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Nearly two-and-a-half years after it became law, a key provision of the NEAR Act will soon be implemented, due to an impending court ruling.
A final hearing for a lawsuit that the ACLU-DC, along with local activist groups Black Lives Matter DC and Stop Police Terror Project DC, filed against the city took place Friday afternoon, and D.C. Superior Court judge John M. Campbell indicated that he plans to rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit, filed in May, centers on a key data collection provision of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act that requires each Metropolitan Police Department officer to record detailed information on every stop they make. That data would then be collected and aggregated to offer the public full transparency regarding any biases the MPD shows when conducting stop-and-frisks. Though the MPD already records data on stops-and-frisks, the information currently being recorded isn’t as detailed as it’s supposed to be pursuant to the NEAR Act.
Stop-and-frisks by MPD officers in the District have become highly controversial in recent years, especially after a few incidents captured on video went viral, prompting a marathon public hearing about police-community relations in Wards 7 and 8.
In January, Mayor Muriel Bowser‘s office released a report titled “A Fair Shot: A Toolkit For African American Prosperity,” which claimed the NEAR Act had been fully implemented. That inspired the ACLU-DC to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the stop-and-frisk data. It was denied because the data wasn’t available.
The revelation from the ACLU-DC’s FOIA request prompted some tense moments earlier this year when, during oversight hearings for the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, questioned MPD Chief Peter Newsham and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue about the $150,000 that was allotted in the previous year’s budget specifically for stop-and-frisk data collection. None of that money was ever used.
According to Newsham and Donahue, the MPD needs a complete overhaul of its records management system, Cobalt, in order to collect and store the necessary data and be compliant with the NEAR Act. On Oct. 19, the city filed a status report to Judge Campbell stating that an overhaul of the Cobalt system, with modifications for every stop-and-frisk data category the NEAR Act requires, would be complete by the end of the summer 2019.
The city also outlined a temporary plan for collecting the necessary data until then, but Scott Michelman, the ACLU-DC’s lead counsel, rebuffed it. The city’s stop-gap solution would, in part, have officers continue to use existing stop-and-frisk forms that don’t include NEAR Act-required information—race and ethnicity, reason for a stop, and the duration of the stop—and record that information on their body-worn cameras. Instead, the ACLU-DC proposed an alternate temporary data collection solution in the form of a single form with all the necessary boxes for officers to check and fill out.
Though Campbell said he planned to “grant the motion for preliminary injunction in some form,” it’s unclear what form that will take—the city’s temporary collection solution, the ACLU-DC’s proposal, or some combination of both.
“The form of the remedy is very important, and in grafting additional requirements on MPD’s system that was obviously designed not to comply with the law, I think would make the law much less effective and not achieve its purpose of helping the people of D.C. learn how the police department is operating across … the District,” Michelman told City Paper.
For April Goggans, a core organizer with Black Lives Matter DC, the expected outcome of the lawsuit is validating. “It definitely validates what we’ve been saying … what we’ve been seeing on the streets,” she tells City Paper. “It’s the first time in a long time that anybody has legally held the police department, Bowser, Kevin Donahue accountable. And it also proves that they did something wrong.”