This page lays out the most popular talking points in DC's criminal justice discourse and provides some basic analysis. This page, along with updates across my CityLab blog, serve as my deliverable for the CityLab Practicum class.

"The MPD does not have enough officers."

The organization has a little over 3,000 officers, but requires at least 4,000. MPD and police departments across the country have had difficulty recruiting officers since the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, which highlighted illegal police violence. The lack of officers appears to be a primary MPD concern. It limits police presence, widens patrol requirements, forces officers to engage in overtime work that is costly for DC, and discourages officers from confronting criminals or drug users gathered in larger groups for fear of attack.

Source: DC Police Department

Yet the MPD's claim that they do not have enough officers is difficult to verify. Some reports focus on the number of police officers per capita, which in DC is significantly higher than the per capita figure for NYPD or LAPD. However, this data is insufficient. The figures typically address the total number in the police force, beyond officer and including administrative staff. DC is also unique in its requirements to provide security for political VIPs and major speakers; events, parades and protests; and serve large numbers of workers traveling from Virginia/Maryland as well as tourists from all over. Some but not all of these requirements fall under the MPD's "special activities" division.

One alternative method to check MPD's claims is by reviewing the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) and determining if crime reports are significantly larger per capita than those in similar cities, or past periods of DC history in which the police force was larger. Researchers may also consider how many 911 calls are coming in and appropriately addressed.

One sign that MPD does not have enough officers to satisfy their mission set is the amount of overtime pay that officers have received over the past year. This figure has increased substantially.

"The MPD does not have enough arrest and stoppage authorities."

Multiple MPD officers raised this concern in our conversations. The topic, however, gets into legal issues very quickly. Are certain chokeholds necessary for police to successfully carry out an arrest? Are certain stop-and-risk or detention policies helpful for DC, or would the damage inflicted to MPD-community relations be worse over the long-term?

"The DC Mayor, Council, and Attorney General have not taken MPD concerns seriously."

All parties today say they take rising crime seriously, and point to problems with other city leaders. While Mayor Muriel Bowser has been criticized for leading DC during this latest crime surge, she frequently points to the DC Council's vote to cut MPD's budget by $15 million in July 2020 as weakening the department. Bowser has also criticized the Council's subsequent policies that reduced MPD authorities and minimum mandatory sentences for significant crimes like carjackings. The Mayor's Office has appropriated significant funding for alternative justice and crime prevention programs.

Crime reduction programs and budgets. Source: Office of the DC Mayor

The DC Council has been criticized for overcorrecting from a police-first approach to crime to neglecting accountability. Yet DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson reportedly "believes police improving their closure rates and prosecutors acting more aggressively would have a more significant impact on crime than any council legislation," according to the Washington Post. Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) likewise argued that Mayor Bowser should "ask [D.C. police] why they’re not patrolling equitably across the city, or provide data on what they’re doing, or [ask] why the U.S. attorney is declining two-thirds of the cases.” The perception that the DC Council is "weak on crime" is, however, reinforced when Councilmembers like Nadeau say the crisis is "maybe" happening.

DC Attorney General Matthew Graves has responded to criticism on his office's low prosecution rates by blaming DC's Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS), which had their crime lab lose legal accreditation in April 2021. Lab technicians made a significant error in an examination, and rather than admit the mistake, its leadership attempted to cover it up to auditors. The OAG has since then been forced to send certain forensics—DNA, firearms, and fingerprints—to labs outside of DC, which takes longer to process and delays criminal cases.

"The post-pandemic decrease in economic support caused today's surge in criminal activities."

The pandemic and its after-effects contributed significantly to the crime surge. As one high school football coach told FOX 5, his players were becoming involved in drug trafficking because they didn't have school, friends, and a regular schedule to keep them accountable. Speaking on one of his players who was killed while participating in unstated illicit activities, "Had we had school the next day, he wouldn't have been in that space after 10:30/11:00pm. He would've been home. He would have been getting ready to prepare to come to school and go to football practice."

Young adults are responsible for a significant number of violent assaults and carjackings over the past few years. We also see from DC school truancy data that rates skyrocketed to 48% "chronic absenteeism" and 42% truancy after the pandemic, and have been slow to recover.

Source: DC Attendance Report, 2022-23 School Year, p. 11

DC Attorney General Matthew Graves, however, points to another factor. He says that "the root cause [of the crime surge] is illegal possession of firearms." Graves noted that the OAG and MPD had identified firearm possession rate increases beginning in 2020, but it was still unclear whether this was due to the pandemic, reduced gun laws in neighboring states, or otherwise.

"Mayor Bowser did not take Chinatown crime seriously enough, which is why Ted Leonsis is moving the Capitols and Wizards to Potomac Yard."

There are numerous reasons why Leonsis is taking the Potomac Yards deal. Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin is a friend and offered Leonsis $2 billion in subsidies for a "build-from-scratch" 70-acre sports district. Mayor Bowser, on the other hand, reportedly did not negotiate in good faith with Leonsis over the summer and the two had a poor relationship. As Axios reports, Mayor Bowser considered Leonsis' threats to move across the Potomac a bluff: "Oh, Ted's not going anywhere," she insisted in January 2023.

Virginia Governor Announces Plans For New Arena For Wizards ...
Artist's rendering of the proposed Potomac Yards complex. Source: JBG Smith

To be sure, Leonsis has clearly voiced concern about crime around the Capitol One Arena for some time. But while crime likely played a factor in his move, it is far from the only factor.