Late in 2003, the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary launched an investigation into the Metropolitan Police Department’s botched handling of protests and demonstrations in recent years. Given that five protests since 2000 have resulted in lawsuits against the department, there was no shortage of alleged misconduct worth looking into, most notably the unlawful arrests of demonstrators and passers-by, and the hogtying and unnecessarily long detainment of innocent civilians.
The Washington City Paper has learned that Judiciary Committee Chair Kathy Patterson plans on introducing legislation on July 13 based on the committee’s findings. The committee focused on the September 2002 arrests at Pershing Park, where D.C. officers broke up an anti-globalization rally by corralling about 400 people for failing to obey a police order, which was allegedly never given (“Boss Hogtie,” 1/17/03). The committee also looked into the presidential-inauguration protest in January 2001 and another anti-globalization protest in April 2000.
According to a preliminary draft of the bill obtained by the City Paper, the council may be setting new guidelines for the department to stave off any repeats of the Pershing Park incident. Among the bill’s recommendations: that detainees not be held in handcuffs or plastic cuffs if they haven’t committed a violent act, that officers not encircle demonstrators with a police line unless they have already broken the law, and that a supervising officer account for any case in which a detainee is held for more than four hours.
“We believe those are minimal provisions that are the basis of constitutional practices,” says lawyer Mara Verheyden-Hilliard of the Partnership for Civil Justice, counsel for plaintiffs in the Pershing Park case. “Frankly, we’re in an unfortunate situation where we have to request from the government that they not do things that are violent and destructive of people’s constitutional rights.”
Patterson says her committee will hear testimony on whether to amend the bill to include a “private right to action” for citizens—a more controversial element that would allow demonstrators to sue individual police officials for violating constitutional rights. “What we’re trying to do here is sort through how to protect civil liberties in a post–Sept. 11 context,” says Patterson. “This is one way that we’re moving the debate forward on exactly that issue.”
Police officials, including Chief Charles H. Ramsey, would not comment on the bill because of pending lawsuits, according to Officer Junis Fletcher, a department spokesperson.CP