Credit: Amanda Michelle Gomez

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In response to more than a week of protests against police brutality and abuse of power, the D.C. Council debated and passed legislation on Tuesday that makes sweeping reforms to the Metropolitan Police Department, along with the systems like the Office of Police Complaints that hold it accountable.The Council also used the momentum of the protests to more forcibly probe MPD about its current and Fiscal Year 2021 budget.

“The fact of the matter is we incarcerate more people than almost any other place in the country, and yet here we are today where homicides have not descended,” Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie told MPD ChiefPeter Newsham during Tuesday’s budget hearing. “It is not working and we need to change the approach. And what I am saying is it is okay for a Council to look at your budget to see whether some of the funding, as in other agencies, could be used to address these issues in a way that produces better results.”  

During the legislative meeting earlier in the day, members discussed decreasing the number of MPD officers after At-Large Councilmember David Grossointroduced an amendment to reduce the sworn officer force to no more than 3,500. (MPD currently has 3,863 officers, per Grosso.) Although the amendment ultimately wasn’t included in the police reform legislation that unanimously passed Tuesday afternoon, the fact that it was debated for nearly an hour, with some members expressing openness to the idea, is a testament to the actions of protesters who’ve called for smaller police budgets and fewer cops on the streets.

Some of these protesters painted “defund the police” on several streets downtown over the weekend in response to the “Black Lives Matter” street painting and plaza renaming Mayor Muriel Bowser announced last week. Protesters want her to take concrete action and direct money from MPD to community resources. In a public statement released as Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen introduced his police reform emergency legislation, which stays in effect for 90 days, Bowser asked the Council to “delay consideration” until public hearings could be held, echoing a call made by the police union. In that same statement, the mayor said she supports the legislation.

“We have about 55 MPD officers per 10,000 residents. Chicago has 44 per 10,000. New York has 42 per 10,000. Baltimore has 40 per 10,000, and Boston only has 31 per 10,000,” Grosso said as he introduced his amendment. If the number of MPD officers was capped at 3,500, D.C. would still have about 50 officers per 10,000 residents.

“This is something that I have struggled with because I have groups that are pushing me to have zero police officers and then I have other groups that think we should have 4,000 plus,” Grosso continued. “This is a very challenging debate and something that I think we all should take a close, hard look on.”

Grosso offered his amendment as a way to jumpstart a conversation on reducing police in the Council so when members review the mayor’s budget, they don’t just continue to rely on police as the primary way to keep the city’s residents safe. Activists have been trying to discuss this with legislators for years. Grosso, however, did not attend the budget hearing that followed the legislative meeting and his spokesperson did not respond to questions about why he wasn’t there to ask the police chief about his amendment.  

“So far this is the only Councilmember actually being REAL about defunding the police,” Black Lives Matter DC tweeted as the Council debated Grosso’s amendment to Allen’s police reform legislation. Allen’s legislation touches on a lot of issues, such as expanding access to body-worn camera footage and requiring officers to explain to residents that they have the right to refuse a search without probable cause. Two amendments added by Chairman Phil Mendelson would prohibit MPD from hiring officers with a history of misconduct in other police departments and prevent the police union from negotiating discipline as part of its collective bargaining agreement with the city.

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Allen was the first councilmember to express skepticism of Grosso’s amendment, questioning whether it’s a good idea to make the size of the police force statutory. “When I hear the voices, it’s not just about the number of police officers, but it’s the officers themselves,” Allen added. (For groups like Stop Police Terror Project DC, the numbers are “definitely” part of the problem.) Multiple councilmembers said they wanted more time to debate the size of the police force. At-Large Councilmember Robert White supported Grosso’s call for an independent hearing on this issue, but worried they’d be slowed by bureaucracy and lose the energy of the moment.    

In the end, Grosso—“in hesitance”—withdrew his amendment. Lawmakers eyed the budget process as a way to reckon with the calls to defund the police.

