Time to Turn the Crown Vics into Honda Civics
June 24, 2020 by Ezra Tanen
by Josh Goode
The D.C. City Council Should Abandon the Proposed Increase in Police Funding and Begin Dismantling a Broken System.
As of 2016, Washington D.C. has spent more per capita on police and corrections than any other municipality. Even when compared to States, D.C. is among the top spenders. D.C.’s high spending on police is especially relevant now that the Nation’s attention has been captured by the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans at the hands of police officers . Municipalities are beginning to consider policy positions that would have been unimaginable just a month ago. A majority of the Minneapolis city council supports some form of defunding of their city’s police department. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has already committed to abandoning proposed increases to the city’s police budget. They are not alone, cities across the country are debating the issue of police funding. Even though defunding of police departments has been a key platform component for the Movement for Black Lives’ since 2016, many cities, including Washington D.C., have increased their police budgets over the last four years. COVID-19 and the national protests lead by the Black Lives Matter movement, provides a unique opportunity for Washington D.C. to reconsider that choice.
Traditionally, D.C. budget season begins in October with the Mayor’s draft and ends in May after several rounds of Council revisions. The budget provides local politicians, organizers, advocates, and citizens the best opportunity to advance their funding priorities for the following year. This year, the Mayor is proposing to increase the police budget by $18,000,000. If this were a normal cycle, the increase would likely go uncontested. This year, however, advocates for police reform have a chance to capitalize on a delayed budget process and the national fervor surrounding police policy. The Council has additional reasons to heed the advice of advocates. The people of Washington D.C. want the money spent elsewhere and the police do not need funding increases when officers frequently engage in tasks that they are ill suited for.
One unique feature of the D.C. budget process is the Mayor’s listening sessions. First instituted by Mayor Bowser in 2015, the listening sessions give residents a chance to share their priorities directly with the Mayor as she finalizes her draft. The forums are informal. Citizens sit at tables with a member of the Mayor’s staff and together they divvy up the city’s resources into big buckets such as “education,” “housing,” and “government operations.” In what can only be compared to a high school election, Deputy Mayors stand at a podium and pitch their departments. Each one argues that they deserve a bigger slice of the pie. We do not have the data from the most recent meetings, but we do have the results from last year.
Over a thousand residents participated in the budget meetings for the 2020 budget. Like every year, they ranked their concerns. Education was the resident’s number one concern and was given the biggest slice of the pie. Housing came in second. Health and Human Services, Jobs & Economic Opportunity, Public Safety, and lowly Government Operations followed in respective order.
It is worth comparing how the budget winds up comparing to the residents wishes. In 2020, the top two funding priorities were public education and human support services (which includes housing and health and human services). In this respect, the Mayor’s budget aligns with her residents wishes as these two areas got the biggest slice of the municipal pie. Government operations, the ugly stepchild of the budgetary process, also sits low on the pecking order in alignment with the publics wishes.
The same cannot be said for Public Safety or Economic Development. Residents ranked Public Safety second to last and yet police and corrections received the third highest allotment of local funds. Economic development received less than half the funds that public safety received, despite receiving a higher ranking from D.C. residents. In fact, for the last two years, the Mayor’s proposed budget has included a 1% increase to the already sizable police budget. It’s worth interrogating why.
D.C. officials have two justifications for the budget increase. First, the District is seeing a rise in violent gun related crime. Homicides reached a ten year high in 2019. So far, 2020 is projected to be a new high water mark. Second, the Metropolitan Police Department is facing a wave of retirements, shrinking the department to levels that some consider “dangerously low.” Compounding the effects of the retirement spree, many younger offices are opting to leave the department early to join federal forces. To solve both problems, the Mayor apportioned an additional $3,000,000 in the 2020 budget to hire new officers to reach a total of 4,000 by 2021.
The national spotlight on policing, however, is an invitation to interrogate whether reinforcing the MPD is the right approach. The D.C. City Council, for one, has demonstrated a willingness to question the strategy. At the behest of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the Council delayed their consideration of the city’s public safety budget by over two weeks so that they could solicit community feedback and testimony. Hopefully the Council and the Mayor take the opportunity. Beyond the already demonstrated community interest in reprioritizing civic funds, the Police department, as currently structured, is ill suited to performing the tasks assigned to it.
