Police chief Robert Contee standing masked flanked by two officers in foreground
Reformers say MPD Chief Robert Contee has failed to make many changes to the department, and lawmakers haven't forced the issue. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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It’s been a year to the day since D.C.’s Police Reform Commission released a detailed, 259-page report documenting strategies to “decenter” police and make the city safer. But members of the group fear the report has, thus far, served only as a detailed, 259-page paperweight.

The commission started its work in the summer of 2020, when George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing demonstrations put intense pressure on D.C. officials to clean up the persistently violent Metropolitan Police Department. The D.C. Council made it clear that it wouldn’t be dissolving the department or anything like that, but there was good reason to believe that lawmakers would be ready to embrace substantial changes recommended by the 20-person, half-a-million-dollar commission that they assembled.

Instead, members believe they’ve largely been ignored. MPD and Mayor Muriel Bowser have been actively hostile to many of the commission’s goals, seeking to beef up the city’s police force instead of drawing it down, but that is perhaps no great surprise. The Council’s reticence to act on even some the most basic suggestions outlined in the commission’s report has reformers a bit more puzzled, and frustrated.

“They’ve really squandered that opportunity they had,” says Ronald Hampton, a retired MPD officer and reform commission member. “The window for change doesn’t stay open very long.”

Councilmembers involved in reform efforts don’t believe that’s an entirely fair characterization, noting that a variety of bills addressing the commission’s recommendations are teed up to pass later this year with more still to come. Lawmakers also note that some of the commission’s suggestions (like reducing the size of the force or capping police overtime) are far from consensus positions among their constituents, and it will take time to find a middle ground on these issues. As Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen puts it, reform is a “constant state of action,” rather than something to be achieved overnight.

The commission’s members say they’re sensitive to those concerns, but they also feel that some of their proposals have already been debated for years. The main reason the Council won’t move forward, they suspect, is out of fear of political backlash in an election year as crime rates rise.

“Many people still want more officers, because that’s all we’ve ever done,” says Naïké Savain, policy counsel for the D.C. Justice Lab and another commission member. “But it’s helpful to remember that this increase in crime is happening under the status quo, with a massive investment in and reliance on police. We haven’t made any of these transformative changes yet, so why wouldn’t we try them now?”

Languishing legislation?

Flip through the commission’s 90 detailed recommendations for reform, and it becomes clear that the vast majority have gone unaddressed.

While the call to shrink MPD and reallocate its resources probably got the most attention, the report also proposed changes to police tactics, new transparency measures, and other strategies to equitably reduce violence in the city. Some require legislative action, while MPD could choose to implement others right away. But the result has generally been the same: a whole lot of nothing.

Savain acknowledges that Bowser and the Council deserve some credit for investing in affordable housing and measures to help the chronically homeless, as well as in the city’s violence interruption efforts. Those programs can promote stable, peaceful communities. But she fears that “if it doesn’t go along with a shift in the focus of policing, we’re just going to get more of the same.”

Perhaps the biggest step Bowser has taken toward meeting the commission’s recommendations is her move to send behavioral health experts to respond to some 911 calls instead of police. Though she framed it as a pilot program when she launched the effort last May, she eventually opted to continue and expand it, efforts that Allen says lawmakers will support by continuing to find funding for them moving forward.

The rest of the Council’s grand plans haven’t moved forward nearly as quickly. Allen held a hearing on the report and four bills associated with it in May, but none have moved forward since then. And those include measures like a ban on “jump-out searches,” a tactic favored by plain clothes officers that disproportionately targets Black people, and reforms to curtail dangerous car chases.

“I would say any impatience on this is understandable,” says Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who helped create the commission. “But a number of bills are pending. And I’m optimistic we’ll get legislation adopted this year.”

Mendelson says he’s spoken to Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, about advancing these bills once the Council finishes its time-intensive budget deliberations this summer (a timeline that Allen feels is reasonable). The chairman also hopes to move legislation of his own addressing several oversight priorities outlined in the report, such as making police disciplinary records public and reinvigorating the city’s Police Complaints Board.

But even legislation is no sure fix. One of the few reforms the Council did manage to enact was stripping the police union of power to negotiate over disciplinary measures for officers. But the union has challenged that in court in a case that’s still pending.

Overcoming resistance

Resistance from Bowser’s administration, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, is another obstacle to reform. Not only is the mayor proposing to put the city on a path to hiring 4,000 police officers (up from the current force of 3,600), but her budget would also undo the Council’s plans to pull school resource officers out of classrooms by 2025.

“We created a responsible exit path from having police in schools,” Allen says. “What steps has MPD taken to think about what that transition looks like? Or did they not do that, and instead just counted on, ‘We’re going to put forward [budget] language to undo what it is the law of the land right now?’”

Allen says he’s confident his Council colleagues will revive their original plans for the SRO phase-out, but that amounts to re-fighting a battle reformers thought they’d already won. And it demonstrates the challenge lawmakers face in trying to enact reforms when grappling with a mayor and a police department resistant to change.

Commission members say they were optimistic that MPD Chief Robert Contee would be at least open to new ideas, considering he was hired amid the unrest of 2020 and could approach the department without the baggage of his predecessors. But that optimism has faded, particularly after revelations that Contee helped protect at least some of the 24 officers facing termination over criminal misconduct and that he has so far failed to make good on a promise to publicize internal investigations into his officers’ uses of force.

Even Mendelson, who broadly approves of Contee’s performance, believes MPD as a whole is still “feeling very defensive in the wake of George Floyd.”

“I can’t think of significant, tangible policing reforms that we have seen initiated from MPD,” Allen says. “The chief can take action on some of this, and, frankly, has to. And we have not seen it, when that needs to be a part of it.”

That is a big reason why advocates like Hampton believe a muscular response from Allen and the Council is so important. He appreciates that it can be a challenge wrangling the department, but he also expects that the pressure Contee is facing with crime on the rise means that he will retreat to the same familiar tactics unless he’s forced to change.

So why not be aggressive now, he wonders? Hampton thinks the time is ripe for the Council to push forward instead of retreat and embrace other commission recommendations that have yet to see much momentum, such as transferring traffic enforcement to the Department of Transportation or reforming police training.

“Every summer there’s an increase in crime, and we utilize the same old strategies we utilized 30 years ago,” Hampton says. “If anything, that’s an opportunity to try something new and something different.”