Metropolitan Police Department vehicles behind police tape
Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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D.C. residents might have experienced a bout of déjà vu this week. About nine months ago, Mayor Muriel Bowser was calling for $11 million to hire 170 more Metropolitan Police Department officers. And again this week, Bowser is highlighting her proposed 2023 budget that includes $30 million to hire 347 officers and what she calls a “pathway to 4,000 sworn officers.” When factoring in attrition, the investment would only net 36 new officers, and it would take years to increase the 3,500-member force to 4,000.

When asked last year, Bowser could not provide any sort of analysis indicating why the District needed more cops. Similarly this week, WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle asked whether anyone had dug into how MPD officers spend their time in order to come up with the magic number 4,000. He paraphrased Bowser’s city administrator and former deputy mayor for public safety Kevin Donahue, who previously said “it’s not how many officers you have but how you use them.”

Again, Bowser demurred.

“You want somebody outside to tell this 30-year police officer how to deploy MPD to best police neighborhoods?” Bowser replied, referring to Chief Robert Contee, who stood by her side. “That’s ridiculous. Is that your question?”

The condescension in Bowser’s response is familiar to most anyone who’s asked her to provide objective data to support her decisions. See the reopening of schools, for example. Her plea for more officers is also at odds with the D.C. Police Reform Commission’s recommendation to reduce the force by at least the rate of attrition.

To make her case, Bowser said a force of 4,000 officers would help increase police presence in neighborhoods and claimed that they would drive down response times to 911 calls, which she said have recently ticked up. Bowser also claimed that a force of 4,000 officers will equate to a decrease in violence. But crime statistics don’t support a correlation between the number of officers and the crime rate.

MPD’s sworn force has decreased from about 4,000 in 2009, to about 3,800 in 2015 (the lowest number in a decade, according to the Washington Post), to 3,500 this year. The violent and property crime rates in D.C. have trended downward in the past 20 years, according to FBI data.

So what makes 4,000 the magic number? 

“It’s my number,” says former Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans, who called out of frustration that the debate playing out this week was devoid of his institutional knowledge. Evans reminds City Paper that he introduced legislation in 2011 that would have required MPD to maintain a force of 4,000 officers. The bill received a hearing in the judiciary committee, chaired at the time by then-At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, but never made it to the full Council.

Evans echoes Bowser in saying there’s no need to study how officers use their time. The number 4,000 is based on what police told him they needed to fully staff each of the seven public service areas as well as the specialized divisions across three shifts, seven days a week.

“Statistics can be used to prove whatever point of view you’re trying to get to,” Evans says. “That’s a fundamental principle of statistics.”

But calls for some sort of objective analysis of police staffing in D.C. dates at least to 2012 under then-Mayor Vince Gray, and D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson recommended it again in 2017

In making her pitch, Patterson, who served with Evans on the Council, cited similar studies in other major cities that analyzed the percentage of time patrol officers spend on calls for service. Officers in Kansas City, Missouri, spent 35 percent of their time; in San Francisco they spent 30 to 50 percent; and Austin, Texas, officers averaged 57 percent each week. MPD’s average at the time was 22 percent. The discrepancy raised the question of whether MPD’s patrol staffing is appropriate, Patterson noted in 2017.

Patterson tells City Paper she spoke with former Chief Peter Newsham about collaborating on a staffing analysis, but it never materialized. Now, her office is considering hiring an outside firm to do the work.

“I think staffing is one important judgment call for a leader to make, including a police chief, so I understand her deference to Chief Contee,” Patterson says. “But I also would think any leader like a police chief would want as much data as possible.”

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