‘Decentering police’ – DC police reform panel calls for major changes in public safety

After seven months of work, the D.C. Police Reform Commission issued its report on Thursday, which contained more than 90 recommendations calling for, among other things, a reduction in the size of the Metropolitan Police Department and a decentralization of the police as the go-to responders for public safety.

“The council asked us to make recommendations for how to revision policing and public safety in the District,” said co-chair Christy Lopez, a Georgetown Law professor, at a news conference Thursday. “And that’s what we did.”

The report entitled “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety,” said, “Police should be one of many public safety actors, rather than be at the center of the District’s approach to public safety.”

The recommendations for the D.C. Council center on three general areas — strengthening the public safety net, which includes investment in crisis intervention and programs to head off addiction and homelessness; creating a wider set of first responders, so that the police aren’t the default responders to people in a behavioral-health crisis; and installing more accountability and transparency in the D.C. police department, including the creation of the office of Deputy Inspector for Public Safety in the inspector general’s office.

“Law enforcement should be one option in an array of emergency responders, not necessarily the first option,” the report says.

Toward that end, the report calls for more investment in community resources to get at the roots of crime, and to de-emphasize police to the point that the size of the force should be reduced by “at least the rate of attrition over the next five years.”

Other recommendations for the D.C. Council:

  • Eliminate police officers in D.C. schools, replacing them with professionals in “positive youth development.”
  • Ban no-knock warrants and suspend police units that “use aggressive stop and search tactics.”
  • Establish “a presumption of citation in lieu of arrest for low-level offenses.”
  • Repeal the law requiring “a static minimum number of sworn officers.”
  • Expand the powers of the Police Complaints Board so that it has the power to review and approve D.C. police policies.
  • Make police officers’ disciplinary records public, as well as end the practice of purging serious disciplinary actions from those records after three years.
  • Mandate the police use technology that would turn on body cameras whenever an officer draws their gun.
  • End qualified immunity, the absolution of police officers from civil liability for their actions on the job.
  • Raise by fiscal 2025 the maximum age for offenders to be tried as juveniles from 18 to 21.
  • Curtail unbudgeted overtime. The report points out that D.C.’s police force was larger per capita in 2018 than any other large American city, and that the top 25 earners in the department made between $100,000 and $200,000 of overtime in addition to their base salaries.

The report says that “policing does not provide equal safety for everyone — especially not people of color in all their intersecting identities — and it never has. Policing has frequently and throughout our nation’s history been a tool of systemic racism.”

Reactions

Gregg Pemberton, the head of the D.C. police union, said in a statement that “the Commission is clearly on a mission to defund police in the District” and pointed to rising numbers of homicides and carjackings in D.C. He pointed to a separate section of the report, a statement from commission member Robert Bennett, who objected to several of the proposed changes, including the lifting of qualified immunity and the maximum age for juveniles.

Bennett wrote, “Of the dozens of recommendations issued by the Commission today, I have objected to only a handful. I did not come into this process as an obstructionist. However, there are serious repercussions to the proposed changes. I believe it would be dangerous and foolhardy to proceed without further study.”

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, a member of the commission, at the news conference called the proposals “edgy,” but said, “We should, every one of us, look seriously at these recommendations.”

Council Member Charles Allen, the chair of the public Safety Committee, said in a statement that “We have all asked police officers to be our only response to far too many social issues, often issues for which they’re not best equipped, where alternative responses might be more appropriate, or in which their involvement creates harm. The trust between officers and the communities they serve is frayed and in some areas is broken.”

Allen added that, “As a society and as a District government, we have continuously disinvested in communities and doubled down on law enforcement. It would be at our own collective peril to ignore the urgency of these challenges. … I expect that all branches of government, as well as the public, will take these recommendations seriously and collectively join together in the difficult conversations necessary to re-imagine policing and public safety.”

Council Member Kenyan McDuffie pointed out in a statement that some of the recommendations were already part of the NEAR Act, which was passed and signed into law several years ago but never fully implemented.

“This lack of implementation is a detriment to public safety,” McDuffie said.

You can read the 256-page report on the commission’s website.

WTOP’s Megan Cloherty contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2012 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He went to George Washington University as an undergraduate and is regularly surprised at the changes to the city since that faraway time.

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