Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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“For too long, I have seen and heard the pain and tragedy of a complete devaluing and dehumanization of black men and black people in this country,” says Steven Jumper, a 35-year-old black man and D.C. native, as he marched alongside hundreds of protesters to the White House on Sunday. “Absolutely, the coronavirus is a real tragedy that is impacting black and brown people at exponential rates, however this is a turning point for this country. Clearly, you can see people are tired. They are sick and tired of being tired.”     

Jumper knows there are “good cops”—his mother worked for the Metropolitan Police Department for a number of years and has seen them in action. But he also knows that the police treat black people differently. It boils down to structural racism. 

Thousands of people have protested in the streets of D.C. for nearly a week, prompted to act after a Minneapolis police officer killed a black man named George Floyd on May 25. Those gathering in the streets risked contracting COVID-19, getting pepper sprayed, and getting arrested because they know police abuse and violence is a regular occurrence in America. The killing of black individuals is the worst manifestation of this type of brutality.

Protesters want law enforcement to be held accountable, as it would appear that police oversight is too meager even though department budgets balloon year after year. And while the protests are not a referendum on any one agency, the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter, along with other groups, is calling for local leaders to defund MPD. “[Washington Teachers’ Union demands] greater investment in communities, not policing,” says its president, Elizabeth Davis. Organizers are also circulating an online petition to defund the police.  

“A budget is a moral statement,” says Sean Blackmon, an organizer with Stop Police Terror Project D.C. “It comes down to a question of who gets this money and resources and why do they deserve it?”

“It is not enough to simply not give the money to the cops,” Blackmon continues. “That money and resources need to be redirected intentionally to community-based programs, because it is our opinion that the people in those communities already have everything that they need to keep themselves safe and to keep themselves whole, they just need the resources to do so.” 

D.C. allocated more money to police and corrections than to programs for jobs, young people, and mental health combined in Fiscal Year 2019. Even though D.C. is facing a $1.5 billion revenue loss for the current and upcoming fiscal years due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Metropolitan Police Department could see its budget increase to well over half a billion dollars if the D.C. Council approves Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal. 

Those calling for divestment point to the agency’s own record to back up their position. Images of D.C. police in riot gear deploying pepper spray, surrounding protesters for breaking curfew, and forcing them to seek shelter in a man’s Logan Circle home are just a few recent examples. Stop-and-frisk data recorded between July and December 2019, which MPD was slow to release, reveals more than 70 percent of individuals stopped were black. (For context, 46 percent of D.C.’s total population is black.) 

In 2018, use of force incidents increased by 20 percent and more than one-third of MPD officers reported using force, according to the Office of Police Complaints’ most recent report on use of force. 90 percent of all reported uses of force involved black community members, and 41 percent of all uses of force involved white officers and black residents. That same year, MPD officers killed three black men—D’Quan Young, Jeffrey Priceand Marqueese Alston.     

Michelle Young, D’Quan Young’s aunt, has mixed feelings about the demonstrations taking place downtown and across the country, and questions whether they will bring meaningful change. Her experience with MPD and the department’s refusal to release details and evidence leave her feeling cynical.

It’s been more than two years since an off-duty officer shot and killed D’Quan. Federal prosecutors decided not to charge the officer, and MPD continues to refuse to identify him. Michelle Young’s lawyer submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for video footage of the fatal incident, but MPD has yet to hand it over.

“Without the video, George [Floyd] would have gone murdered without anything happening to him,” Michelle Young says. “It would have been the same thing we’re going through: he says, she says, and nothing happens.”

***

When asked about the defund police movement during a Wednesday press conference, Bowser said, “You have my budget, and my budget invests in making sure we have the officers around the city that we need to keep D.C. residents safe.” Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue followed the mayor by defending the budget increases. “One of those elements among the many that go into a good police force is recruiting locally,” said Donahue, pointing to investments in D.C.’s cadet program.     

Bowser’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a 3.3 percent increase for the Metropolitan Police Department, bringing its total budget to nearly $580 million. Bowser’s proposal allows MPD to “continue hiring … uniformed officers” to offset attrition. The proposal mentions a specific increase of $280,000 for ballistic shields. Her budget also asks for $1.7 million to expand the MPD cadet program from 100 to 150 cadets. 

While police represent the traditional approach to addressing crime and public safety, programs within agencies such as the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of Victims Services and Justice Grants represent part of D.C.’s commitment to alternative approaches.

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Bowser’s budget includes some investment in alternative programs, such as the Leadership Academy, which is based at Anacostia High Schoolandprovides mentors and wrap-around services to address behavioral issues. 

But the mayor has nearly cut other programs that councilmembers and advocates say are more necessary now than ever, as tensions between police and residents escalate. The Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants, for example, saw a cut of $3.6 million from last year’s approved budget to a total proposal of $50.5 million. The office houses programs that support trauma-informed services and victim services, and provide low-income and underserved people with access to civil legal services.

ONSE, which houses the Leadership Academy, has a total budget of $7.6 million for Fiscal Year 2020. Bowser’s proposed budget reduces that to $6.7 million, an 11 percent reduction. One cut in particular—$805,000 to ONSE’s violence interruption program—frustrated councilmembers during the mayor’s budget presentation last month. The program, aimed at reducing violent crime without police intervention, is still relatively new, and in response to questions from several councilmembers, City Administrator Rashad Young said the mayor opted to fund a different violence prevention program with better data to support its results. 

