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A set of D.C. activists see a direct tie between two events in 2016: The D.C. Council passed the The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Amendment Act in March; and in September, 31-year-old Terrence Sterling was shot and killed by Metropolitan Police Department officer Brian Trainer. One would think these events would have come in reverse order, but they didn’t.
Outside of an administrative hearing for Trainer last week, Bailey Cox, an organizer with Stop Police Terror Project DC, is protesting alongside nearly a dozen other activists as people begin to trickle in for the start of the hearing.
“These are not isolated events, and to say that these are just some poisonous apples is a disservice,” she says. “We want to uproot the entire tree and say, ‘There are alternative measures to this and our communities deserve better and they deserve public safety and public measures that aren’t just police officers, which dips into the hyper policing and the police violence that disproportionately targets black communities.”
The alternative measures Cox refers to are within the NEAR Act, a comprehensive law dealing with crime in D.C. that operates on three key provisions. One is a public health approach to violence prevention and intervention which established two new government agencies—the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity—along with a Community Crime Prevention Team that serves residents who show signs of mental illness and substance use. The second provision is about community policing practices, and requires regular public opinion surveys as well as training for MPD officers on preventing bias-related policing.
But it’s the final provision of the NEAR Act that’s currently causing strife: data collection.
More than two years after it became law—one that the D.C. Council proudly and unanimously passed and, after a year of budget drama, fully funded in 2017—certain elements of the NEAR Act aren’t being followed, and both activists and some Councilmembers are pissed.
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At the crosshairs: a key provision in the data collection element that requires all MPD officers to record detailed information about all stops-and-frisks—when an officer stops a pedestrian or motorist and searches them.
In February of 2017, the ACLU of DC filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all the data collected “pursuant to the NEAR Act’s Stop & Frisk Data provision since the implementation of the Act,” but MPD denied the request, explaining that the collection of that data hadn’t been implemented yet. A year later, WUSA9 filed a similar FOIA that revealed that the MPD was still not collecting stop-and-frisk data.
On the heels of that revelation, ACLU-DC, along with Stop Police Terror Project DC and Black Lives Matter DC, sent a letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser threatening a lawsuit for the stop-and-frisk data, or—if the data hasn’t been collected—a detailed plan and timetable for doing so.
In the most recent budget oversight hearings, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, grilled Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue as to why the MPD hasn’t been collecting the data. The previous year’s fiscal budget allotted $150,000 specifically for the MPD to collect stop-and-frisk data pursuant to the NEAR Act law. But after questioning from Allen, Donahue explained that, though some data had been collected, MPD didn’t have the necessary tools to collect all the required data.
“Some data we already collect, exactly as listed,” Donahue said in the hearing. “Some data we collect, but not consistently, or have to clean. And sometimes we don’t collect the data at all, and so that would involve a fundamental change to either an IT system, a police protocol, in order to get it.”
Donahue added that though the MPD is required to collect stop-and-frisk and use of force data under the NEAR Act, “the law does not require reporting” on such data collection.
“We’re doing it because it’s in the spirit of the law. There’s not actually a reporting element here,” he said. He explained that because MPD isn’t required by law to report their data collected on stops-and-frisks; it’s not a “mission critical” requirement of the NEAR Act.
Monica Hopkins, the executive director of the ACLU of D.C., sees it differently. “I think, quite frankly, it’s really frustrating because I don’t think that there is anything more mission critical than understanding how your police force is policing in the District,” she tells City Paper. “What do you have to hide? … Because accountability and transparency are the fundamental tenets of police-community relations.”
In his questioning of Donahue during the March 29 budget oversight hearing, Allen laid out the issue more bluntly: “I believe we passed a law to say ‘We need X, Y, and Z.’ And I can respect and hear if you say, ‘We collect X, but we don’t do Y and Z. And here’s the way we need to change.’ Or, ‘We need support to change an IT system,’ or ‘We need to add in an applicability clause to give us the time to make the change to the system to collect it that way. But I’m not hearing that right now.”
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who was the lead author on the NEAR Act when he was chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, echoes Allen’s frustration. “The police data collection provisions of the NEAR Act … was something that we looked at from other jurisdictions,” he says. “We modeled it off of some of the work that … the former Obama administration did in police data collection, and we wanted to include it because we knew from evidence, and experience in other places, that it helped to foster better police-community relations.”
Neither Donahue nor MPD responded to City Paper’s requests for comment, but at the March 29 oversight hearing D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham apologized, agreeing with Allen that his department’s failure to collect the data is “not acceptable.”
Hopkins says that the Mayor’s office had 15 days to respond to their demand letter, or ask for an extension, before the ACLU would move to take legal action against the MPD. At the time of publication, the ACLU of D.C. says that it hasn’t received a response, and plans to move forward this week.
“Essentially what is happening here is, you can’t have the Council, or any state legislature, pass a law requiring government agencies to do something, and then the government agency essentially saying ‘Sorry we don’t feel like it.’ They have to comply with the law,” Hopkins says.
“And so, unfortunately, if the mayor is not going to do what she is supposed to do, because it says the mayor shall compel MPD to do this,” Hopkins says. “If she won’t do it and MPD won’t do it, then we are compelled, on behalf of our over 20,000 members and our partners who have been asking for this data, to take them to court and have a court compel them.”
For the activists who work with Stop Police Terror Project DC and Black Lives Matter DC, advocating for the NEAR Act and its full implementation has been a long process, but one worthy of a continued fight.
“It just seems like they don’t want to do it, and they try to get away without doing it,” says Greg Montross, the policy director of Stop Police Terror Project DC. “And if it weren’t for the advocacy and Council hearings, they wouldn’t.”