Despite Sharp Increase in Complaints, City Gives Metro Police a Raise. Why?

A rushed hearing with little opportunity for public input raises questions about merit, priorities, and accountability.

Flickr/Elvert Barnes

During testimony at DC Council’s round table last month, advisory neighborhood commissioner Lorenzo Green, April Goggans of Black Lives Matter DC, and others, explored the relatively uncharted territory of the link between police salary and budget, misconduct, and accountability. The round table, regarding a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and their union, was organized by Councilperson and chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, Elissa Silverman.

Extract from Office of Police Complaints Annual Report 2018

The CBA grants over 3,500 MPD officers with a 3 percent retroactive raise for fiscal year 2018, a 2 percent raise for FY 2019, and a 3.5 percent raise for 2020. The disciplinary section of the CBA reads the same as the previous agreement, despite a report released earlier this November by the Office of Police Complaints, a government-funded review body independent from the MPD, which found a 78 percent increase in complaints from 2016, and a 56 percent increase in complainant-reported use-of-force incidents over the last five years. Among the most common civilian complaints were unlawful arrests, threats, intimidation, pushing/pulling, racial discrimination, and officer’s refusal to display their name and badge.

The MPD reportedly killed 20 individuals over the past five years.


Community advocates lamented the short timeline for public input and review of the collective bargaining agreement. The roundtable was announced the day before the event — just two days before the council’s vote. “To us, it further erodes our faith in the council for not making sure that there was enough time [to make comments]. The council doesn’t actually have to act within two days,” Goggans said. “This disenfranchises a lot of folks, which could be avoided by voting no.”

For Commissioner Green’s part, withholding pay raises is an accountability tactic the Council should consider. “It’s reasonable to ensure that any pay increase is paired with accountability measures,” Green testified. The CBA “doesn’t seem to me to be a reasonable proposal for the district residents to swallow.” This is “about not rewarding a litany of incidence of police misconduct, use of force, police involved deaths, and the continued illegal tactics of stop and frisk used on black and brown communities across the city.”

Organized methods for holding police departments accountable have been debated and enacted since at least the 1940s, when departments became larger, more professionalized, militarized, and better funded by the federal government in response to protests against Jim Crow laws. In 1948 the first official police civilian review board was established in Washington D.C.

The advocates thought the community should have a seat at the table prior to approval of the agreement. But Councilman Silverman was upfront: “the council doesn’t have an appetite to voice down this CBA.” Mayor Bowser’s August press release regarding the labor agreement indicated a similarly presumptuous mentality: “Once approved by the Council of the District of Columbia, the agreement would immediately go into effect,” it said. In other words, the roundtable was, more or less, conducted as a formality — it wasn’t intended to be a platform whereby community feedback would be integrated into the decision-making process.

This is “about not rewarding a litany of incidence of police misconduct, use of force, police involved deaths, and the continued illegal tactics of stop and frisk used on black and brown communities across the city.”

How can D.C. citizens hold the police department accountable for misconduct when elected representatives fail to?

The Office of Police Complaints is run by citizens. However, the police complaint board members are selected by the mayor and must be approved by the Council. Additionally, the office doesn’t have direct authority to discipline or fire individual officers, manage the department’s budget, or dock an officer’s pay. All of those responsibilities fall within the MPD’s jurisdiction.

Litigation is one of the few potentially empowering avenues for people harmed by police. But who actually pays for settlements and judgements is oftentimes unclear, since most cities, including D.C., don’t make the information publicly available online. Researcher Joanna C. Schwartz discovered that some of the country’s largest departments don’t pay a penny for lawsuits — the settlement or judgement oftentimes comes out of a general city fund. In other words: when police kill or injure, the public pays.

Some small towns remain in debt bondage for decades. South Tuscon, Arizona, for example, took out a “police brutality bond” worth nearly $2 million, after a jury awarded $3.5 million to the paralyzed victim of a police shooting, an officer himself. The town (and its taxpayers) won’t be finished paying the loan interest until 2037, fifty-three years after the city bought the bond.

In Washington D.C, legal settlements and claims are taken out of individual agencies operating budgets if 1) the claim is less than $10,000 and 2) if the case was originally filed not more than 2 years before the settlement or judgment. The law was implemented as an incentive for agencies to “manage risk”. The documents responsive to Schwartz’ FOIA show that the MPD paid a total of $855,298.84 in settlements and judgement from 2012–2015, while the city itself paid a little over $3 million. (With an MPD budget of around half a billion each year, it’s safe to say a $800,000 hit over a three-year period probably didn’t create a riotous panic at the office.) There’s no evidence suggesting any individual officers were ever held financially responsible for their actions.


The fact that MPD officers receive relatively frequent raises, despite the budget strain associated with litigation costs, demonstrates the city’s perceived importance of a large, well-funded police force. Councilmembers Charles Allen and Silverman seemed to justify the pay raise due to a police “recruitment crisis.” According to the union, the MPD has had difficulty hiring and retaining officers, in part, because their salary isn’t competitive.

Union leader Stephen Bigalow stated that the last two officers featured on the MPD’s recruitment posters quit the department. “It’s not a good look,” he admitted during the roundtable.

“If MPD is overworked, let’s take that responsibility away from them and reallocate that responsibility.”
DC Police Union Poster, retrieved from: https://www.dcpoliceunion.com/index.cfm?zone=/unionactive/view_subarticle.cfm&subHomeID=125629&topHomeID=695488&page=main

The “recruitment crisis” has led to overworked officers, according to Bigalow.

Margot Ringler of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a network of white people working to dismantle white supremacy, questioned why the district’s answer to the city’s problems is always more police: “If officers are overworked let’s take away some of their responsibility. Why are they trained in behavioral health? Don’t give them that responsibility. Let’s have a much more robust behavioral health emergency transport system. They only have six people in emergency behavioral health response. Six people. If MPD is overworked, let’s take that responsibility away from them and reallocate that responsibility.”

If the city operates under a reactionary framework and ignores the underlying, structural forces that affect crime rates, the answer to problems will always be more police.

Ringler’s testimony cuts to the root of the debate. If the city operates under a reactionary framework and ignores the underlying, structural forces that affect crime rates, the answer to problems will always be more police. Marginalized citizens are violently forced to decide between breaking the law and surviving, or sickness and death.

But if we begin to reallocate responsibility to groups that operate outside of the law-and-order complex, we are less desperate to rely on police. Less desperate to overlook injurious behavior, because we have a whole first aid kit, not just band-aids. Police become less relevant.


Silverman asked Goggans if the council’s former intern, who joined the force for the “right reasons” doesn’t deserve a raise? CBAs and raises are normal for public employees, she said. But a more apt question might’ve been: What quality of life do our communities deserve? How can we allocate funds in a way that actually address the long term health of our communities?

But if we begin to reallocate responsibility to groups that operate outside of the law-and-order complex, we are less desperate to rely on police.

Accountability measures with teeth address both immediate, underlying intradepartmental issues, alongside the elements of modern policing that make it inherently problematic. During the next round of CBA negotiations, will Mayor Bowser and D.C. Council be ready to envisage a different kind of city, one with an organizational structure that moves beyond the status quo?

Ella Fassler is a writer, researcher, prison abolitionist, and (full disclosure) former “J20” defendant based in Washington D.C. You can reach her on Twitter at @EllaFassler.