The Police Reform Commission in D.C. issued its final report “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety.” The Commission was established by D.C. Council Act 23-336, which stated, “The purpose of the Commission is to examine policing practices in the District and provide evidence-based recommendations for reforming and ‘revisioning’ policing in the District. “
The Act required the Commission to analyze a number of specific areas including: police in schools, alternatives to policing, police discipline, and justice in policing. The final report contains more than 80 recommendations for change in those areas. Some will require new legislation; some will amend existing legislation; and some could be implemented by the mayor and police chief.
In January 2019, Mayor Muriel Bowser wanted to see the MPD grow to a force of 4,000 from its then level of about 3,850. That was before the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the adoption of the slogan ‘defund the police’ by Black Lives Matter. The slogan became a point of contention in the presidential race.
Shortly after Floyd was killed, the D.C. Council, like other political bodies across the nation, passed legislation to reform its force. The bill included banning chokeholds and neck restraints by police and special police; required the release, within 72 hours, of body-worn camera footage after any officer-involved death or serious use of force; prohibited use of tear gas, pepper spray, riot gear, rubber bullets and stun grenades by MPD (or federal police while on non-federal land) in response to First Amendment protests; banned the hiring of officers fired for (or who resigned facing charges of) police misconduct or other serious disciplinary measures; modified the composition of the Police Complaints Board, moving from a five-member board with one Metropolitan Police Department representative, to a nine-member board with one member from each Ward, plus an at-large member, and no police representatives; required additional training of officers on topics including racism and white supremacy; and created the 20-member Police Reform Commission.
Some on the Commission have called on the District to reduce the police force to 3,000. How to do that and what roles would be removed from the police to other agencies and the community will be an ongoing debate that will most likely go on for years.
Complicating the call for a reduction in force was one day after the report was released there was another attack on the Capitol in which one officer was killed and another injured. We were reminded the DCMPD plays a special role in our nation’s capital and is the lead agency investigating this incident. They handle countless First Amendment demonstrations each year and major events like the inauguration coordinating with numerous other federal police departments, including the Park Police, Capitol Police, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals service among others.
One of the Commission recommendations is to remove police from their role in the schools. Another would turn over traffic control to the Department of Transportation. Another would route 911 calls on domestic incidents to other agencies instead of the police. Even those who see these as appropriate steps agree it will take time and money to train those who will assume the new roles.
One question to the Commission is in talking with members of the community did they find a stark difference in how people relate to the police among various age groups. Were older persons more concerned with seeing more rather than fewer police on the streets in their neighborhoods?
According to statistics from the Bureau of Justice, there was a “Massive 1-Year rise in homicide rates collided with the pandemic in 2020. Experts say crime across the U.S. in 2020 was like no other year as COVID-19 ravaged the country and protests flared.” At the same time it was reported “Using the BJS statistics, the declines in the violent and property crime rates are even steeper than those reported by the FBI. Per BJS, the overall violent crime rate fell 74% between 1993 and 2019, while the property crime rate fell 71%.” So what are we to think about the effectiveness of policing in the United States?
Clearly we must do something about rogue/criminal members of police forces. There needs to be massive retraining and new guidelines. But whether we need to reduce their numbers will be a question for continued debate.
Peter Rosenstein is a longtime LGBTQ rights and Democratic Party activist. He writes regularly for the Blade.