DC’s police chief says recruiting officers is harder due to new laws

Standing at 3,400 officers, D.C. police Chief Robert Contee testified Thursday that it could take a decade to get the department to full strength as it needs 4,200. Making recruiting officers even more challenging, he told city leaders, are new city policies that increase officer accountability.

In a daylong oversight hearing of D.C.’s police department, city council members heard from members of the public and agencies that work with city police before hearing from the chief and department leadership. The event was part of an annual oversight hearing.

However, one of the common themes that continued to come up was that the police department is nearing its lowest number of sworn officers in its history.

“Really, it’s just not an attractive industry anymore,” said D.C. Police Union President Gregg Pemberton to Councilmember Brooke Pinto (Ward 2), who chairs the Committee for Public Safety and Justice.

Lawmakers made additions to the budget to allow D.C. police to incentivize recruits with a $20,000 signing bonus in order to stay competitive with neighboring departments. That signing bonus attracted 97 new officers and other benefits such as tuition reimbursement have also helped, the chief told lawmakers. But Pemberton also agreed with the union president that D.C.’s department lacks protections for officers that prospective hires can find elsewhere.

“I mean, we’ve lost collective bargaining rights. We’ve lost our process rights and our due process in terms of being able to defend ourselves against frivolous accusations,” he added.

Pemberton expanded on that point to say there used to be a 90-day deadline for the department to issue discipline against officers. However, now to offer more time for investigation, it can take years before an officer is cleared of wrongdoing.

“Meanwhile, they can’t apply for promotions or specialized units that would impact their ability to testify through the U.S. Attorney’s Office,” he said.

Discipline taken against officers in DC is also made public, which Pemberton argues is not the case for any other civil servants in the city, including lawmakers.

Contee testified his concerns about the number of sworn officers as the department continues to lose experience through retirement.

Ward 5 Councilmember Zachary Parker asked, “If there was legislation suggesting we’re going to hire 4,200 officers in the District. Is it as easy as that? Making sure we hit that number given everything we’ve talked about with the difficulties the agency is facing and retaining and attracting officers?”

Contee responded: “It will be at least a decade before we get anywhere close to that.”

One bright spot is the city’s cadet program, which expects to be at 150 candidates by the end of the year.

Contee testified in agreement with Pemberton that legislation passed in the last few years has created challenges for hiring, like barring officers from reviewing any body camera footage before writing a report.

“We don’t have to have this. The reason, in part, it was put in to begin with was for things like officer accountability. Now, certainly, if we’re talking about a police shooting or that kind of thing, I get that. But if an officer who responded and just wants to recollect what was relayed to him or what happened in a matter of a couple of seconds, to me that’s something very easy that we could change to be supportive of our officers,” he said.

Contee also suggested that the city’s restrictive policies on police pursuits result in officer hesitation.

“We already have a very, very, very restrictive vehicular pursuit policy in the District of Columbia, one of the most restrictive in the country. But we added a layer of legislation on that to say that if the police officer has to believe that no person will be injured as a result of the police pursuit. How do I know as a police officer that nobody will be injured as a result of police pursuit,” Contee asked.

Four members of the council who took part in the oversight hearing noted the majority of the public they hear from say they want more police officers, but there are mixed opinions on their decision to remove police from schools.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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