The Thinned Blue Line

Patch_of_the_Metropolitan_Police_Department_of_Washington,_D.C.

Officer Joe Belfiore climbed into a patrol car one day in 2003, early in his career with the Metropolitan Police Department, and was greeted with a peculiar question from his field training officer, a veteran of more than 15 years. It’s a routine courtesy question for a patrol partner at the beginning of a shift.

“So, you wanna work tonight?” the training officer asked.

It’s not always a given.

In fact, Belfiore did want to work that night, and pretty much any night he carried a gun and badge during his 13 years with the department. He came to appreciate that the opportunity to learn from his predecessors and to do real, proactive police work is not something to be taken for granted—especially not for MPD officers.

D.C.’s population, currently at 672,000, is increasing, but the size of its police department is not. Since 2014, 851 sworn members either retired, resigned, were terminated, or died, according to monthly separation reports reviewed by Washington City Paper. Just last month, 48 sworn members left the department in the largest monthly exodus since last October, when MPD lost 60 sworn members. Currently, 3,508 patrol officers, detectives, and sergeants are on the job, along with 274 ranking officers. The D.C. Council has approved a total of 4,000 sworn members.

Hiring is a slow, expensive process—it costs taxpayers $95,000 to recruit and train one officer, and the process takes four months. But the separation reports point to more than sunk costs related to young officers who often don’t last more than a couple years on the job. Many are leaving before they’ve stayed 10 years, taking their on-the-job experience with them. It’s also rare these days for a 20-year veteran to stick around any longer than it takes to receive a decent pension. Institutional knowledge—the kind of knowledge Belfiore thrived on and looked forward to passing along—is vanishing.

According to MPD Chief Cathy Lanier, her department has braced for this attrition for years. She cites a late-1980s hiring spree that means about 1,000 officers are destined to retire now. The problem is, D.C. is not alone in facing a shortage of police officers: Prince George’s County Police Department has a lateral hiring program to fill hundreds of positions and is eyeing disgruntled MPD officers; Fairfax County is looking to hire; in Philadelphia, the police department is trying to hire hundreds of officers. D.C.’s police department already loses officers to their hometowns, after they gain big city experience that hastens their ascent through smaller city ranks.

But the raw numbers contradict Lanier’s explanation: the data shows years of persistent resignations, sometimes between 30 and 50 percent of monthly departures. The Fraternal Order of Police has for years been voicing the same critiques about Lanier: that she has imposed formulaic policies that hinder the aggressive police work that attracted recruits like Belfiore; that she is known as a retaliation-oriented data manipulator and a politician of low cunning; that her public image is more favorable than that of the elected officials who are afraid to mess with her.

“Her people haven’t liked her for awhile,” says one D.C. councilmember who serves on the Committee on the Judiciary. “Until the city turns it into an issue of whether citizens feel less safe, I’m not sure how it translates to the chief. She’s popular and has high visibility. She goes to community meetings. She gives off an aura of professionalism and confidence. People want to feel safe, and she makes them feel confident that they are.”

***

Belfiore did not fit a standard cop profile when he broke in as a rookie. He’s a white, third-generation Washingtonian—born and raised in the District—who became a cop at age 35, largely because he wanted to implement in a practical manner the quantitative policing strategies he researched while at the Urban Institute. At 5-foot 6-inches, he’s shorter than most officers, with legs longer in proportion to the rest of his body, which made 20 pounds of gear strapped to his waist a challenge to his center of gravity. He has a cerebral quality to go along with the requisite “street smarts” found in many good cops.

On a recent weekday, Belfiore met with City Paper to talk about his career with MPD, which ended last August. Currently he is a stay-at-home father and security consultant. His appreciation for the “art of policing” is the enduring memory from his time served.

“MPD had a reputation of being a cool place to work,” says Belfiore, who holds an abiding respect for his old-school mentors and former partners. The department also was attractive to recruits, he says, because D.C. is a big city where an officer can be exposed to a high volume of challenging calls while at times interacting with myriad federal agencies—valuable experience an officer might not get elsewhere.

Coming up with a seasoned partner who liked to work motivated him to bust his ass to make felony cases, “not bullshit lockups,” he says. “If you have the right partner, and it is shown to you that crime fighting is a choice, as opposed to just responding to calls or taking reports, then if given that choice, it has the potential to be that way for your entire career,” says Belfiore. “But there’s only one way to get introduced to that and it’s through your predecessors. Policing is foremost a craft. It requires people skills, psychology, and you have to like to work.”