“In the case of violence interruption, the data is a little bit mixed,” Young said. “We have violence interrupters in communities where we haven’t seen the kinds of declines in violent crime that we would like.”

At-Large Councilmember Robert White expressed his frustration with the mayor’s decision not to fund the violence interruption program, saying it’s “perhaps too early to cut as opposed to look to improve.”

Following President Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements over the weekend, in which he threatened protesters with “vicious dogs” and “ominous weapons,” White posted a video to Twitter expressing his disgust that the president was “antagonizing black communities, deliberately provoking violence against them for protests born out of the belief that the criminal justice system won’t work.”

In the same video, he called out Bowser for her proposed cuts to the violence interruption program, which he believes is effective at reducing violence while avoiding “dangerous interactions between law enforcement and communities.”

“If in a city like Washington, D.C., one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the country with a majority African American leadership, we can’t shed light on a better path, then what hope is there?” he says in the video. “Every one of us is responsible for turning the tide. Just as racism is not confined to one individual who puts his knee on the neck of another man until he dies, neither is justice the result of one policy, one procedure, but a culmination of many.”

One of Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen’s top priorities this budget cycle is to significantly increase funding for violence prevention and intervention as D.C. copes with another public health crisis: gun violence. With 67 homicides to date, the city has seen a 10 percent increase in murders compared to this time last year. As Allen and others have said time and time again, policing isn’t the only way to resolve public safety problems that are rooted in poverty, housing, and education. 

“When you see a police budget continue to grow and yet we see violence prevention has to take an 11 percent cut to their budget, something’s not right there,” Allen tells City Paper.

Allen, who chairs the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety, says he will not only look to restore funding for violence prevention, but to find savings within MPD’s budget. The councilmember knows this will likely elicit a strong reaction, as it did last year when he reduced MPD’s budget by cutting empty positions and diverting vacancy savings to other public safety initiatives. MPD called out his actions on Twitter.

“Gearing up for the political battle is a big one,” Allen says. “What I also am hearing from my colleagues in recent days is much more willingness to be able to support, whether we ask those tough questions and when we propose those budget changes and obviously we’ll see how this goes over [the] next several weeks from a budget process standpoint. But that’s one of the biggest challenges is being able to overcome that.”

Bowser also incorrectly stated on WAMU’s Politics Hour last week that she funded a similar violence interruption program out of the Office of the Attorney General, called Cure the Streets. The mayor did not replenish the nonrecurring $3.8 million in the OAG’s budget to support the program. An OAG spokesperson says the office will look to fund the program out of their litigation support fund.

***

Jonathan Smith, the executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, strongly supports reducing funding for D.C. police. MPD is one of the 10 largest local police agencies in the country, and its officers are far from the only ones policing D.C. residents. The U.S. Capitol Police, Secret Service, U.S. Park Police, and Metro Transit Police also patrol portions of the District.    

“We’re the most policed jurisdiction in the country,” Smith tells City Paper. “We don’t need more police. What we need are the kinds of interventions that are going to change lives for people. So if you have a choice between putting a cop in school or an art teacher, an art teacher is going to give you more public safety than a cop is going to.”

D.C. has modern use-of-force policies and accountability structures, thanks to reforms over the past two decades that began when the Justice Department investigated MPD in 1999. Among those accountability structures is a civilian oversight body called the Office of Police Complaints that conducts investigations that are independent of MPD. Though, the OPC’s budget is far less than MPD’s—not even 5 percent of the police’s total budget—and OPC sees a 6.4 percent decrease in the mayor’s proposed budget. 

“The problem is they’re not working,” Smith says. “And it’s not entirely clear what the issue is other than it’s a cultural problem inside the department.” 

Evidence of fractured police-community relationships is borne out in conversations with young people living in gentrifying neighborhoods. “You talk to young people of color in those neighborhoods and they talk about how it’s very much like a stop-and-frisk policy. If they’re out on street corners, the cops will come up and roust them off those corners, or they’ll come up and make it more challenging and uncomfortable for people to be there,” Smith says. 

Nassim Moshiree, the policy director for the ACLU-DC, says her organization regularly hears from people who MPD officers confront. It is these daily interactions with police that are motivating individuals to protest day after day.  

“Children are walking from school and have police cars drive up next to them and flash lights at them and ask them to lift up their shirts without any sort of reasonable suspicion or purpose. There’s a lot of degrading interactions that aren’t leading perhaps to violence or escalation, but what we keep hearing is that people feel they’re living in a police state in some neighborhoods,” like Deanwood or Congress Heights, Moshiree says.  

There are some concrete actions that can be immediately taken to further shore up independent oversight of MPD. For example, Moshiree argues that individuals should be able to make anonymous complaints to the Office of Police Complaints, as they aren’t able to now, and that MPD needs to publicly release the body-worn camera footage that it’s currently restricting.  

But the public also needs to see meaningful discipline when there is police misconduct, organizers and experts say. Reformists disagree about whether police should be in charge of their own discipline, as is the case now, but the process should be transparent. 

Of the 473 investigations conducted by the Office of Police Complaints that were completed in 2019, according to a recent report, nearly half of the cases were dismissed based on the merits, while 29 percent were dismissed because a complainant did not cooperate with the investigation or mediation process. Complaint examiners sustained at least one allegation of misconduct in 23 cases. Of those 23 cases, MPD suspended officers without pay in nine of them. Ten were resolved with “dereliction of duty reports,” which read like a slap on the wrist; some of those cases involved harassment.

“A lot of complaints don’t make it to this stage because they just give up,” Moshiree says.