Whether you call it public safety or crime, the issue has become critical in the 2022 mayoral race. It took center stage at the first mayoral debate, with incumbent Mayor Muriel Bowser's opponents Robert White and Trayon White criticizing her record. Public officials and pundits have seized on a series of recent high-profile carjackings, as well as the incremental rise in the District's murder rate, to make it a wedge issue with voters.
Mayor Bowser's primary solution to this problem is relatively straightforward — she wants to hire more police to bring the District's number of officers from around 3,500 to 4,000. Bowser has been unhappy with the shrinking size of the police force and blames "defund the police" and Black Lives Matter activists for her inability to reduce crime over the last five years.
However, like many of her proposals, this plan not only fails to understand the problem at hand, but does not seem to be achievable, even on its own terms. When it comes to public safety, Bowser has consistently ignored the data on crime prevention and reduction. She has advocated for ad hoc solutions that have made the District slightly less safe over the last five years.
When we talk about adding nearly 500 net total police officers to the District, we have to remember how hard of a task this will be. According to Washington Post, "Police estimate that achieving that goal could take until 2031" — not exactly the solution that will handle an alleged crime wave in the here and now.
Bowser has often framed this as a funding issue, but it's not clear that this problem can be blamed on a reduction in funding. The budget for MPD remains high. Even during the height of calls to defund the police back in the summer of 2020, MPD's budget increased on paper by 1.6% (though that percentage is debatable depending on how you play with those numbers). MPD's budget may have been less in 2021, but that's mainly because of the department's rate of attrition, not a dramatic attempt by the Council to hack at the department. In fact, on request from Bowser an additional $5 million was allocated in 2021 to hire new officers. The DC Council may not be giving Bowser's administration the exact figure she's asking for, but they haven't been carrying out a significant downsizing either.
The reduction in officers is due to more systemic problems — ones being felt across the region. Police are facing the same problems as many District residents — we live in a very expensive city. DC is amid an affordable housing crisis (another problem Bowser has inadequately addressed), and many officers find the $61,000 average starting salary too unappealing to take on the job. Other cities in the DMV area, such as Arlington County and Montgomery County, have also noted reductions in their police forces, and their police budgets have increased.
Furthermore, Bowser's administration has contributed to policies that have made hiring more difficult. According to Dcist, in 2020 Bowser proposed a $44 million cut from a part of the budget known as "vacancy saving," which "…is money set aside for agencies to add staff for unfilled positions." This cut, which later became $50.1 million after input from the Council, made it more difficult for agencies, including MPD, to fill positions. This led to a hiring freeze that proponents of MPD often blame on the Defund movement. If filling these roles was so vital to Bowser, you would think she wouldn't have gutted the mechanism to reverse attrition in the department.
Even if we assume that police are the answer to crime, Bowser's plan to throw money at the problem will just not work. Her administration would have to pass substantial reforms in areas like housing and hiring to make this target even remotely feasible in the short term.
Furthermore: even if she hit this target, it still wouldn't help increase public safety. There is no solid correlation between the number of police officers in the District and a reduction in crime. Police officers have been declining in the District since 2008, but homicides have only been increasing in the last few years, and violent crimes have been trending downwards. You can take a look at the numbers for yourself (assembled courtesy of Gary from the Washington Socialist):
As we can see, crime rates do not correlate neatly with the number of officers in the District. Over the last 20 years, 2008 was the height of MPD's force size; yet as the police force dwindled in the years that followed, violent crimes and homicides trended downward as well. It's only in the last two years that we've seen a small increase in rates of crime and violence in the city.
(Note — please don't discount the size of DC as you consider historical crime statistics —even as DC's population dramatically increased, we still saw a remarkable reduction in the rate of crime and violence in the city over the last decade.)
