Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd says had a scheduling conflict with last night’s ACLU-organized candidate forum, but he won’t say what that conflict was.

The show went on without him, but LL has to admit it just wasn’t as much fun without the incumbent present. Here are the questions Todd didn’t answer, along with his challengers’ responses, edited for length and clarity. LL gave Todd a deadline of noon to respond to the questions and will update this article if Todd wishes to weigh in.

Update: Todd sent over his answers via email. LL included them below, edited for length and clarity. But even with the added advantages of writing out his responses and seeing his opponents’ answers, the councilmember did not provide answers to two questions and did not give straight “yes” or “no” answers in some cases where his challengers did. Todd also hasn’t personally explained the scheduling conflict, but his campaign manager, Jackson Carnes, says it was “personal.”

How would you grade Brandon Todd’s performance on criminal justice issues in particular?

Janeese Lewis George: The biggest issue with the incumbent when it comes to public safety in our ward and the criminal justice system is his focus on using the same practices over and over again that haven’t gotten results. His fall back is always on policing and increasing police presence as if that is the solution. He has been reactive instead of proactive. I know that vanity license plates aren’t the answer. I know the cure violence program in Ward 4 is.

Marlena Edwards: I would not grade the present incumbent councilmember well at all. There are serious issues with policing that continue here in Ward 4. We need to be proactive, and we need to have more satellite policing, more foot patrols, more Segways in the community, more interaction with the police on the ground, and actually speaking with community members as opposed to riding around in vehicles.

Brandon Todd: Our crime statistics have decreased in almost all areas over the past 5 years. But this is not enough. Efforts to increase policing, neighborhood engagement and government focus have helped to create methods for addressing concerns, and I have employed all of these and more. My relationship with 4D commanders has helped us identity solutions to public safety issues and better community policing strategies to find the right balance to keep our community safe.

What organizations would you rely on the most for advice on criminal justice issues?

ME: The Metropolitan Police Department, the District of Attorney General’s Office (LL thinks she probably means the Office of the Attorney General), the U.S. Attorney General’s Office (likely referring to the U.S. Attorney’s Office) to look at the funding that is coming down so that we make sure we’re getting our adequate share of funding coming into the District to assist with financing programs. 

JLG: Community members working with our neighborhood, Citizens Advisory Councils; working with the organizations here, the ACLU, Black Lives Matter DC; working with our government organizations, the attorney general’s office, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, faith-based community organizations and members. 

BT: I worked with the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) legislation … because I believe preventative measures are highly effective to reducing crime and that “hurt people hurt people.” 

Todd also provided a long list of organizations and groups. The top five are: the Office of the Attorney General, Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, the Metropolitan Police Department, of course, and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

We’ve seen a lot of localities taking steps to reduce the prison population and jail population during the coronavirus outbreaks. For example, in D.C. police have stopped taking people into custody for low level offenses. Do you believe these practices should be made permanent once this outbreak and the state of public health emergency is over?

JLG: We have to focus on reducing violent crime, and the way we do that is stop criminalizing what I would call crimes of social conditions that people have been part of. So we want to focus our resources on reducing gun violence and fighting crimes and not taking away necessary police resources on these smaller offenses that don’t do anything but contribute to the mass incarceration of black and brown families.

COVID-19 has shown us the weaknesses in our system, and one of the weaknesses we have seen is a focus on small level offenses is a waste of our resources and a waste of our time, and we should focus on solving our major issues in criminal justice.

ME: Yes definitely. The policies need to be more aggressive and we need to look at more of the issues that deal with people with mass incarceration. 

BT: Yes. There is a need to take a hard look at our system and at the disproportionate arrest of people of color for non-violent crimes. … Mass incarceration has had devastating effects on families, the economy, and the community, especially for people of color. I believe that investing in more diversion and rehabilitation programs for non violence offenders will prove to be beneficial. There has to be a path to returning to society as a productive, contributing citizen.

How do you overcome the lack of trust in MPD and police in general in order to truly initiate community policing?

