More than 80 people signed up to tell the D.C. Public Safety Committee their thoughts on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s crime bill.
While the focus was on the Addressing Crime Trends Now Act (ACT Now), witness after witness talked about the impact of the increase of crime in the District.
“I have never, ever seen crime this bad,” said Kimberly Lockett, a Petworth resident who was born and raised in D.C.
She talked about being on a Zoom call for work when, “We heard a loud ‘boom, boom boom'” that prompted her co-workers to ask if she was OK. Lockett reassured her colleagues, but then “walked outside to a body … a dead body on the street.”
Lockett choked up briefly as she said she could no longer allow her older brother, who she described as having “special needs,” to walk their dog by himself. She said she fears for his safety and worries the dog will be stolen.
Skye Lawrence, an Anacostia resident, said she often debates how to get to work, opting for her car over taking the bus, because she said bus stops have become hubs for crime. She told the panel she often asks herself before heading out, “How valuable is my life?”
Lawrence testified in favor of the crime bill, including the provision that would reinstate making wearing masks and hoods illegal “for the purpose of committing criminal acts, intimidating and threatening other people, or causing fear.”
“That doesn’t mean that if you’re wearing a ski mask, you’re going to commit a crime, of course it doesn’t,” she said. “Because so many people in Ward 8 have seen people committing crimes wearing masks, it just feels threatening.”
But Ward 7 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Ashley Ruff told the panel, “My child feels comfortable wearing a hood going to school, wearing uniforms, and it’s not to commit a crime or anything.”
Rickey Bryant, who heads a program called Street Line, said young people are exposed to social media and video games, such as Grand Theft Auto, “And you wonder why there’s carjackings.”
“You got programs out there that address all these issues, but nobody knows about them,” Bryant said.
Jean Homza, who’s worked at D.C.’s 9:30 Club since the late 1990s told the panel that there’s an “intractable problem” for residents and businesses around the 600 block of T Street NW.
“The customers and employees of the small businesses, as well as the neighbors living there, endure abuse every day and the businesses are looking at relocating,” she said. “It’s an absolute horror story.”
Neal Gearhart, general manager of Pursuit Wine Bar and Kitchen in Northeast D.C., said the business has seen reduced foot traffic due to crime. Gearhart said nearly every week, he has to ask panhandlers to leave the restaurant, and he added the business has been broken into five times in 2023 alone.
In the most recent break-in, Gearhart said, “Whoever broke in rolled up a trash can — one of our own trash cans — had enough time to fill it with alcohol and walk off into the night.”
Jay Brown, founder of Community Shoulders, told the panel that his own 3-year-old daughter had been affected by crime. He said that while traveling in her car seat, four young men with guns drawn approached the car she was riding in and pointed their guns at her.
“It’s very hurtful to watch her dive on the floor when a trash truck rumbles past. So, I understand fear,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean that I want my neighbors’, my fellow citizens’ constitutional rights to be violated.”
The ACT Now bill was announced by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser in October. The proposal includes a measure to reinstate the ability of D.C. police to declare “drug-free zones” to, according to a release from the mayor’s office, “allow neighborhoods to clean up and reclaim public space.”
The bill would also establish new penalties for organized retail theft and rollback a number of police reforms.
Rollback of police reforms is part of the bill
Part of the legislation includes revisions to the police reforms passed by the council in 2022.
The Mayor’s Office statement from last month stated that portions of the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Amendment Act “made it more difficult for police to keep the community safe and hold criminals accountable for their actions.”
The updated legislation “clarifies the distinction between a serious use of force and incidental contact with the neck” and allows officers to view their body camera footage before writing their initial police reports in some cases.
During the hearing Wednesday, Melissa Wasser with the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. told the panel that “allowing officers to choke people to escape accountability and to arrest people without probable cause will not make this District any safer.”
Kenethia Alston, whose 22-year-old son Marqueese was shot and killed by police in 2018, told members of the D.C. Council committee, “Allowing officers to review their body cam footage prior to their initial report breeds mistrust and undermines community confidence in this police department.”
In her written testimony to the council, D.C. police Chief Pamela Smith wrote, “By closing some significant gaps in our criminal code, ACT Now will enhance the ability of MPD and our government partners to protect our communities and hold offenders accountable.”
She added that the legislation could help support “good police officers” who are doing good work, and will aid in officer retention and recruitment.