Mayor, police chief back updates to DC’s criminal code, but voice concern

“There’s some things that need to be done … to make sure that we get it right,” D.C. police Chief Robert Contee said Wednesday of an overhaul to the District’s criminal code. “I think it’s more important that we get it right than just get it done.” He made the comments during a press conference touting the opening of D.C.’s new Cadet Corps Training Center.

A D.C. Council committee is expected to vote on the first overhaul of the District’s criminal code in more than a century by the end of the month. There’s broad agreement that it’s necessary, but disagreements become apparent when delving into details of the rewrite.

During a press conference touting the opening of the District’s new police Cadet Corps Training Center, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Robert Contee weighed in on the direction they are going.

“We know that the criminal code certainly needs to be contemporized,” said Bowser. “But we want to make sure that doing so we are making the District safer.”

“This is a massive rewrite of the code, and rightly so,” said Contee. “It needs to be updated.

“In my position as the chief of police, I’m looking through the lens of, ‘Does this change ensure or does this change enhance public safety for the residents [and] the businesses of the District of Columbia?” said Contee. “I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s the lens for the rewrite of the code.”

The mayor repeatedly expressed concern that some of the changes would “remove tools from the tool belt” used by police to provide public safety. When asked for an example, she cited proposed changes to what could be described as “quality-of-life crimes.”

“Urination and defecation, for example, in public. Nobody wants that to happen, right?” asked the mayor. “We want to be sure that even quality-of-life issues are addressed.”

“Not many people are going to be arrested for it, but the police have an ability to gain compliance because of what’s in the law,” she added.

There have also been concerns about a recommendation from the commission behind the rewrite that would have folded carjackings — which are way up in the District — into the “robbery” offense, potentially weakening the sentences of those found guilty.

That recommendation has since been taken out of the latest proposal, and it’s on track to remain as a stand-alone offense. It’s another proposal that both the mayor and police chief said they had been concerned with, though.

“There’s some things that need to be done … to make sure that we get it right,” said Contee. “I think it’s more important that we get it right than just get it done. Get it right is what’s important here.”

While the D.C. Council’s public safety committee could vote on the rewrite as soon as Friday (it’s possible the vote gets pushed back to next week), the mayor said she would work with the council on “things that we think need more attention.”

However, she still didn’t have an advanced copy of the most current proposal, which also hints as to how involved her office has been in this process.

“We know … that we’re going to need some time to look at it,” said Bowser. “I’ll be making sure that I’ll be in touch with the council members to get an advanced copy so that we can review extensively what might be included.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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