The idea that the police are unqualified to fulfill the many tasks assigned to them is not a new one. Advocates have long challenged the use of police as a response to mental health crises. Mental Health experts provide resources for how to manage police responses to ensure that the officers do not escalate the crisis they are responding to. Many in police leadership recognize the problem. In a recently resurfaced 2016 speech, a former Dallas police chief decried that society’s response to most societal issues has been to “let the police handle it.” Former D.C. Police Chief Kathy Lanier called modern policing “the drive-thru 24 hours McDonalds of services.”
The misalignment goes beyond responding to mental health crises. Police across the country are called to chase loose dogs and respond to drug overdoses. In the case of overdoses, quick action in the application of naloxone is a key factor in saving lives, but the mixed role of law enforcement and medical care creates inherently complicated interactions. A police officer’s traditional role is to arrest individuals who break statutory expectations, not to provide medical care. D.C. is no exception from the misalignment trend. If you lose property in the district, local precincts are the place to go. If you need a temporary parking pass or to block off part of the street for a moving truck, you go to your local precinct to access a kiosk from the Department of Transportation. Police officers receive no training on how to handle these machines. If you need help you call a number posted above the kiosk despite being in government building surrounded by city employees.
Additionally, insurance is a major driver of police interactions. During a typical shift, officers respond to multiple property related incidents. The purpose of this response is so officers can fill out an incident report which generates a case number used by residents to file insurance claims. A detective, at some future point, might investigate the claim at a later date. Most burglaries and thefts of this kind are never investigated, let alone solved. With over four hundred car thefts in 2019, insurance paperwork is a significant driver of interactions between armed government officials and citizens.
Misalignment is dangerous because it unnecessarily places citizens in contact with armed government officials. If something goes wrong during one of those interactions, for example if someone upset by their lost property begins to act erratically, then the danger increases. One might be tempted to argue that the solution to this problem is more police training especially because there is a woeful lack of ongoing or effective firearms training nationwide. While more training for people authorized to use force is likely a positive, it cannot solve the problem of armed police responding to non-violent situations. Only 27% of officers ever report discharging their weapons, because there is little use to a firearm when filling out insurance paperwork or chasing a loose dog. Lack of experience using a firearm compounds the problem of misalignment and demonstrates why training is not enough. If officers carrying weapons spend a vast majority of their time responding to nonviolent calls, then when they are called to respond to dangerous situations, even with increased training, they will be stepping out of their routine role. The result is the killing of over a thousand people a year with disproportionate impacts on Black people.
Misalignment is also expensive. Each police officer is outfitted with a firearm, bullet proof vest, and travels in a specially outfitted cruiser filled with electronic communications equipment. Most of their expensive equipment sits idle during a majority of their daily tasks. If the only functional result of a police report is the assignment of a case number, then the only necessary equipment is a clipboard and a pen. Based on recent Washington D.C. theft numbers, and an average of one hour per incident report, it would take an employee only twenty-eight weeks to complete all the reports for a year. A recent high school graduate in a Honda Civic could drive around and collect the same basic information as a police officer in a Crown Vic.
Policing reform has always created divergent views. Procedural justice advocates want to restore the public’s trust in policing through increased training and improved interactions. Abolitionists seek to reframe the relationship between the government and its citizens with abolition serving one part of a broader decriminalization effort. Abolitionists also aim to empower local community-based institutions which are designed to overcome inherited oppressive social structures. At minimum, what should be clear is that increasing the police budget is a wasteful allocation of resources with dangerous results. The D.C. police are structurally unsuited to do the jobs they’ve been given. Rather than funding the training of new cops to be insurance agents and trauma specialists, the city should pay for people and institutions better suited for the tasks. Any remaining armed officers would benefit from similar specialization as they would only be called to respond to truly dangerous situations.
When the Council meets to hear testimony and consider the budget this week, hopefully they take the reform opportunity seriously. Whether they pursue large scale abolition or procedural reforms, the proposed increase would be better spent on the city’s underfunded community violence interruption programs or trauma informed care services centers. Each of these respective programs have received less than seven million dollars in funding over the last three years and neither of them pose the risk of state violence currently associated with police engagement. The Council has already passed modest reforms aimed at curbing police violence. If they are truly serious about reform, as they claim to be, then they will begin reimagining how the city provides services. They can start by acknowledging that you do not need a gun to fill out insurance papers.