He relates a story from his time in the Seventh Police District, where he became the sole detective on a multi-year investigation of a burglary gang at the Wingate Apartments in Bellevue. A primary challenge, Belfiore says, was developing cooperating witnesses, and a typical arrest-and-prosecute approach was floundering. When a national real estate firm bought the complex out of foreclosure in 2011, they engaged the detective as a project manager to coordinate civil evictions of known criminal violators, a strategy that turned the entire complex around, made millions for his client and resolved a six-year burglary problem. The moral of the story? “I worked the Wingates first as an MPD detective and learned a lot. And then as a private security/crime resolution consultant and learned even more.”

That type of policing does not produce headline-ready, sexy statistics to grab the public’s attention, according to Justin Dillon, a former assistant U.S. attorney who worked with Belfiore on other cases and is now a defense attorney. “The better detectives want more thoughtful, long-term takedowns,” Dillon says. “The best people I worked with complained about not being supported to do proactive policing. Some of these guys, they work so hard and care so much, people don’t see that side of it.”

A veteran detective who works shootings east of the Anacostia River says some officers like big cities because of the variety and pace, but Lanier has implemented policies that keep officers tied to fixed locations. “You take this job to be a police officer, to be somebody,” the detective says. “But they’ve created a culture of officers that take reports—robots—and people get tired of it and start avoiding it. It bothers me when I see an officer sitting in his car with blue lights on, playing Words With Friends, because if he’s motivated, he’s patrolling, and he’s out cutting down on auto theft. We’ve got crazy auto theft. There’s no auto theft unit. We don’t work those cases. I’m not talking about arresting Joe-Bob on the corner for smashing out a window vent and stealing a car. We got tow-truck companies shaving off vehicle identification numbers. Why don’t we have an organized crime unit?”

According to retired veterans, mid-career detectives, and younger patrol officers who spoke with City Paper on the condition of anonymity, MPD has stopped gathering intelligence and identifying criminal elements as a proactive approach to fighting and preventing crime. These law enforcers say Lanier has taken the department away from old-school policing in favor of specialized security details and shifts that require sitting under a light tower in a drug zone or on a designated post for eight hours, waiting for a call to come over the radio.

Belfiore was fortunate, he says, to be able to keep his head down, be creative, and do real police work. But after 13 years, he decided he’d had enough of trying to stay under the radar, of relying on protection from direct supervisors who “get it,” and of seeing MPD go from “being a cool place to work” to what many describe as a stats-driven, punishment-oriented, cover-your-own-ass department that hadn’t given officers a raise in seven years. When an arbitrator ruled against making a long-overdue raise retroactive, “that was it for me,” he says.

***

Belfiore’s resignation is not as rare an occurrence as Lanier would like to think. Her “retirement bubble” argument for why MPD has an attrition problem is in part accurate, but there are other, significant factors that have been bubbling up for the last six years.

In 2010, officials noted that out of about 4,000 sworn members, 229 officers would be eligible to retire in fiscal year 2011. Former chairman of the FOP, Kris Baumann, noted the hiring push of 1989 and 1990 and warned of a “huge exodus” by 2014 and 2015 of nearly 900 officers who would become eligible for full retirement after 25 years on the force. Lanier countered that a pre-1997 age requirement for retirement eligibility would stagger those departures, and that attrition under her command had been low. She denied Baumann’s claim that she was unprepared to manage the situation, but even then, the raw numbers spoke to a troubling trend that Lanier was inclined to brush aside. Baumann also flagged the march of cops to the door. His projection proved to be accurate.

Attrition started slowly in 2010, with seven resignations and eight “optional” retirements from Jan. 1 to March 1, according to monthly separation reports that list names, start dates, separation dates, means of separation, and rank. (The monthly separation reports include all sworn members of the department as well as civilians, recruits, cadets, probationers and interns. This story is based on data in the monthly reports with non-sworn members subtracted from the totals. Just as MPD aggregates the monthly reports for annual reports and reports to the Council, City Paper also has aggregated data in some instances and sorted out non-sworn members there as well.) By the end of the year, 55 sworn members had retired, and 44 had resigned. Dozens more were fired, died, or went on disability.

In January 2011, Baumann wrote to the Council and complained about cuts that had reduced police positions from 4,250 sworn officers to less than 3,850 officers. Baumann said at the time that, with attrition, the department was on track to have about 3,700 sworn officers by 2012. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans responded that April by introducing legislation that required MPD to maintain 4,000 sworn officers at all times. (Evans and At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange re-introduced that legislation last year, and the Council’s website says that it is “under review.”) In a September 2011 letter to his constituents, Evans lamented that the force was down to 3,818 officers, “very near the 3,800 number that Chief Cathy Lanier identified as the threshold for real trouble.” Mayor Vince Gray’s 2012 budget request for 120 new officers, he wrote, “does not even account for the total number of officers who leave every month.” Indeed, 67 sworn members retired from January through the middle of November that year and 57 resigned. (An additional 28 separations from Nov. 16 through the end of the year do not specify the reason.)

The exodus continued. In 2012, the separation reports show, 89 sworn members retired from MPD, but more than 60 resigned as well. In looking at the resignations, a trend begins to appear: More often than not, officers were resigning within 10 years of joining the force, and many of those within two to five years. That July, for instance, five members resigned, while six retired and three were terminated. Of the five who resigned, three left after less than five years.

The following year, 2013, saw 78 MPD members retire and 62 resign. The detective who works east of the river moved to D.C. to take the job and says recruits often stay long enough to get a taste of big-city policing before returning home or moving to another city where their experience stands out. Pay differential is also a factor, the detective says, noting that hometown starting salaries would be eclipsed by the $49,000 MPD was offering. But as the department moved toward fixed post details and the internal culture stagnated, the detective had misgivings about joining MPD. “There are days that I question that,” the detective says, conceding that, with time on, it’s tough to walk away from a veteran’s salary. “I’m doing the job, but I’m concerned about the future of the department,” the detective says. “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have come.”

MPD officers’ top reasons for job dissatisfaction include schedules that force them to work weekends with not enough notice of arbitrary changes, and an initiative called All Hands on Deck which mandates street patrols citywide for 48 hours. In 2014, after receiving their first raise in seven years, an arbitrator ruled that MPD did not have to make the salary increase retroactive, and departures accelerated.

When officers retire, they receive a pension that is a percentage of the average of their three highest years base pay, according to Gregg Pemberton, treasurer of the FOP. If the city had offered a better compensation package, Pemberton says, many officers would have stayed longer in order to boost their pension percentage. This would’ve bought MPD more time to not only increase numbers through hiring but to get new officers on the street with experienced veterans who could teach them the ABCs of good policing. Says Pemberton: “The city was shortsighted and screwed us on compensation, so officers eligible [for retirement] or approaching eligibility ran for the hills, which compounded the attrition rate.”

Again, Baumann had warned that the standoff in negotiations was hurting police morale. An accumulation of all separations of all sworn members of all ranks shows that MPD lost 181 sworn officers in 2012, and 192 officers in 2013—153 of the total via resignation. In 2014, after the arbitrator’s ruling, it lost 305 members, 129 of them to resignation. Another 128 resigned in 2015 as MPD lost a total of 415 officers. This year, as of May 1, there have been 131 separations from the department—38 of them via resignation—with eight months to go. In April alone, the department lost 48 sworn members, 16 to resignation.

As of this month, Pemberton puts the number of officers, detectives, and sergeants in the department—sworn members who respond to and investigate crime—at 3,508, a number he finds alarming given that homicides, robberies, and violent crimes are up compared to last year. He says members get disciplined for straying from their fixed posts to do real police work, and that MPD is increasingly reactive to crime. “All you hear from the older guys is, ‘How much time you got left?’ Younger guys with two to eight years see what this job is all about and are coming in saying, ‘Where do I quit?’”

***

Police departments are difficult to run, and police work has become increasingly dangerous and thankless; MPD has suffered from its own internal rancor rooted in the FOP’s entrenched policy battles with Lanier.

Baumann, who has a law degree, was a fierce advocate for his members on grievances, which Pemberton says are fought to the bitter end. The result is a backlog of more than 600 arbitration cases. The union claims All Hands on Deck, for example, is a contractual violation and essentially a public relations stunt by Lanier designed to heighten public perception of the police presence in communities. His members see leave bans and full deployments for major events such as Million Man March, Fourth of July, and the Papal visit as a source of anxiety regarding their scheduling and leave time, and members critique Lanier for being prone to excessive discipline for trivial infractions that do not apply to managers or others in her favor.

The FOP’s access to information was limited to the point where the FOP was forced to file public information requests that would end up in litigation, where the losing party has to pay the other side’s attorney fees. In a February litigation report to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, the D.C. attorney general detailed the status of litigation related to the Freedom of Information Act. FOP filed eight of the 12 cases in the office’s public information division for fiscal year 2015, resulting in the District paying out more than $70,000 in attorney fees, according to the report. The FOP also filed five of the eight cases against the District to enforce the FOIA prior to fiscal year 2014, resulting in the District having to pay another $20,000 in legal fees.

Pemberton estimates that over the past 10 years, the FOP filed nearly 30 FOIA cases and appeals and collected over $250,000 in attorney fees related to MPD’s refusal to provide information that the union argues should be available upon request under the collective bargaining agreement.

During an interview this winter, Baumann’s successor, Delroy Burton, ticks off the bones of contention and points to three large binders of General Orders that he says Lanier uses to emphasize administrative punishment of officers rather than a focus on police tactics and the laws his members are sworn to enforce. “It’s not a happy place to work,” he said at the time.

A crime scene investigator who had planned to put in 30 years decided to retire early and take his 25 years of experience with him because the politics of the department had eaten into the job he had signed up for. (Like most retired officers City Paper spoke to, the investigator also cited the 2014 arbitrator’s ruling.) “It wasn’t like I didn’t like my job,” the investigator says. “I was passionate about my job.” The investigator does not disparage Lanier, but says her image with the public contrasts with that of her officers. “She’s popular with the public and good at politics, but you can’t beat guys down and expect them to stay,” the investigator says, pointing to the decision to disband the vice unit and detail officers to high visibility stationary posts where they no longer are able to work cases. “You’re better off pushing a patrol car for eight hours then going home. I’ve heard Prince George’s County is actively recruiting MPD officers, and Fairfax County is doing lateral hiring as well. I can’t blame anyone for wanting to get out. The happiest day of my life was leaving.”

A retired narcotics investigator who also opted for early retirement expresses no personal disdain for Lanier but feels strongly that under her leadership, MPD culture has become selectively punitive and not designed for aggressive police work. He cites the same litany of complaints: the disbanded units, the stationary posts. “We are hunters,” the investigator says. “We patrol. That’s why they call it ‘patrol.’”

Last August, City Paper reported that the FOP, in an anonymous online survey, found that nearly 98 percent of officers who voted said they do not have confidence in Lanier’s ability to run MPD. Lanier defenders countered that just under a third of its members voted, to which her critics claimed that a near unanimous vote of even a minority sample size is troubling. Officers interviewed for this story pointed out that many of their colleagues elected not to vote out of fear of the chief finding out, and that transient officers are by nature less invested. The narcotics investigator says union members do not participate enough in efforts to protect their own rights. Regardless of viewpoint, the no-confidence vote marked the peak of bitterness between the chief and her lower ranks, and unintentionally exposed an internal dynamic that has left FOP members frustrated and feeling like they’re losing a war.

Veterans acknowledge that they’ve grown tired of the battle, the constant litigation, the politics. They say that ego got in the way of labor-management relations. “The atmosphere is not friendly on cops, but a lot of it we bring on ourselves,” says the narcotics investigator, who was active in the union and retired after 25 years. “The organization can be fixed, but you need to be able to deal with people who respect you. You can complain, but at some point you gotta stop complaining and do something. You have to give respect but you have to earn respect, while also showing them you’re willing to stand up for you rights. It’s a two-way street, and they’re stuck in place.”

***

With the FOP at an impasse with Lanier, it was inevitable that voting members were ready for a change, so they elected a new chairman. Sgt. Matthew Mahl is an 11-year veteran from the Sixth Police District and a former supervisor in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Liaison Unit (previously the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit). His election is intended to wipe the slate clean with Lanier.

“The current leaders are always attacking the chief and the city,” the Washington Postquoted him as saying. “We can’t keep punching the police leaders in the face all the time.” In turn, Lanier praised Mahl as “a real cop, a street officer,” and took a poke at his predecessors, accusing them of fear mongering. “I love the idea that the chairman is saying everything is not a fight, and everything doesn’t have to be adversarial,” she told the Post.

Mahl sat down with City Paper recently for a two-hour interview. (Lanier did not respond to an interview request before the deadline for this story.) He made no effort to dispel what other union leaders past and present have been saying for years, and what retired officers and dues-paying members expressed in interviews for this story. But he appears to have no baggage with Lanier, and he has demonstrated that he is willing to risk alienation in order to make progress in the otherwise moribund labor-management negotiations with MPD.

He reiterates grievances over “an antiquated eight-hour-a-shift schedule” and the mandatory details for special events, but he sees the department’s elite, specialized units such as the mounted unit, the helicopter unit, and harbor patrol as selling points because they are unique to the District and provide opportunities for advancement. Sure, comparable salaries exist elsewhere, but the workload at MPD is tougher, Mahl says, and potentially more rewarding.

Asked if patrolmen and officers feel supported by the department, Mahl does not hesitate: “I think they’d say they do not,” he says. “But we are moving into a new era in law enforcement. High profile incidents here are low but they cast a long shadow. We’ve been fortunate. Because of public trust of the chief we have been insulated.” He points to an incident in the Sixth District last October that resulted in a viral video of officers subduing a subject who was high on PCP. Initially, he says, MPD took the unwarranted step of removing the officers from patrol and placing them on administrative leave, before weighing the context of the video. “It was a huge overreaction by the department but they slowly corrected the response,” he says of the decision to reinstate the officers before the investigation was completed. (Mahl says the matter was resolved without formal charges being brought against the officers.)

Mahl is working with Lanier to try to implement a more progressive program of discipline that emphasizes education over punishment, he says. But he notes that management-level officials receive discipline that is less harsh than what the rank-and-file get. Which is ironic, given that Mahl, according to sources familiar with the incident, was facing discipline when he was elected, only to have Lanier dismiss it less than a month later. Citing the law governing internal MPD disciplinary procedure, Mahl declined to comment.

Mahl talks about what he calls the “Baumann era,” and insists he will not be re-litigating that era and fighting against the chief as his members are eyeing a contract expiration in 2017. “My membership will not swallow another battle over contract negotiations,” he says. “Some guys went half their career without a raise. I’m not gonna ask them to do that again.”

Already, Mahl says, he has seen a “change of attitude” out of MPD headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave. NW, which he surmises has to have something to do with his agreeability. Is it a rapprochement? Mahl simply says that whatever it is, it is going to benefit officers, the department and the city, “if we can keep some of these people who are retiring, especially with 25 years on.” Yet in the same breath he concedes, “If I was them I’d leave, but it runs the risk of more mistakes” by younger officers that benefit from the experience and wisdom of their elders—the type of cops who taught Detective Joe Belfiore, who, had he stuck around, would be looking to mentor the next generation of officers behind him.

But if it all sounds too chummy, the FOP’s new chairman doesn’t hesitate to speak directly to the chief’s flaws. He says that both Lanier and Baumann were to blame for the toxic situation that may have lowered incentives for younger officers to stay with MPD and veterans to stay beyond early retirement age. “In the past she relied too heavily on an inner circle that was too happy to be yes-men than to give her the truth on what’s going on,” he says.

He disputes that Lanier doesn’t care about her officers, and when asked if she can change as a means to improving morale, he says, “I think that’s kind of where we’re at right now. She’s long outlived her major metropolitan area chiefness. You don’t see many of them stick around nine, 10 years.” Crime was down, now it’s up, he says, reeling off the department’s own stats—41 homicides over 38 last year at this time, assault with a deadly weapon up 5 percent, robberies up 15 percent, violent crime up 9 percent—while acknowledging Lanier’s ability to play a numbers game with the press and the public.

“You can get the numbers to say anything you want them to,” Mahl says.

Whether Lanier is singularly responsible for MPD’s attrition problem is debatable, but after almost a decade on the job, it’s thoroughly her problem. The subject leads to speculation about the direction the department is going in—and her future.

“Statistically she’s on her downward slide,” Mahl concludes. “I think she wants to leave the city on a positive note. I think she’d like to solve the retention issue, reduce crime and make an exit.”

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