With murder rate rising, D.C. struggles with diminishing police force

WASHINGTON – As D.C.’s murder rate continues to rise, its police department is struggling with low staffing numbers, which could hurt public safety in the nation’s capital.

The city’s police force has dropped to 3,786 sworn officers, according to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office.

In 2012 on WTOP, Police Chief Cathy Lanier warned that dropping below 3,800 officers could mean “trouble” for the city. The chief said with the low numbers, she would have to “be creative” and make sacrifices.

“We need to be adequately staffed, properly trained and be the best equipped police department in the United States. Right now, we’re not,” said Delroy Burton, president of the D.C. Police Union.

In 1989 and 1990, the department hired more than 1,000 officers in 18 months. Now, as those officers become eligible for retirement, many are choosing not to stick around. The department blames a “retirement bubble” for the low numbers, but Burton said trouble inside the department is also leading to more departures.

“The idea that the minute someone reaches retirement eligibility they will leave their employment is just ridiculous, but that’s what’s happening here at MPD,” Burton said.

The union president said officers complain of heavy-handed discipline and an unhealthy working environment that devalues people.

“This is not morale, this is not management methods, none of the trends we’re seeing support that,” said Kevin Donahue, Deputy Mayor of Public Safety for the District of Columbia.

“The attrition that we’ve seen over the past year and over the past two years has not impeded the chief of police’s ability to deploy forces,” Donahue said.

One concern right now, Donahue said, is paying overtime over the long term to keep enough officers on the streets. He said there’s a plan in action to increase the number of officers to 4,000 over the next several years.

When contacted, the police department didn’t provide a response to the union’s claims but instead referred WTOP to a Dec. 3 letter published by the police chief.

In the letter, Lanier explained that the “retirement bubble” is something the department has “been anticipating, planning for, and publicly discussing for more than six years.”

Lanier also said since January 2014, 764 officers have separated from the force, and more than half of those who left, retired.

Lanier said the department has hired 562 officers and increased the number civilians working at the department by 49. The civilian staffers, the chief said, will allow many sworn members to go from administrative functions and return to operations.

With a lot of negative attention going to police departments around the nation, many of them have increased their focus on getting officers into the communities they serve, to build relationships and trust among residents.

Burton said with a reduced staff, one sacrifice is officers don’t have time to get into the community because they are responding to one call after another.

Retention is also an issue that the department is trying to tackle. The city plans to spend $2.5 million to provide education incentives for officers.  

Burton contends that while education assistance is great for young officers, it isn’t enough to keep officers who reach retirement age.

“You have to put something in there to sweeten the pot so they will stay,” Burton said.

Donahue said among other options, the city is looking into extending those educational incentives to the children of police officers.

Burton said a deferred retirement program would be a better option, when it comes to convincing older officers to remain on the force.

To stabilize the force, Burton said the department also needs to offer salaries which are among the highest in the nation.

In the District, the murder rate is up 53 percent. In the letter, Lanier said serious crime is down 5 percent, which includes a 5 percent drop in assaults with a dangerous weapon.

There has been a 6 percent drop in serious sex assaults, according to the police chief.

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Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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