DC police chief cites slower response times in push to hire officers

D.C.’s police chief says District residents are feeling the effects of staffing shortages in his department, including waiting for officers to arrive during emergencies.

In a budget oversight hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, police Chief Robert Contee said ongoing staffing shortages — the department is at its lowest levels in two decades — are dramatically hampering the time in which an officer can reach a person calling for help.

Based on information from the Office of Unified Communications, which runs the 911 center, the response time to “Priority 1 calls,” which are the most serious incidents, increased by almost 90 seconds in 2021, Contee told committee chair Charles Allen, who represents Ward 6.

“Ninety seconds may not seem like a long time if you were watching a hearing, but if you’re the victim of a violent crime waiting for police to arrive, that can seem like an eternity,” Contee said. “And, if you have committed a violent crime, 90 additional seconds to get away probably sounds pretty good.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year includes $30 million to recruit and retain officers, and she wants the force increased to 4,000 sworn officers.

Read More: D.C. Police use DOJ funding to hire 25 more officers in 2022

“We are currently at the lowest staffing level in the past two decades,” said Contee. “Since the end of FY 20, just 18 months ago, MPD has had a net loss of 280 officers. Since the retirement bubble started in 2014, the department is down more than 450 officers.”

Contee said the goal is to bring the department up to 4,000 officers while maintaining strong hiring practices “that result in the best officer candidates,” but acknowledges “returning the department to a stable and appropriate staffing level will not be a quick process.”

If the council fully funded Bowser’s budget this year, the department says, MPD would have a net gain of 36 officers at the end of September 2023.

“With the commitment to fund ongoing retention and recruitment strategies, we project that we would reach 3,800 officers in 2028 and 4,000 officers in 2031,” said Contee.

The staffing shortage is also requiring an exorbitant amount of overtime, the chief said.

“These demands have required MPD officers to work more than 1.1 million overtime hours in each of the past two years — this is more than the annual totals for at least the past decade and the equivalent of more than 550 additional officers each year,” said Contee.

Contee said the use of overtime is a necessary tool for a public safety agency, and some overtime is inevitable. But he added, “It is not the best solution as it contributes to employee stress, illness, injury and burnout.”

Amid reports of an increase in people killed by D.C. police in 2021, the chief noted that stress brought about by overtime resulted in an increased use of deadly force.

Contee said the mayor’s budget includes several recruitment and retention incentives, including a temporary housing stipend for new recruits living outside the District, education advancement opportunities and a program to allow officers who live in D.C. to have a dedicated take-home vehicle.

“A take-home vehicle program is a common incentive in other police forces recruiting from the same pool of applicants,” Contee said.

Contee said police funding is only one aspect of the mayor’s budget: “I recognize that there are many competing priorities in budgeting for the District of Columbia — however, a safe city makes all other progress possible.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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