@Yonah Freemark, twitter (June 7, 2020, 1:01 PM), https://twitter.com/yfreemark/status/1269675872153473024 (citing the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy’s fiscally standardized cities database).
 Madison Hoff, How Much Taxpayer Money Every State Spends on Police, Bus. Insider (June 6, 2020, 7:45 AM) https://www.businessinsider.com/map-of-local-and-state-spending-on-police-per-capita-2020-6?op=1.
 Rochelle Olson, What You Need to Know About Plans to Defund Minneapolis Police, Star Tribune (June 9, 2020, 8:56 AM) https://www.startribune.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-plans-to-defund-minneapolis-police/571112392/.
 Jack Brewster, LA Mayor Slashes LAPD Budget as Calls to ‘Defund Police’ Slowly Pick up Steam, Forbes (June 4, 2020, 11:18 AM) https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2020/06/04/la-mayor-slashes-lapd-budget-as-calls-to-defund-police-slowly-pick-up-steam/#514438361ba3.
 Here’s What You Need to Know About DC’s FY 2021 Budget Season, D.C. Fiscal Pol. Inst.(Jan 30, 2020), https://www.dcfpi.org/all/heres-what-you-need-to-kow-about-dcs-fy-2021-budget-season/.
 Updated FY 2021 Budget Schedule, D.C. Council Budget Blog (Mar. 17, 2020), https://www.dccouncilbudget.com/blog.
 Peter Hermann, D.C. Police Department Faces tough Talks on Budget Amid Calls to Defund, Wash. Post (Jun. 15 2020, 2:04 PM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/dc-police-department-faces-tough-talks-on-budget-amid-calls-to-defund/2020/06/15/48e8b0e4-abfb-11ea-a9d9-a81c1a491c52_story.html
 See FY 2020 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, Presentation to the Council of the District of Columbia, 4, https://mayor.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/mayormb/page_content/attachments/FY2020%20Budget%20Presentation.pdf. A quick note about this process is warranted. Advocacy groups will show up to these forums wearing pins and coordinated shirts and try and get their working groups to rank their issue number one. Some groups will award housing with 100% of the cities yearly budget as a way of making their point. Also, Government Operations faces a difficult task when trying to win support among forum participants who often arrive to advocate for specific, and more splashy, policy areas. Their yearly pitch is that they need more people working at city hall.
 Id. at 7.
 Peter Hermann et. al., Killings in District Reach Decade High As Leaders Struggle to Reduce Gun Violence, Wash. Post (Dec. 31, 2019, 6:54 PM) https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/killings-in-district-reach-decade-high-as-leaders-struggle-to-reduce-gun-violence/2019/12/31/bb990334-1c20-11ea-8d58-5ac3600967a1_story.html.
 District Crime Data at a Glance: 2020 Year-to-Date Crime Comparison, Metro Police Dep’t, https://mpdc.dc.gov/page/district-crime-data-glance(last visited June. 06, 2020).
 Peter Hermann, D.C. Police Force Recovering From Retirement Surge, but More Officers are Quitting, Wash. Post (Mar. 26, 2020, 6:08 p.m.), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/dc-police-force-recovering-from-retirement-surge-but-more-officers-are-quitting/2020/03/26/5ff41286-623d-11ea-845d-e35b0234b136_story.html,
 FY 2020 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan, supra note 3, at 9, Press Release, Muriel Bowser, Mayor, D.C., Mayor Bowser Opens Safer Stronger DC Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (Oct. 25, 2017), https://mayor.dc.gov/release/mayor-bowser-opens-safer-stronger-dc-office-neighborhood-safety-and-engagement
 Erik Salmi, Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Rescheduling Metropolitan Police Department FY21 Budget Oversight Hearing, Charles Allen Ward 6 (May 31, 2020) http://www.charlesallenward6.com/committee_on_the_judiciary_and_public_safety_rescheduling_metropolitan_police_department_fy21_budget_oversight_hearing.
 Vaidya Gullapalli, Mental Health Crises Require Mental Health, Not Policing, Responses, The Appeal (Sep. 27, 2019), https://theappeal.org/mental-health-crises-require-mental-health-not-policing-responses/.