JLG: We overcome that distrust by MPD taking accountability for the practices that have happened. We encourage this trust by making sure that gun recovery unit officers are not taking photos with white supremacy symbols and happily wearing those symbols as they stop and frisk black and brown children. We take it back by having police officers not just reacting to crime, but being a part of our communities, coming into our communities in a positive way and not only seeing them when a crime happens. 

In Ward 4 we see officers in their cars, sitting in their cars, but never getting out and engaging with our community members. And we want to see more of that. We do that by MPD stopping their practices of harassment in our black and brown communities. That’s how we build trust, with oversight of MPD.

ME: We need more community policing. There are quite a few officers here in the Ward 4 community who a lot of us know personally. We also we need more training. 

One key issue is how to deal with mental health patients, who end up getting killed because people don’t understand they’re psychiatric distress. So just getting more officers on the ground, reintroducing the officer friendly program, so officers are going back into the schools, so children don’t fear the police.

BT: I think MPD has made great attempts at building more trust with the community … policing model started by Chief Ramsey in the early 2000’s. They have created the framework for better relations in areas like recruitment, providing ways for officers to live in the community in which they serve, giving opportunities for residents and native Washingtonians to serve on the force, and assisting in ways for officers to be more sensitive and knowledgeable about the community. Yet, despite all of this, I recognize that trust is not universal for all residents and there are always improvements that can be made around community engagement in areas like: officers training, more diversity recruitment, increase beat walks in warmer months, quarterly meetings with the commander, more community meetings.

One major issue for the D.C. Council is the budget. We’re expecting hundreds of millions of dollars if not more to be cut from the budget in the upcoming year. What areas and programs in the budget would you prioritize to protect from cuts?

ME: Any of the programs that deal with the Department of Youth and Rehabilitation Services, to make sure that we are able to deal with and help youth rehabilitate before they go onto harder criminal activity so that we can get them back into the community. 

Also any programs dealing with the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency dealing with people getting back into the community, getting back into halfway houses, making sure those programs are not cut, and help provide wrap around services so they can be participating members of the community.

JLG: This is a time for us to actually dig deep, look at our broken procurement system, and fix it. Look where we’re duplicating processes, and where we’re duplicating funds, and fix that. We have to prioritize our housing fund and our housing needs. We still have to prioritize our young people and education.

BT: We must protect the Housing Production Trust Fund, Immigrant Justice Legal Services, Safe at Home, Workforce Housing Fund, Homeward DC, the “Keeping Childcare Affordable” tax credit, social service and mental health programs, job training and alternative education programs.

What areas do you see as ripe for cuts?

JLG: Bloated funding is the Events DC budget. I think we need to look at the main office in DCPS and looking at how that funding is happening with administrators and how that funding is not coming down to our students. Making sure that money is actually going to students and not to high paid workers in DCPS’s main office.

ME: I agree with Ms. Lewis George with Events DC. 

Also DC arts and humanities. Now is a time when we’re buckling down, and this COVID-19 is quite the change. So that’s two areas that need to be looked at. More specifically overall, general contracting and procurement throughout the District government. There is a lot of waste with services that have been contracted out that were previously done by District government workers, and you don’t see any any savings.

BT: Longstanding agency vacancies, contracts for projects that can be funded with other sources of the local budget, shifting resources to other funding sources to free local money, duplicative city programs and contracts, redirecting funds from mandated programs to areas that can be cut but still need funding.

One of the most common complaints councilmembers get is about public safety, recent shootings on their block, or about crime concerns. How do you balance the calls from constituents who want to see more policing with the calls from those who want to see less?

ME: How you would balance it is to make sure that you would have a very tight team that is very closely rooted to the community, has a very good understanding of what is going on in terms of public safety. And also making sure that regular issues are being met. Also working in tandem with ANCs.

JLG: Delivering results. When I talk to Ward 4 neighbors, they don’t tell me they want more policing, they tell me they want to feel safe in the neighborhoods. They say to me “I want to see solutions to solving public safety.”

So because over and over again they haven’t seen solutions, they see promises being made that haven’t been met, the way you solve that problem is by showing them and delivering results. 

