Policing East of the River

Call for Community Comment and Stories

A protest organized by Black Lives Matter-DC and others outside the Seventh District police station, Ward 8, on July 7.

What does it mean to “protect and serve”? What are the qualifications? Do law-enforcement systems help or harm DC's neighborhoods, particularly those east of the river? Questions and proposals surrounding policing and public safety are everywhere this summer, from the mayor's office to the Republican national convention, from regular local meetings to “emergency” church and civic forums. Related protests are hitting, and blocking, streets from the White House to Congress Heights. 

This summer, Mayor Bowser proposed new regulations for DC's private security and police. In addition, she announced two measures meant to increase the size of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). All three measures move to the District Council when it reconvenes on Sept. 20. Meanwhile church, civic, and advocacy organizations raise a number of concerns and offer a range of alternative proposals.

East of the River will be reporting on this complex topic and the various approaches community members are pursuing. All are encouraged to share their thoughts. Here, to help in the exploration, is some background.

Size and Function

The mayor's recent proposals highlight two key, related policing issues: size and function. How many police performing what types of functions are needed to provide for public safety? And which sector can best serve the community's various needs? 

Groups east of the river advocate for different, often contradictory approaches: increasing police presence, focusing on community engagement, a community-sensitive emphasis on officers living in the neighborhood, alternatives to policing such as restorative justice and “interrupting” violence, and community-control options leading to dismantling police as we know them. 

Any “policing” discussion must include officers employed by private firms as well as those employed by public entities. Private security professionals now outnumber public police by a ratio of three to one across the country. The District has over 20,000 security and police officers, fewer than 4,000 of them in the MPD. This does not include federal employees such as the Capitol Police, US Marshals, and Park Police.

MPD’s website reports 3,900 sworn officers and 500 civilians. Recent statements by Chief of Police Cathy Lanier cite 3,750 officers, the smallest force since 2004. In response Mayor Bowser introduced two initiatives to augment the force. One extends the age-range for police cadets. The other authorizes rehire of retired sergeants and detectives. 

For comparison, according to 2012 FBI data, DC employed 61.2 MPD officers per 10,000 residents. The next most policed city, Baltimore, had 47.4 officers per 10,000 residents. Every other major city – including New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Cleveland, and Detroit – reported substantially smaller forces.

Private and Public

Private “security officers” (SO) and “special police officers” (SPO) are ubiquitous in the District’s banks, shopping centers, office and apartment buildings, houses of worship, the Metro. SOs are unarmed and can detain but not arrest, while SPOs may be armed and do have arrest powers. The city reports more than 17,000 private security professionals including 7,700 SPOs, 4,300 of whom are armed. Authority for both types of professionals is generally limited to a specific location. This becomes more complex, however, when criminal activity is visible but beyond a private officer's jurisdiction.

Both SOs and SPOs are certified by MPD's Security Officers Management Branch (SOMB) but remain employees of the private companies that hire, train, and supervise them. Regulations for SO/SPOs require applicants to have a high school diploma, GED, or one year of previous experience. Applicants must be citizens, aged 21 or older, and “of good moral character.” Regulations specify, for example, the length of time an individual is ineligible to serve following a felony or misdemeanor sexual abuse conviction. 

Current regulations require 40 hours of pre-service training for SO/SPOs plus 16 hours of on-the-job training and eight hours of annual in-service training. The certification exam is provided by PearsonVue, part of an international testing corporation. Licensing and renewals are also handled by PearsonVue. 

MPD officers must be citizens, aged 21 or older, and “possess a high moral character for carrying out law enforcement duties.” Polygraph and psychological exams are required, and certain arrests disqualify a potential applicant. Entry requirements include 60 hours of college, three years’ police experience, or two years’ active-duty military. Candidates complete 28 weeks of academy training and the FrontLine National Exam, a three-part exam developed by a private human relations management firm. Once hired, officers must complete 32 hours of annual professional development. 

Proposed rule-making on special police officers and security officers will take the form of an “approval resolution” when the council reconvenes in September, and will be enacted automatically after 45 business days unless the council acts. Citizens seeking input should contact their councilmembers. The other two measures were introduced and referred to the council’s Judiciary Committee.

Virginia Avniel Spatz is a frequent contributor to East of the River. Her home page is vspatz.wordpress.com. 

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