 Calling 911 and Talking with Police, Nat. Alliance of Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Family-Members-and-Caregivers/Calling-911-and-Talking-with-Police (last visited June 16, 2020).
 Dallas Police Chief Laments Focus on Police, N.Y. Times (July 11, 2016),https://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000004523911/dallas-police-chief-laments-focus-on-police.html.
 Perry Stein, D.C. Police Chief: Policing Has Become the ‘Drive-Thru 24 Hours McDonald’s of Services’, Wash. Post (Nov. 12, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/11/12/d-c-police-chief-policing-has-become-the-drive-thru-24-hours-mcdonalds-of-services/.
 Dallas Police Chief Laments Focus on Police, supra note 18.
 Partnership News Service Staff, Role of Police in Responding to Overdoses Often Unclear: Study, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (Sept. 30, 2013), https://drugfree.org/learn/drug-and-alcohol-news/role-of-police-in-responding-to-overdoses-often-unclear-study/.
 Insights based on a recent “ride along” I participated in with an MPD officer as she patrolled her ward. Over a
 Crime clearance rate in the United States in 2018, Statista (Sept. 30, 2019) https://www.statista.com/statistics/194213/crime-clearance-rate-by-type-in-the-us/.
 Martha Bellisle, AP Exclusive: Accidental Shootings Show Police Training Gaps, Assoc. Press (Dec. 9, 2019), https://apnews.com/009ac6cf0a174a58d88d9d01308aedd6.
 Rich Mornin & Andrew Mercer, A Closer Look at Police Officers Who Have Fired Their Weapon on Duty, Pew Res. Ctr. (Feb. 8, 2017), https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/08/a-closer-look-at-police-officers-who-have-fired-their-weapon-on-duty/.
 Mark Berman et. al., Protests Spread Over Police Shootings. Police Promised Reforms. Every year, they still shoot and kill nearly 1,000 people, Wash. Post (June 8, 2020, 8:44 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.html.
 Compare Tracey L. Meares, Policing: A public Good Gone Bad, Bos. Rev. (Aug. 1, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/protests-spread-over-police-shootings-police-promised-reforms-every-year-they-still-shoot-nearly-1000-people/2020/06/08/5c204f0c-a67c-11ea-b473-04905b1af82b_story.htmlhttps://bostonreview.net/law-justice/tracey-l-meares-policing-public-good-gone-bad, with Derecka Purnell, What Does Police Abolition Mean, Bos. Rev. (Aug. 23, 2017) https://bostonreview.net/law-justice/derecka-purnell-what-does-police-abolition-mean, and Kenrya Rankin, Read: The Movement for Black Lives’ Policy Platform, ColorLines (Aug. 1, 2016, 3:54 pm), https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/08/movement-black-lives-platform/494309/.
 Jason Sunshine & Tom Tyler, The Role of Procedural Justice and Legitimacy in Shaping Public Support for Policing, 37 L. & Soc. Rev. 513 (2003).
 V. Noah Gimbel & Craig Muhammad, Are Police Obsolete? Breaking Cycles of Violence Through Abolition Democracy, 40 Cardozo L. Rev. 1453 (2019).
 Like most other issues raised in this article, prohibiting officers from carrying weapons is not novel. Other countries have alternative policing models where guns are restricted to a specialized cohort trained in their use. See, e.g., Jon Kelly, Why British Police Don’t Have Guns, BBC (Sept. 19, 2012), https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-19641398.
 Maureen Pao, How D.C. Is Addressing An Ongoing Spike in Gun Violence, NPR (Mar. 2, 2020),https://www.npr.org/local/305/2020/03/02/811194978/how-d-c-is-addressing-an-ongoing-spike-in-gun-violence, FY 2020 Proposed Budget and Financial Plan, supra note 3, at 9, Press Release, Muriel Bowser, Mayor, D.C., Mayor Bowser Opens Safer Stronger DC Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (Oct. 25, 2017), https://mayor.dc.gov/release/mayor-bowser-opens-safer-stronger-dc-office-neighborhood-safety-and-engagement.
 Khalida Volou et. al, Over police union objections, DC Council unanimously passes sweeping police reform package, WUSA 9 (June 9, 2020), https://www.wusa9.com/article/news/local/dc/dc-council-proposes-police-reform/65-44ba6c15-d7c8-42e7-89aa-524eaa60ea4d.