180 degree turn compared to the previous one. 

“All of a sudden now, we actually see the mayor putting millions more into violence prevention and intervention, millions more into victim services, millions more into reentry services for our residents that are coming home. It is a very different budget,” Allen says. “And so what it means is we have a very different starting point, which is great. It feels like there is a better—I’ll never say perfect, but a better—shared vision.” 

Unlike last budget cycle, Allen is not going to spend a lot of time filling holes for violence interruption and other police alternative programs. So what will he and the Council do instead? During an interview with City Paper, Allen was pretty tightlipped about what he plans to do. He says he still is in the process of identifying cost savings. Something Allen seems to be looking at: new police hires.  

Police budget: New positions but overall budget reduction 

While the mayor reduces MPD’s overall operating budget, Bowser proposes hiring 135 new officers and doubling the size of the cadet program from 100 to 200. Still, Police Chief Robert Contee expects to end FY2022 with 3,460 officers, which he says will be D.C.’s smallest police force in two decades. “We expect attrition to continue to outpace hiring because the recruiting and hiring process had to be shut down this year. We do not anticipate being able to resume hiring until April 2022—the result of the FY2021 budget cuts will be a net loss of more than 200 sworn members,” Contee told the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety last Friday. (The monthslong hiring process means some new positions are unfunded in the FY2022 budget.) 

During questioning, Allen pointed out that the mayor cut the police budget by $3.1 million in her FY2021 supplemental budget and is now proposing cutting $71 million in her FY2022 budget, which is being identified as “vacancy savings.” “Didn’t you just defund yourself?” Allen asked. The chief replied: “What I would say to that is unfortunately, we are not able to keep pace with attrition at this point … The other piece of that is the hiring pipeline that comes along with it. If the budget is approved tomorrow, we don’t turn the spigot on and recruits start raining out of the sky.” 

After Contee expressed concern over the months-long recruitment pipeline, Allen now questions whether MPD can even fill the 235 positions Bowser outlined in her FY2022 budget. Allen supports the cadet program because officers generally reflect the communities they serve—more than half of the current cadets are women; 98 percent are persons of color; and more than half are from Wards 7 and 8. Contee is confident there is enough interest to fill the 100 cadet slots. “If we were approved to hire 300, could we make that number? I don’t know. We often get a lot of people who are very interested. ‘Qualified’ is a different discussion,” Contee added about general hires. 

Allen is currently trying to prevent another scenario where MPD identifies vacancy savings in its supplemental budget because the agency didn’t hire positions. “That’s $3 million dollars that could have been spent on other public safety initiatives,” he says of the FY2021 supplemental budget. 

While pleased to see investments in violence interruption and the social safety net, Christy Lopez—a former U.S. Justice Department official and current professor at Georgetown’s Law Center who co-chairs the D.C. Police Reform Commission—was disappointed to see the mayor’s budget include new officer positions. “The way that hits my ear is sort of this reflexive like ‘I have to show support for the police and the way I show support for police is by saying we need more police.’ And I think we really have to break that cycle and that connection, because it does not mean that you are anti-police to want less police,” Lopez says. 

The D.C. Police Reform Commission recommended an audit on the number of police officers D.C. actually needs. “I know from talking to MPD officials that there are a lot of times where they’ve got a budget for more officers, but not for more civilian positions. And what they really need is someone who’s a curriculum specialist, for example, or a computer specialist or a crime analyst,” Lopez says. She requested a more “thoughtful” hiring process, writ large. It’s hard for Lopez to celebrate an increase to ONSE, for example, when we don’t know the right balance between officers and violence interrupters. 

Budget for violence interruption: Largest one-time increase

The same year the mayor declared gun violence a public health emergency is the same year Bowser invested the most money in the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement in a single year. “In the 20 plus years of doing this work, I never thought we’d be at a place where now we can really really provide some support and services and sustain this work. I’m just in awe,” said ONSE Director Delbert McFadden in a budget oversight hearing on Friday. 

The biggest investment the office makes is in violence intervention, which accounts for 40 percent of its FY2021 budget. ONSE contracts with three community-based organizations whose violence interrupters try to identify and stop conflicts before they turn deadly. McFadden did note some challenges with hiring violence interrupters and case managers. “We really need credible individuals for this work,” he said. 

Perhaps the most notable item in the mayor’s budget is the $6.8 million for a pilot program that aims to direct 911 calls related to mental health distress, traffic incidents, and parking complaints to specialized workers instead of law enforcement. Lawmakers and advocates alike believe the program shows a lot of promise. The police chief is cautiously optimistic. “I am hopeful that it will free our officers up to do more community engagement, more focusing on violent crime issues,” Contee says. 

Contee worries that a reduction to the police force would mean an increased response time to 911 calls. (He says the average response time to priority 1 calls—the highest priority for serious crimes—has already increased by more than a minute since 2019, from just over five minutes to now more than six minutes.) But if the program works as intended, officers will be responding to fewer calls overall so they could get to priority 1 calls faster. 

Allen says he received assurances from the Office of Unified Communications during a budget oversight hearing that the agency will be evaluating calls as they come through so agencies can quickly course correct if need be, thus ensuring the success of the program. “They’re literally going through every single call to hear about it, evaluate—’Did they make the right decision? What was the outcome?’” Allen says. “And then they go talk with their partners at DBH or whoever else to then say, ‘All right, what happened? Who got dispatched? What was the resolution to that?’” 

This is part of an ongoing newsletter series on the mayor’s budget. Read the others:

The next newsletter related to the budget will be about housing. Have any other budget-related questions? Let me know by responding to this newsletter or emailing me directly. 

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips?

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