On the night shift . . . and in court from 7:30AM to Noon

In the District of Columbia, after officers of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) arrest someone and complete their paperwork, they must submit those papers to the courts and meet with prosecutors at 7:30 AM the next morning. Being arrested and spending a night in jail may be unpleasant, but a short late-night nap sitting up in a patrol car is the officer’s reward for apprehending the suspect. 

The cumulative physical and psychological cost to officers cannot be over-emphasized. Alertness, the primary requirement of patrol work, is blunted by current practice, and the family life of officers suffers as well. I spoke to a number of 1st District officers during the last mayoral transition and “night papering” – the ability to turn in arrest papers while working evening and night shifts — was the one thing they wanted during the new administration.  

The financial cost of the current practice is staggering – about $4.7 million in police overtime each year. This is enough to put more than 50 additional officers on street patrol each year. Clearly this makes no sense. 

D.C. Councilmembers Tommy Wells  (Ward 6) and Phil Mendelson  (At-Large) have introduced a resolution on night papering, urging that police officers be allowed to submit arrest paperwork to the courts at night. Officers on evening and night shifts could file arrest paperwork with the courts during scheduled hours, not on morning overtime, and go home for eight hours of sleep. 

DC Government knows that night-papering works because it has already been tried and found successful.  At various times over the past 20 years night-papering has been used in several districts and for various classes of cases. There has even been “officer-less-papering” for some types of offenses, where prosecutors decide whether to pursue cases through written police reports, without requiring immediate morning interviews with arresting officers. 

Why was night-papering discontinued? DC Courts and Federal prosecutors, other parties to these agreements, sometimes expressed legal concerns, but there is no doubt they were mostly concerned with their own bottom lines. And it is not a simple matter of comparing those costs to the $4.7 of police overtime.  

The DC Courts, while part of District Government, are funded directly by Federal appropriation, so their money comes from a different pot, and the police budget is not their problem. Prosecutors in DC are from the Office of the U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice. These attorneys prosecute cases under DC Law but are Federal employees, with no local administrative checks and balances. Any agreement with one U.S. Attorney has to be re-negotiated with the next – they are presidential appointees and turn over fairly often. 

Certainly the courts must be concerned that documents are properly filed and signatures witnessed and sworn. Of course prosecutors must get sufficient information to determine whether to pursue cases in court. But exhausting police officers and the District treasury for the convenience of court clerks and prosecutors serves neither justice nor public safety.

Image by Mike Licht, MPD, and Vincent Willem van Gogh.

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