Police chief Robert Contee standing masked flanked by two officers in foreground
Reformers say MPD Chief Robert Contee has failed to make many changes to the department, and lawmakers haven't forced the issue. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Metropolitan Police Department officers were nearby when 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney was shot and killed in Congress Heights on July 16. They were also close by when shots were fired near Nationals Park as a game was being played on July 17. Yet Mayor Muriel Bowser plans to address the rising homicide rate in D.C. with even more police officers.

Bowser announced during a press conference yesterday that she will request $11 million from the D.C. Council to hire 170 new MPD officers by fiscal year 2022. She wants 20 of those new cops in place by October. Bowser said she hasn’t figured out where the $11 million will come from but will have a plan by the time the D.C. Council takes its second vote on the budget on Tuesday, Aug. 3.

Asked whether her administration has data indicating that more officers equals less crime, Bowser talked around the question. “We know we want more police presence, and the only way we’re sustaining the presence that we need right now is the use of overtime, and that’s not a sustainable solution,” she said.

Pressed further, she said there is “certainly data to show that D.C. residents want police in their neighborhoods.”

There is some solid data showing that increased police presence in a particular area will decrease crime in that area, but research is mixed on whether an increased number of cops brings down overall crime rates. Some experts say the number of officers is less important than how they’re used.

Loose Lips finds the request for more officers and more money a bit curious considering Bowser’s proposed fiscal year 2022 budget reduced MPD’s salary budget by about $71 million. MPD Chief Robert Contee said during the budget hearing in June that the proposed budget reflects what they can “responsibly hire for.”

The request for more officers is at odds with the work of the D.C. Police Reform Commission. One of the PRC’s central recommendations is to reduce the size of the force by at least the rate of attrition and decenter MPD’s role in public safety. MPD had 3,654 sworn members as of April.

So far this year, violent crime has decreased slightly compared to 2020, and the property crime rate remains the same. But D.C. has seen 112 homicides to date in 2021, compared to 108 by this time last year. Homicides in the District have steadily increased over the past four years and hit a 16-year high in 2020.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Bowser and Contee also pointed to the number of pending cases in the D.C. court system as another factor in the rise in homicides. In January 2020, 5,707 cases were pending in D.C. Superior Court, Bowser said Wednesday. In June 2021, 10,199 cases were pending.

Bowser has previously called on the D.C. Superior Court to fully reopen and Contee has repeated his predecessor’s accusations that the system is allowing people arrested for violent crimes back on the streets. Asked to clarify whether their claim is that people awaiting trial are committing new crimes while they’re released, Bowser said “they could be.”

“There are some,” Contee said. “Yes, we know that for certain.”

But when asked Wednesday for data on recidivism for people waiting for the courts to resolve their cases, neither Bowser nor Contee could provide it. NBC4 reporter Mark Segraves said during the presser that he’s been asking for years for data that supports the notion that people charged with violent crimes are committing new crimes before their cases resolve.

After Bowser said she would provide reporters with the data, Contee said he would “work with his team to see what we can release.”

“We’ll release what we can release,” he said, adding that 500 of the approximately 10,000 cases pending in Superior Court are felonies.

Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring responded to the criticism earlier this week in a written statement that notes about 700 people are detained on felony charges and awaiting trial “in cases where the Court felt if released, the individuals may pose a danger or risk to the community.”

Bowser added that swelling caseloads in the Pretrial Services Agency, which is responsible for supervising people released from jail while they wait for their charges to be resolved, means that the “supervision is spread more thin.” LL will update this article if the Bowser administration provides the requested recidivism data.

Bowser said Wednesday she’s not trying to point fingers at the court. Rather, she said “we’re about making sure that every piece of the ecosystem is working to demonstrate to our citizens that this whole process is a legitimate one that will work for their public safety.”

More cops and a focus on the increase in pending court cases is only part of Bowser’s response. She also highlighted the Building Blocks DC program, which targets a small number of people who the government believes are responsible for a large number of crimes.

Building Blocks DC Director Linda Harllee Harper said the program has started partnering with community organizations to provide person- and place-based services as well as an anti-gun violence public information campaign.

Building Blocks DC also provides community grants. Harllee Harper said she’s awarded $750,000 so far and will announce more winners Friday. Bowser proposed a $59 million budget for Building Blocks DC.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said he has not seen Bowser’s request and could not comment on it. He’s holding a roundtable discussion on gun violence today with a focus on Building Blocks DC.

Mitch Ryals (tips? mryals@washingtoncitypaper.com

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