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Three years after the D.C. Council passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, the Metropolitan Police Department says it’s finally implemented every provision—including detailed data collection for all uses of force and police stops. Both MPD and the District say detailed stop and frisk data collected between July 22 and Aug. 18 will be made available to the public in September.
“The city is complying with all the titles of the NEAR Act at this point,” Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue tells City Paper. “Just because we changed a marker to a green check on the website doesn’t mean we will stop thinking about how we grow,” Donahue says in reference to the change on the government website where “in progress” changed to “implemented” this week.
The release of the stop and frisk data has been a long time coming. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of D.C. filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for NEAR Act stop and frisk data in Feb. 2017, and later, along with Black Lives Matter D.C. and the Stop Police Terror Project D.C., sued the city in May 2018 to access information. At one point, MPD responded to the request by offering tens of thousands of individual recordings from police body cameras, which the ACLU of D.C. estimated would cost $3.6 million in FOIA fees. (Their calculation is based on “a prior invoice from MPD for a prior ACLU-DC body-camera FOIA request charged redaction fees at a rate of $23 per minute of video.”)
On Wednesday, D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge John Campbell ordered Mayor Muriel Bowser, Donahue, and Police Chief Peter Newsham to provide the data collected between July 22 and Aug. 18 to the ACLU of D.C. by Sept. 9. The crux of the years-long holdup, police have said, is that complying with the new law required significant changes to their data collection process and system, which in turn required funding and training.
The city will soon begin regularly publishing detailed data in a variety of locations, including the MPD and Safer Stronger D.C.’s websites. There’s already some information available online, like when and where a stop occurred. But come September, officials say it’ll release new records of stops and uses of force that are consistent with the 2016 law. For instance, the law asks for records to include the race of the person stopped by the police, why the person was stopped, whether a search was conducted as a result of the stop, and if criminal activity was discovered.
“Overall, I am proud of what we’ve seen since I authored and led the fight to pass the NEAR Act,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie in a statement to City Paper. “Without endorsing every decision along the way, I think that the passage of the NEAR Act’s public health approach to violent crime prevention has reoriented DC’s approach to criminal justice for the better.”
But the ACLU of D.C. says it is too soon to say whether or not the city is complying. The lead counsel in the lawsuit, Black Lives Matter v. Bowser, Scott Michelman, wants to see what is published first.
“The devil, of course, is in the details, and it is not yet clear to us from what the government has filed with the court that they are in full compliance,” Michelman tells City Paper. “There are a couple of categories that we’re worried will be collected either duplicatively or not at all.”
The ACLU already voiced its concerns to the defendants in the suit, including how the information collection method could muddle the published data. The information is gathered in two ways, one for traffic stop citations and another one for all other stops, and what information an officer records depends on the kind of stop. For example, if an infraction issued during a traffic stop escalates, there’s a possibility the stop will be recorded twice—once through the Department of Vehicles and then again through MPD’s records management system, says Michelman.
“Now it may ultimately be that they can use these two systems in a manner that complies with the law. But given their sorry history of compliance with the NEAR Act, you’ve got to wonder whether the use of two systems is a deliberate attempt to muddle the data set,” he says.
This section of the NEAR Act has become a sensitive topic. Newsham tried to distance MPD from the phrase “stop and frisk” altogether, telling WAMU on Tuesday, “We’ve never had a stop and frisk policy here in Washington D.C.— that’s something that they did in New York City.”
Councilmembers and advocates have been demanding to see the data for some time because the information is critical for meaningful reform. A city report released in January 2018 shows 89 percent of 2,224 uses of force between October 2016 and September 2017 involved a black person; the most common pairing was white officers using force on black people.
Donahue agrees, saying “a more transparent police force is a more legitimate police force.”
So while the information is finally being released, the parties involved in the lawsuit are in disagreement over why it’s happening.
“Prior to any lawsuit issued, we made clear from the get-go that we are going to make the information available to the public when we made changes to the data system,” says Donahue.
Michelman says, “To claim that the ACLU lawsuit had no effect on the department’s NEAR Act compliance is just nonsense… Just looking at the timeline of events, it’s pretty rich to claim that the department had intended to comply all along.”
During an oversight hearing in March 2018, Newsham did apologize and agreed that his department’s failure to collect the data in a meaningful way was “not acceptable.” To WAMU on Tuesday, he maintained the problem was a lack of funds.
“There was a little bit of a lag since the NEAR Act was initiated initially. There was very limited funding that was provided by the Council for the NEAR Act,” said Newsham, “When the funding did become available, we engaged at MPD to make the corrections to our records management system.”