D.C. Council members batted away a proposal Tuesday that would pair the Metropolitan Police Department and its labor union to study retention and recruitment of D.C. officers, but they agreed that staffing is a key priority ahead of a potentially violent summer.
The council voted to table a bill introduced by David A. Catania, at-large independent, that calls for the creation of a six-member advisory commission, but only after extensive talks revealed diverging views about what is causing ranks to dwindle — and what can be done about it.
Mr. Catania said there is no harm in simple talks about police staffing, especially in light of Chief Cathy L. Lanier's warning that "we're going to have trouble" if the number of officers dips below 3,800.
Mr. Catania said the current force, at 3,869, will dip below 3,800 within a few months at its rate of attrition of 15 to 20 officers per month.
Academy recruitment is not expected to resume until Oct. 1, and it takes 12 months more to train the officers, putting the District in a situation that "seems to me somewhat reckless," Mr. Catania said.
"I don't understand why there would be an opposition to dialogue," he said.
Several council members said the proposed commission is unnecessary or diverts attention from the real source of the problem, namely funding.
Chief Lanier sent a letter opposing the proposal, citing a lack of funding and a retirement bubble that arrives 25 years after a hiring surge in the late 1980s as clear reasons why the force is at its lowest levels since June 2007.
"Staffing has been declining since June 2009 because there has been no new funding to adequately offset expected attrition," the chief's letter said.
Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said a board already exists "to study this exact issue" but that Mayor Vincent C. Gray and his predecessor, Adrian M. Fenty, did not appoint members.
Mr. Catania said the issue may extend beyond funding. Incentives such as alternate work schedules, education reimbursements or take-home vehicles could improve retention and recruitment, he said.
Although he said he did not expect to prevail on the issue, Mr. Catania called the opposition to dialogue "almost comical."
Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said she feared the proposal would create more bureaucracy. Harry Thomas Jr., Ward 5 Democrat, said the bill amounts to "micromanaging" of the chief's personnel.
"We should let her manage and run her department," he said.
Kristopher Baumann, president of the labor unit that represents Metropolitan Police officers, supports the proposal and hit back at the council members, saying they "effectively killed legislation that would have helped the District's short- and long-term ability to recruit and retain police officers."
"As the number of police officers continues to fall and crime continues to increase, we now know which politicians declined to take action to protect the residents of the District and helped cede our public safety decisions to Congress," he said.
Mr. Baumann pointed to official crime statistics that show year-to-date crime in the District is up by 6 percent compared with the same period in 2010.
Still, Chief Lanier praised the actions of the council.
"I appreciate the support of the council members who recognize that a commission to study attrition — which is much lower in the department than private industry and the federal government — is just a distraction from the important public safety efforts of the department, the council and the community," she said.
The discussion Tuesday also allowed council members to air their own solutions to staffing issues or the anticipated summer crime wave.
Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said he has seen the force shrink from about 4,800 to 3,800 officers during his 20-year council tenure. He introduced a bill last month that mandates a city police force of 4,000 or more officers at all times.
"If we had that law in place, the prior administration could not have not funded the police to put us in this position," Mr. Evans said.
He noted that the council decided in 2006 to fund 4,200 officers, but cut that number to 4,000 and let it lag further when it redirected funding.
"No one ever says I have too many police on the streets. It's always the opposite," he said. "Nothing would reflect worse on this city than an increase in crime. That will be the one issue that affects everyone."
Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, pointed to a funding issue of a different nature. With significant cuts to the District's summer jobs program for youths, idle hands will become "the devil's workshop," he said.
After the hearing, Mr. Graham said incidents such as the April 21 shooting of two young victims at the 1400 Block of V Street Northwest suggest gang activity "is moving to the red-hot stage."
"The difference is going to be palpable compared to prior summers," he said. "We've got a huge challenge ahead of us."
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