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District residents are still reeling from the death of Alonzo Smith, the 27-year-old found unconscious and in the custody of two special police officers last month at the Marbury Plaza Apartments. Now, a local legislator is seeking to establish more oversight of the private companies that provide contracted security services in D.C. There are currently more than 120 such companies operating.
On Tuesday, just hours before Mayor Muriel Bowser released a body-camera video depicting Metropolitan Police officers responding to the Smith incident, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie introduced a bill that would increase training requirements for special police. There are nearly 17,000 such officers staffing housing projects, hospitals, and other properties in D.C. Many of these guards carry weapons and can issue arrests, and they undergo MPD certification.
“Recently, there have been several reported incidents in the District of Columbia relating to the use of force by special police officers,” McDuffie, chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee, said yesterday when proposing the bill. “It is essential, for public safety purposes, that all special police officers receive adequate training in order to do their jobs effective and protect District residents.”
Notably, another portion of McDuffie’s bill would change certain regulations governing campus police. Councilmembers LaRuby May, David Grosso, Elissa Silverman, Mary Cheh, Anita Bonds, and Chairman Phil Mendelson co-sponsored the legislation.
As drafted, the legislation would require special police officers to undergo at least 24 hours of pre-assignment training on arrest powers, search and seizure laws, the D.C. Official Code, and the use of force. The current training requirement is 16 hours. The bill would also push additional training on terrorism awareness, emergency procedures, and interactions with tourists from 24 hours to 32 hours. McDuffie’s amendments also add additional requirements to training on de-escalation procedures, biased-based policing, and relations with people who have disabilities or mental health issues.
The legislation aims to be preventative rather than reactive: a public-safety strategy that other officials seem to be promoting, too. At a press conference held Tuesday to discuss Smith’s death, Ward 8 Councilmember May said current training for special police, conducted by a “third-party vendor” before MPD certification, “neglects to take into consideration the treatment [and] care that is provided to our residents.” She noted that Ward 8, unlike other areas of the District, contains a “prominent presence of armed security guards on residential properties.”
“If more predominantly white properties had armed security guards, then MPD would be less comfortable delegating the training of officers to the third-party vendor,” May said in front of Mayor Muriel Bowser and Police Chief Cathy Lanier. “It would also have greater involvement in the training as well as accountability of the service and performance of those guards. However, Marbury Plaza, like most of the residential properties in Ward 8, are predominantly black.”
May added that she would ask for “a complete investigation” into the practices of these companies.
Bowser stepped in to say that D.C. will soon have a set of recommendations on how to handle security contractors. “And guess what? We need them,” she said. “They are offering security in communities that need protection… We want to be thoughtful; we don’t want to be knee-jerk [and] we want to make sure that no matter where the security officers are working that they have the proper training.”
Lanier noted that MPD has performed 77 compliance checks of security companies in Ward 8 this year alone. “They are so often saving lives, preventing crimes, and doing really, really important and very good security work,” Lanier explained of the estimated 17,000 security staffers around the District. “So to try and make sure they’re complaint is certainly an important part, but they are very, very necessary in communities around Washington.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery