Fewer Arrests + Worse Cases = Fewer Prosecutions
The US Attorney's Office throws MPD and the DC forensics lab under the bus
Thanks to Mitch Ryals of the Washington City Paper we know more about why US Attorneys Office (USAO) prosecutions in DC have declined so much in recent years. He took the data from this post and ran with it; getting a USAO spokesperson to offer this explanation:
“First, because the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences evidence lost its accreditation, we often cannot secure the drug testing, DNA, and firearms testing we need to successfully prosecute these offenses,” according to the USAO. “Second, we have, in the last few years, been able to incorporate body-worn camera [footage] into our charging decisions, which allows us to identify challenges before we charge. As a result, we are seeing fewer charged cases being dismissed by courts.”
The whole piece is worth a read and it provides a possible explanation for a big change in the arrest-to-charge “pipeline”:
As many people are aware, MPD’s staffing has decreased and in Fiscal Year 2022 was about 10% lower than the Pre-COVID Baseline
Pre-COVID Baseline period is FY 2014-2019 when many of these trends were relatively stable
Even with fewer officers, MPD is making fewer 44% fewer arrests per officer which is a larger impact on the overall arrest rate than the decrease in staffing
Even with fewer arrests, the USAO’s rate of “presenting” (i.e. filing charges) per arrest is down 48% - This is the largest impact on the volume of charges
These trends are multiplicative, meaning that they build on each other, so that USAO “Cases Presented Per Crime” is down 55% from the pre-COVID baseline
This would be lower if reported crime rates had not fallen as well (COVID decreased property crime ~17%, more details in this post)
So what: The combination of lower staffing, fewer arrests per officer and fewer cases per arrest are reducing the certainty of punishment for criminals; which can motivate more crime
This post will walk through each part of the “pipeline” but the overall trends for the Pre-COVID period and FY 2020-2022 are here:
I want to be very clear that this is not, and should not be, an industrial process. “More arrests” isn’t the “productivity” goal; case quality and following the Constitution matter. It’s also the case that these ratios are useful for tracking trends over time but these metrics relate to different things:
One major note of caution is that one can’t simply take the # of arrests and divide by the # of crimes and get “closure rate” because 1 individual can be responsible for multiple crimes but their arrest will only show up once in MPD’s data. Remembering those caveats, it’s worth digging into the “drivers” of these trends. The decrease in MPD staffing is very well known but the decrease in arrests overall and per officer is less discussed:
Obviously there was a big change in early 2020 when COVID hit. Interestingly, it looks like arrest rates (overall and per officer) settled into a new, lower equilibrium post-COVID (down 44% from the pre-COVID baseline) and have been remarkably stable. Normally when a workforce shrinks (like MPD has, staffing data here) the ratio of “work per employee” goes up. In healthcare this looks like high ratios of patients to nurses; in education it looks like “large class sizes.” But with arrest rates both conservative and liberal commentators are largely describing a “pullback” by MPD.
DCPU Chairman Gregg Pemberton described it like this: “The message that’s received by the rank and file police officer is that the city doesn’t want them engaging in … responsible, proactive police work. They want them sitting in their cars, sitting on the corner, and just telling citizens that they’re around. That’s the message that’s received and that message is carried through the command staff all the way down to police officers.” More liberal criticisms of MPD officers usually revolve around a lack of professionalism (“sitting in their cars looking at their phones”) and discipline. But they’re both describing a similar fact pattern, just attributing the “blame” to different factors. It’s important to note that multiple factors can be at play here with different officers at different times. It’s unlikely that there is one simple explanation for this trend but if arresting more criminals is a policy goal then this is something leaders should investigate. Especially with MPD recruiting facing so many challenges (see this post).
I’ll probably do a deeper dive into arrest categories in the future but here’s that data by calendar year. Large decreases in traffic violations, release violations and narcotics:
The next step in the process is that arrested suspects have their cases reviewed by the USAO, who decides if they will press charges. Tuesday’s post outlined how the USAO is now declining to press charges on 67% of MPD’s arrests. It’s notable that the USAO gave a statement on Mitch Ryals’ story and they placed so much of the blame on MPD and the DC Forensics lab. The USAO specifically called out that body-worn camera footage made cases more susceptible to challenges by defense attorneys. This allegation is more credible since another government agency lodged a similar complaint this year: “Michael Tobin, director of the Office of Policing Complaints, testified during an oversight hearing last week that in nearly half the videos reviewed following a complaint, officers broke department rules. Tobin said they were not major offenses, in most cases.” And the timing of when body-worn cameras began turning up “issues” with cases began in 2016; years before the 2020 policy on body-worn cameras that has been under much recent discussion.
Of course the USAO has a strong incentive to pass the “blame” for more case declinations on to MPD; so they’re not infallible. But the USAO is a credible source and this accusation is absolutely worth investigating.
Questions for Legislators and Journalists:
What is the feedback process from the USAO when they identify that MPD actions have compromised a case?
Are officers ever retrained or are other administrative actions taken when this causes a criminal to be released?
Why aren’t the “backstops” for DC’s forensic work providing the USAO with what they say they need to successfully prosecute cases?
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As a DC police officer one of my biggest frustrations is the lack of feedback from the USAO. They almost never tell you why a case was dropped or why a warrant was rejected. I have asked many times for feedback on what we are doing wrong and how we can improve but they almost never give an answer. How can we fix the problem if they won't tell us exactly what it is?
"COVID decreased property crime ~17%".
Do we know (or can we guess or estimate) how much of this decrease is real versus a drop in reporting rates? Or how much of the change is due to covid-induced changes in society vs the change in attitudes towards police that shifted around the same time?