BT: My staff and I attend every ANC and community group meeting across Ward 4. We have heard from both sides—residents who want more policing and those who oppose more policing. It’s a balance. However, I support the mayor’s goal to expand police officers to 4,000. Not every neighborhood needs more policing, but there are some that do. I have gotten calls and emails from constituents asking for nightly patrols or more visible officers in violent corridors.

Do you support the decriminalization of drug paraphernalia and sex work?

ME: No I do not support the full decriminalization with drug paraphernalia. 

But let’s start with sex work. As a social worker, it is my job to look out for public safety. And it is very hard to know whether someone is participating in sex work voluntarily, by force, or if it’s by human trafficking. So at this time I cannot support decriminalizing it. 

In terms of drug paraphernalia, we have the Takoma Wellness Center that provides medical marijuana, so as long as marijuana usage is within our current D.C. laws, whether it’s medicinal or the quantity that you have, then yes, I agree with decriminalizing it.

We need more funding at the DC Office of Human Rights, so they can have more programs for people who have different problems that may pertain to transgender or LGBTQ issues. And that’s how I would deal with pulling people out of possibly having to use sex work as a means of income.

JLG: I am in support of it. We talk about decriminalizing sex work, we need to make sure the difference between sex work and sex trafficking is clear, and the bill that At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced made very clear that trafficking laws would remain the same. 

BT: My stance on policy issues is dictated by what my constituents tell me. And they do not want either legalized. Long-time Ward 4 residents lived through, suffered, and in many cases lost loved ones when crime was at its highest in the District. They tell me, to a person, that the two symbols of those difficult times were the prevalence of drugs, and prostitution. It’s one thing to speak theoretically about issues that matter to real people; it’s another to bear the responsibility of representing their stated desires. I’ve been doing the latter for more than a decade. In face, many studies have shown that legalizing prostitution actually increases the incidence of sex trafficking and makes it more difficult to investigate crimes against trafficked women.

LIGHTNING ROUND!

Do you support ending the practice of police stop and frisk?

ME: Yes

JLG: Yes

BT: Yes

Do you support the mayor’s surveillance camera rebate program?

JLG: The program needs to recognize people’s private ability to not be surveillanced by police. I don’t think it’s the only solution, and it’s been treated like the number one solution for solving crime, and we’ve seen that it has not done that. People’s liberties are still at stake.

ME: I have seen individuals who are in neighborhoods where there’s lots of crime where it has been helpful, and it helps them to feel protected, but we do not want overreaching by government where the surveillance overreaches into anyone’s constitutional rights.

BT: Yes. The security footage has been a helpful tool in investigations. I’ve spoken with many residents who are happy with the program and attest that the cameras give them a sense of security.

Would you support the creation of a civilian oversight board for Metro police?

ME: Yes

JLG: Yes

BT: I support having a joint board that is comprised of residents and law enforcement experts.

Do you support the Second Look Amendment Act?

JLG: Yes, and I was upset that the U.S. Attorney’s Office lobbied against something we know is research and neuroscience based. 

ME: Yes. It needs to be instituted nationwide. 

BT: I support efforts to reduce mass incarceration and recidivism, but also want to make sure we are being thoughtful about legislation that calls for the re-examination of criminal justice decisions and the full ramification of that. We should ensure that [sic] true due diligence from the board that reviews cases and all parties weigh in.

(LL notes that a board would not review cases under the Second Look Amendment Act. A judge would, and does under the current law.)

Why are you a better alternative than the incumbent and the challenger here today?

JLG: I’m in this race because I have real life experience in not only the criminal justice system, but my family had to deal with housing displacement. I’ve had to take unpaid leave. I’ve had family members incarcerated. I’ve had family members and neighbors fall to gun violence. I’ve been the only candidate working in the criminal justice system for the past five years. I’m the only fair elections candidate in this race. 

ME: I have over 30 years of professional experience. I have worked for District government for over 23 years helping hundreds of families to navigate the health and social services system. I’ve worked extensively with organizations in Ward 4, including the Ward 4 Democrats and the Shepherd Park Civic Association.