Police officers are reflexively depicted as the solution to crime. Yet, we have some of the most police officers per capita in the country, in past years routinely beating out heavy hitters such as New York City and Los Angeles (although, due to attrition, that may not be the case this year). Although some of our officers have to engage in atypical duties such as escorting motorcades and "crowd control" during protests, it's hard to believe that we need more per capita than New York City (the site of the United Nations and their own protest movements). Proponents like Bowser are promoting increasing the force without assessing whether it's something we genuinely need, which is why many critics stress the need to audit what the MPD does before moving forward with an increase in officers.
On a systemic level, the real answer to dealing with this slight uptick in crime seems to have less to do with the number of police officers and more to do with the way we've failed to adequately address the social determinants of crime, such as poverty and inequality. High levels of wealth inequality have been shown to impact everything from how safe people feel walking home alone to the number of assaults and property crimes they experience. As Benoît De Courson and Daniel Nettle write in Nature: "Making the distribution of resources more equal or increasing social mobility is generally effective in producing a high cooperation, high trust equilibrium; increasing punishment severity is not."
It should surprise no one that the COVID-19 pandemic worsened existing inequities in the District and across the country. Black residents were facing high rates of poverty even before the pandemic began, and that number does not appear to have improved in recent years. Add to this increasing gentrification and a lack of affordable housing, and it's not a surprise that this small crimewave is occurring at a moment of increased financial hardship for many.
If Bowser wanted to reduce crime, as she claims she does, the data is clear that she should focus less on expanding MPD and more on reducing inequality in the District. However, her efforts in these other areas, although not nonexistent, are hyper-focused on prioritizing quick, expedient results over addressing the root causes.
For example, one of her supposedly signature anti-crime prevention programs, Building Blocks DC, which is an anti-gun prevention program that allocates funding to existing organizations as well as a DC-run "gun violence prevention emergency operations center," has been described by critics as confusing and disorganized. As DC Council member Charles Allen told the Post last year, "I want to support Building Blocks DC. But I'm struggling, as a lot of people are, to understand what it is."
A year later, her administration would classify Building Blocks DC as more of a "concept," and according to Post reporter Emily Davies "…instead touted People of Promise, a program that pairs about 200 at-risk DC residents with support teams from various city agencies." It almost appears that the mayor is rolling out new projects without ensuring putting in an effort for their long-term viability.
It's not that Bowser isn't receiving feedback about where to improve. The independent Criminal Justice Coordinating Council released a report this May with recommendations on reducing gun violence. These recommendations included, among many things: establishing a "Peace Room" where more agencies than just the police could coordinate responses to shootings; hiring more violence intervention workers; and piloting a guaranteed income program. Bowser has so far been hesitant to endorse any these strategies, saying the report was "an excellent document to build on" but that her administration's own response was forthcoming, conveniently most likely dropping closer to the primary election in late June.
We saw the same hesitancy with police reform, something you would think would be in Bowser's wheelhouse given her rhetoric. After the George Floyd uprising, an independent commission on policing was established that delivered a slew of recommendations to reform the department. Several years in, these recommendations have still largely not been met. According to the Post, one member of the commission, Patrice Sulton, has: "…accused lawmakers of 'abdicating their responsibility and refusing to intervene' while [the] police [have stalled] on making changes her group recommended."
Although the council has also failed to spearhead these reforms, Bowser seems content to fight for the opposite — the expansion of the MPD. She is advocating for the same punitive policies, prioritizing carceral solutions instead of peoples’ wellbeing, that have sparked this recent crime wave.
When it comes to keeping the District safe, DC currently has a leader whose primary solution for public safety (i.e., expanding the MPD without proper assessment) does not work and whose secondary solution (e.g., crime prevention) has not been effectively implemented. It's simple to wave your hand and say you will hire an unrealistic number of police officers, and that will make the world suddenly better. But reality is more complicated.
On June 21, District voters concerned about crime and violence in their communities have a simple question to ask themselves: do they want a Mayor who will make them feel better about crime, or one that will actually lower crime in the District? So far, Bowser has not released a plan, nor demonstrated a record, that shows she knows how to make residents safer.