Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray Credit: Darrow Montgomery

We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray just dropped a new bill aimed at increasing the Metropolitan Police Department’s force to a total of 4,200 officers. As police departments across the country are struggling to recruit and retain officers, how exactly is Gray proposing to do that? By authorizing the mayor to fund recruitment and retention benefits, repealing some recently passed police reforms, and poking Chairman Phil Mendelson in the eye on the way there.

Gray’s bill would restore the D.C. Police Union’s ability to use officer discipline as a bargaining chip in its collective bargaining negotiations with the city. It would also eliminate the newly created position of deputy auditor for public safety in the Office of the D.C. Auditor. Both accountability measures were specifically championed by Mendelson as part of a major police reform bill that passed earlier this year, which Gray voted for.

Gray’s statement, released yesterday along with his bill, made no mention of the chairman, but it’s no secret that there is no love lost between the two since Mendelson removed Gray as chair of the Committee on Health.

“We can reform policing and improve public safety at the same time,” Gray said in a press release announcing the bill. “It is clear that some well-intended efforts to reform policing have had unintended consequences. Police attrition is having a deleterious effect on public safety. As public officials we often must do two things at once. In this instance, we must continue our reform efforts, but at the same time not preside over a dwindling police department and eroding public safety.”

The announcement was met with praise from the D.C. Police Union and Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, the newly appointed chair of the judiciary and public safety committee. Pinto said in a Tweet that she plans to hold a hearing on the bill, but Mendelson is confident the bill in its current form won’t get far.

“It’s a bad bill,” the chairman says. “The only motivation I can ascribe to it is that Councilmember Gray is taking advantage of the rhetoric around fighting crime. It’s a great headline to say, ‘more police for more safety,’ but that doesn’t necessarily follow.”

Phil Mendelson Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

Mendelson compares Gray’s efforts to those House Republicans have made to overturn the revised local criminal code. “Crime is great for demagoguery,” he says.

He says that while he thinks the current force of 3,386 is too small, he doesn’t know what the appropriate number is and has asked D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson to analyze MPD’s staffing and make a recommendation.

“We’ll see what the auditor comes up with, but saying that it should be 4,100 or 4,200 is not the right way to do it,” Mendelson says, adding that the previous police academy class had only about 15 of its 30 spots filled. “Put in a bill for 5,000 officers, or a bill for 10,000. That’s not going to make a difference because the police can’t get applicants.”

Patterson expects to deliver recommendations based on a staffing analysis later this year. She will start interviewing candidates for the deputy auditor for public safety job in the coming weeks. Gray’s bill would have no effect, as she doesn’t need statutory authority for the position, she notes. “I have sufficient authority to handle any personnel issues,” Patterson says. “I waited for the legislation to pass before starting the search because I wanted the Council to be clear on what they were asking for. I can have as many deputy auditors as I have [full time employees].”

Asked for her thoughts on Gray’s bill, Patterson simply suggested that councilmembers and their staffs revisit her office’s 2022 report that explains how issues with MPD’s disciplinary system have forced the department to retain officers deemed a “threat to safety” and cost taxpayers $14.3 million over nearly six years.

The so-called 90-day rule was among the issues that the auditor’s report identified. The rule says MPD cannot impose discipline against an officer after 90 days from the time the department opens an investigation. Patterson found that 12 out of the 36 disciplinary decisions her office reviewed were overturned because MPD failed to meet the 90-day deadline. The Police Reform Commission, which was created by legislation that Gray introduced, recommended that the 90-day deadline be increased to 180 days, and the Council upped the timeframe to 120 days. Gray’s bill would lower it back down to 90.

The bill also authorizes Mayor Muriel Bowser to fund recruitment and retention efforts without additional Council approval and requires MPD to deploy officers to “neighborhoods experiencing higher levels of violent crime” as the size of the force increases, but it doesn’t specify the number of new officers or the level of crime in a given area that would trigger those requirements. Gray’s spokesperson, Chuck Thies, says the bill intentionally leaves the requirements vague and “speaks to the accepted wisdom that more police improves public safety, in particular in neighborhoods experiencing high levels of violent crime.”

Thies has previously worked for the D.C. Police Union as a consultant and helped facilitate a meeting between Mendelson and the union president, Gregg Pemberton. Thies says he hasn’t had a professional relationship with the union since September 2021.

“No one from the DC Police Union lobbied or had a hand in writing the legislation introduced by Councilmember Gray,” Thies says in an email. “I have been clear and very public about my concerns with public safety and whacktivist attacks on police for many, many years.”

Gray’s press release links the decline in D.C.’s police force (currently at 3,386, down from a peak of just over 4,000 around 2008) to the rising homicide count and violent crime rate. But research on the relationship between the size of a police force and the crime rate is mixed at best, and some studies conclude that how a department uses its officers, rather than the size of the force, has a bigger impact on crime. Not to mention that in 2022, violent crime in D.C. dropped by 3 percent, and while homicides still surpassed 200, they dropped by 10 percent.

Thies concedes that if the auditor’s report or other research can identify the “optimal number of MPD officers, then the legislation or policy can be amended.”

In response to Gray’s bill, the DC Justice Lab, a nonprofit policy shop, is seeking to reframe the debate in terms of D.C. police officers per Black residents. Their analysis shows that the ratio of sworn MPD officers to Black residents has increased since 2000 from 10.4 to 11.1 officers per 1,000.

“There’s a lot of fear mongering going on here,” Justice Lab Executive Director Patrice Sulton said as she read through Gray’s announcement. “To keep doubling down isn’t going to help us, though it might make people feel better.”