BT: There is nothing more important to me than making sure our community and my neighbors get the services and resources they deserve. I have spent my time on the Council doing just that. Especially as we enter uncharted territory during this public health emergency, my tenure of over decade [sic] with the D.C. Council, understanding the inner workings and building critical relationships with my colleagues, couldn’t be more critical now. 

I am a third generation Washingtonian; raised by a single mother who was a business owner; product of DCPS; worked in government to serve the residents of Ward 4. My allegiance is to the residents first, and getting them the best services. I am accessible and responsive to all residents, I listen and hear all residents and I have been fighting for all residents in all 20 neighborhoods for over 13 years.

The fate of the District’s only halfway house is uncertain. Would you support a halfway house in Ward 4?

ME: Yes I would support it. And I must say there has been lots of issues with individuals saying in fact Ward 4 has had too many group homes or halfway homes in the area.

I would support it as long as there is an environment where individuals could flourish. We do have group homes that function very well in Shepherd Park and Takoma D.C. So as long as well it’s well planned and monitored, it can work. 

JLG: Yes. We need transitional housing and we can’t reject community members trying to take steps to improve their lives. 

BT: We have one of the largest numbers of group homes and facilities in the city. I believe everyone should have a chance at a strong future and better life.

Do you support reducing the presence and number of police officers in schools?

JLG: Yes. We talk about MPD’s budget, one of the biggest contracts they have is police officers in schools. We talk about what we need more in schools. I would like to see some of that funding go toward more social workers in schools.

ME: No, I would not reduce the police presence in public schools at this time. There are a whole lot of other issues. People are concerned about safety. The students are concerned about safety. The teachers are concerned about safety.

BT: In a perfect world, yes. But we are not yet at a point where I believe that’s possible now. … The only way to reduce police presence in schools, which everyone, ultimately, does want is to reduce crime. … Until crime is truly eradicated, though, we owe as much to protect our school kids as we do to give them a world-class education. That includes ensuring that officers are engaged, present and active in the schools. The latter is impossible without the former.

How can we bring home 4,000 D.C. residents incarcerated in Federal Bureau of Prison facilities across the country?

JLG: Right now statehood has been an encumbrance to that problem. We needed statehood yesterday. We have to get back control of our criminal justice system. That includes the U.S. Attorneys Office, which is run by whoever is appointed by the president. We need to switch that jurisdiction to the attorney general’s office who is elected by us. We need to switch jurisdiction of parole to local control. 

ME: We need to look at the funding that the District of Columbia receives to make sure it’s adequate to put proper programs in place for returning citizens. 

BT

What are your thoughts on how the Department of Corrections has handled the COVID-19 pandemic at the DC Jail, and what if anything would you have done differently?

ME: This COVID-19 problem was handled very poorly at our city’s correctional center. I would have looked at any other facility that the District of Columbia could have opened on a temporary basis in order to have the social distancing.

It was not dealt with quickly enough. You have the officers are getting sick, and we just needed to look at better social distancing plan.

JLG: I think it was absolutely poorly handled. We should have created plan where we were releasing individuals who could be released. We should have safety guards in place to make sure people were protected. We should have found alternatives for individuals to be placed. And I think we should have acted more swiftly.

BT:

How do you define safety for Ward 4?

ME: As having proper housing in place. You do have a very quiet issue with homelessness. Need more transitional housing. That helps with safety. Also on the ground policing, foot patrols and Segways, so you can feel comfortable no matter which part of Ward 4 you’re in.

JLG: I think safety for Ward 4 is about the ability to thrive as an individual and as a community. Families feeling like they can send their children to school. People not being afraid of the police officers, but making sure they know who the police officers are, and they don’t see them as reactionary, and see them as part of our community. It’s peace of mind.

BT: Affordable, safe neighborhoods are the foundation of community progress. My close partnership with MPD has bolstered an awareness of and responsiveness to Ward 4 safety concerns. … I’m proud to say that the police union has endorsed me in this race because of our ongoing partnership. Much remains to be done, but, through years of experience and developing relationships fighting crime, we are on the right course. Safety starts with the lack of fear for personal safety related to crime.

Still, for me, safety is also about housing, health, job security and freedom from persecution. These have to be addressed before we can truly feel “safe” in our neighborhoods.