More Police or Smarter Policing? Council Chair Mendelson Pays a Visit to Capitol Hill -
“More Officers Are Not Necessarily the Answer”
by Larry Janezich
Council Chair Phil Mendelson told Capitol Hill residents something they did not want to hear last night. “There is nothing in the short term the city council can do” to make city streets safer, he told the group of roughly 70 people gathered for ANC 6A’s regular meeting. “In the short term,” Mendelson said, “this is the administration’s responsibility and the police department’s.” What the council can do, he added, was remove barriers in the law and increase funding if it is not enough.
Mendelson’s visit to ANC 6A was prompted by killing of Jason Emma in a suspected robbery near Lincoln Park on Christmas Eve in the 1200 block of C Street, NE. The ANC, chaired by David Holmes, wanted to know what could be done to increase the number of officers on the street and wanted an explanation of why Mendelson and the city council – except Councilmember Wells – voted in December against additional funds to hire more police officers.
Mendelson responded that more officers are not necessarily the answer to addressing the recent surge in crime in and around Capitol Hill. DC already has the highest officer to citizen ratio in the country. He stated that “research shows that swift and certain justice” is the best way to fight crime. To that end, he cited a number of things city government can do, including prosecuting more quickly, training prosecutors to prosecute gun and violent crime effectively, train police to make better arrests and collect better evidence, encourage courts to require pretrial detention, reduce recidivism, and do more to confront truancy.
Last year, Mendelson said, police hiring had stopped because of “bad budgeting.” Chief Lanier had failed to take police force longevity bonuses into account in the police department budget request, leaving a shortfall in funding. The city council vote in December was to disapprove reprogramming fees from traffic photo enforcement, and instead lower the fines. The Mayor did not want to lower fees and requested the fees be left in place and used to hire additional police. The council voted against that request.
Mendelson said he expected additional funds for hiring police to be approved next month. But he added that even with those funds and new police officers it would not mean more police officers in Capitol Hill residential neighborhoods. Chief Lanier’s request for more officers is to address crime in emerging hot spots such as H Street, NE, Chinatown, and to allocate officers based on the city’s recent population increase.
Nor would increased funds speed up the hiring of police. Mendelson said that the optimum police hiring rate is 30 hires a month – “hiring 60 officers a month lowers standards and increases the number of corrupt officers and creates a retirement bubble in the years ahead.” Both those effects were observed in hiring bulges in 1972-1973 and 1980-1991. Mendelson says he expects 300 new officers to be hired this year, but also that the force is on the cusp of a retirement bubble.
The council chair stood by his claim that crime statistics have fallen since 2007, although violent crime has risen by 3% over the past two years.
One resident, Catalin Florea, who has analyzed recent crime statistics, spoke in support of some of Mendelson’s claims, noting that homicides have fallen while the number of officers has been stable. He also noted that DC has the highest police per capita ratio in the country and suggested that dealing with crime is not a question of increased numbers; the city council should push for smarter policing, including surveillance at Metro stops and catching crime when it happens. (Independently, this author has previously noted that some residents familiar with the 12/26 shooting found police rapid response wanting.)
Florea also noted the failure of police to make statistics on crimes involving the use of guns available – although such statistics are available and were referred to by Mendelson, and hence must be compiled and available on some level. Still, the lack of statistics makes in difficult if not impossible to determine the MPD has adopted gun-focused enforcement – that is, an emphasis on responding to and clearing crimes involving the use of guns.
Some residents raised concerns of police indifference when called for service. There is anecdotal evidence and occasional reference by officers to a moral problem within the force. Mendelson observed that the police union contract with the city expired two years ago and has not been renegotiated in a timely fashion because of disagreements between police management and the Fraternal Order of Police. In addition, a pay freeze has been in effect for several years.
Mendelson said, “Robberies and homicides are way too high. Police need to deal with this.” In response the question as to whether he thinks the police are effective, Mendelson said “yes,’ but he reiterated that the answer to crime is not necessarily more police on the street.” “Government has to find the best solution that will make people feel safe,” Mendelson told the group. “People say crime is going up. Crime is not going up. It makes no sense in the short term to say we need more officers. What we can do is support the Chief, support increased use of technology, provide resources to close cases, and be proactive regarding recidivism.”
It seems clear that Mendelson rejects, at least at this point in time, Ward 6 Councilmember’s contention that more police are the answer to the recent spike in crime on the Hill. Given Mendelson’s description of how new officers would be allocated even if hired, it seems the desired effect of introducing more patrol officers to the streets of Capitol Hill would be minimal.
On the other hand, other options such as more cameras; gun-focused enforcement; and incentivizing the police to pursue and investigate crimes that have a connection or common markers (automatic weapons, PCP) rather than as isolated events that occur on a shift and are in need of only the proper paperwork – filed sometimes by a surly or uncooperative officer – are all strategies in need of more discussion.