*** 

“Ever since I’ve been on the Council, whenever issues about police staffing come up, there is always talk about ‘we have to get to 4,000’ … What’s magical about 4,000? Do we need 4,000 MPD officers?” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh asked Newsham.

“I don’t think there’s anything magical about any number. But I do think the calls that the mayor and I have heard from the community is that they want to see more police officers out on the street,” he responded. “I am hopeful the day will come where we don’t need as many police officers as we currently have, but looking at the increase in gun violence that we have in our city and the potential for future violence by people who come into our city with the intent on destroying and burning things, I don’t think we are there quite yet.”

Other councilmembers asked the police chief some variation of this question. Newsham routinely pointed to the city’s murder rate, which was the highest in a decade in 2019 and continues to rise in 2020. But some legislators, along with activists, see the rising number of homicides as more reason to question MPD’s performance and budget. The mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021 increases the MPD budget by 3.3 percent and, as Allen told City Paperpreviously, his Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety is looking to find savings.

Lawmakers and activists have suggested investing more money in newer alternatives to public safety—namely, the city’s violence interruption initiatives, where trusted and unarmed residents of the neighborhoods try to identify and stop crime before it happens. When asked about his impression of violence interrupters, Newsham said “the MPD is 100 percent supportive of any initiative that can reduce violence in our city.” He also showed a willingness to remove the types of responsibilities that officers have historically been expected to respond to, like enforcing noise ordinances or open container, saying, “sometimes putting a police officer in some of those circumstances can exacerbate an otherwise congenial experience.” 

The budget hearing started off tense, when Allen asked Newsham to wrap up his opening testimony because they only had allotted two hours for the full hearing due to scheduling related to the pandemic. “I do think it is important when we are in an environment where people are talking about police budgets that we give the chief of police an opportunity to let the community know where their money is being spent,” said Newsham. “If you want to silence that voice, then I will let you silence that voice.”

Allen also asked Newsham to provide data to back up his claim made on Friday’s Kojo Nnamdi Show that “the number one thing that contributes to excess force in any police agency is when you underfund it.” Newsham could only cite his experience at MPD since he first joined in 1989, right before Washington Post and Justice Department investigations into use of force prompted years-long reform. Recruiting and training also cost money, he added. Previous Marshall Project investigations found that just cutting police budgets did not reduce violence. Those reports looked at defunding following the Great Recession, and activists are currently calling for lawmakers to not just cut but reimagine law enforcement entirely.

D.C. Auditor and former chairperson of the Judiciary Committee Kathy Patterson tells City Paper that she is not aware of data that links funding to use of force. Her office has recommended a comprehensive utilization study, as other cities have done, to determine how many officers the city actually needs, since D.C. is unique as a city-state. She notes that the use of force work that she did as a councilmember, alongside Michael Bromwich, who acted as an independent monitor of MPD between 2002 and 2008, did not look into manpower, but as auditor, she has looked into this with a smaller sample of MPD officers.

“Based on our review of data from one week in August 2015, we found officers spent an average of 22 percent of their time on calls for service, a lower proportion of time than the amount of time spent by patrol officers in a handful of other studies,” she wrote in a letter to Allen and Newsham in February 2017. “This raises the obvious question of how the remainder of patrol time is spent, and could indicate that the number of patrol officers now deployed could be reduced without a significant impact on public safety.”

Another tense moment during the hearing came when McDuffie asked Newsham if he believes over policing of black residents exists, and if so, why that happens. Newsham acknowledged there were “some instances of that” and over policing is likely a symptom of police looking to find “violent offenders.”

“I think we are forgetting about that,” Newsham said, in reference to gun violence. McDuffie immediately pushed back, recalling times in his youth when he was arrested and when he held one of his friends “and watched him bleed out.” 

“I live this stuff every single day and even though I’ve gotten to this point, where I’m on the Council, I wear suits to work. I carry that trauma with me every single day,” McDuffie said.