Guns and bullet Department of Forensic Sciences crime lab
Guns and a bullet at the Department of Forensic Sciences in 2017. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Most arrests by police officers in D.C. do not result in criminal charges filed in court, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

In fiscal year 2022, which ended in September, the USAO received 15,315 arrests from police working in D.C. and declined to prosecute 10,261, or 67 percent of them. That figure includes 8,238 declined misdemeanor arrests (72 percent) and 2,023 declined felony arrests (53 percent). 

The discrepancy points to a major gap in how two of the primary law enforcement entities in D.C.—police and prosecutors—view the strength of evidence against people arrested in D.C., and the gap has gotten wider in recent years, according to an analysis by Joe Friday, a local crime blogger.

The USAO’s declination rate has steadily increased since fiscal year 2016, when federal prosecutors declined 31 percent of arrests. In fiscal year 2020, the Trump-appointed USAO declined 48 percent of cases.

D.C. is unique in that the federal government controls most of its local criminal justice system, including prosecution of adult crimes. That means the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, who is appointed by the president, rather than a locally elected or appointed prosecutor, reviews arrests made by police in D.C. and files criminal charges in D.C. Superior Court. That setup is the result of the Revitalization Act, which helped the District government escape bankruptcy in the 1990s. 

The USAO’s Superior Court Division reviews arrests from several police agencies working in D.C., including the Metropolitan Police Department, U.S. Park Police, and Metro Transit Police, among others. MPD officers accounted for 80 percent of the adult arrests for D.C. code offenses in 2021, according to the department’s annual report, which provides data for the calendar year, rather than the fiscal year. Other police agencies in D.C. accounted for the remaining 20 percent—19,721 total arrests that year.

General counsel for the D.C. Public Defender’s Service Laura Hankins declined to comment on the trend, and MPD spokesperson Dustin Sternbeck referred questions to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A spokesperson for the USAO says in an email that charging rates for firearms and drug felonies are driving the recent trend, and for two primary reasons: unreliable forensic testing of evidence and body cameras.

“First, because the District’s Department of Forensic Sciences evidence lost its accreditation, we often cannot secure the drug testing, DNA, and firearms testing we need to successfully prosecute these offenses,” according to the USAO. “Second, we have, in the last few years, been able to incorporate body-worn camera [footage] into our charging decisions, which allows us to identify challenges before we charge. As a result, we are seeing fewer charged cases being dismissed by courts.”

MPD outfitted its officers with body cameras by the end of 2016, which roughly coincides with the current trend in disparities between arrests and prosecutions. Body camera footage, in particular, has the potential to reveal flaws in police work that could diminish the strength of other evidence in a case. The Washington Post recently reported that as many as 90 gun and drug cases have been dismissed from D.C. Superior Court in the past two years after serious questions arose about the veracity of MPD officers in the Seventh District. MPD Chief Robert Contee announced last year that the department discovered that officers on the 7D crime suppression team had confiscated firearms but did not make arrests. Contee said several officers’ reports did not match body camera footage, though the specifics of those discrepancies are unclear.

The USAO’s statement also notes that the office has charged “homicides, sexual assaults, and other violent felonies at the same rate it has historically prosecuted these crimes.”

This revelation comes as President Joe Biden (who appointed U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves) endorsed an effort led by congressional Republicans to repeal D.C.’s revised criminal code, which has not been updated since it was first enacted in 1901. The revisions, in part, sought to clarify vague, confusing, and at times contradictory criminal statutes that make it difficult to hold accused criminals accountable. The Council unanimously passed the revisions and overruled a veto from Mayor Muriel Bowser

It’s the first time in more than three decades that Congress has nullified a bill passed by the D.C. Council. Councilmembers are now scrambling to figure out how to salvage the much-needed revision.

Mitch Ryals (tips?

  • To see today’s COVID-19 data, visit our coronavirus tracker.
  • River otters are returning to the Anacostia, a sign that the river is cleaner than it was in the past. [WTOP]
  • A nonprofit headed by Mark Meadows is buying up properties close to the Capitol with the aim of creating a MAGA campus they want to call “Patriots Row.” Barf. [Post]
  • A hacker posted D.C. Health Link data online, which includes information for D.C. residents as well as 21 members of Congress. “More data exists, but will not be posted for the time being,” the hacker posted online. [CyberScoop]

By City Paper staff (tips?

  • How did the debate over D.C.’s criminal code revision become such a mess? Mayor Muriel Bowser sees it as an extension of the Council’s “irresponsible…approach to public safety over the past six years.” Others see a case of “legislative mistiming” that gave congressional Republicans an opening. Experts lament it as an “achievement of modern technocratic governance” gone tragically awry. [DCist]
  • Parents of children with special needs see the city’s recent bussing delays as yet more evidence of the District’s uneven commitment to serving these students. School officials say they are making progress in hiring new bus drivers to ease these problems, but many are skeptical they’ll make a difference. [Informer]
  • The Wilson Aquatic Center remains shuttered a month after DC Health ordered its closure, and Ward 3 Councilmember Matt Frumin worries that the city is “clearly struggling to implement the short-term repairs needed to reopen” the pool. [Axios]

By Alex Koma (tips?

  • Tigerella, the Italian restaurant and cafe in Western Market, is changing things up, cutting its morning hours and pastry program and expanding its pizza service. [Eater]
  • If you’re craving pastry, worry not: SakuSaku Flakerie is now open on Wisconsin Avenue NW in Tenleytown, serving a variety of sweet and savory croissants. [Washingtonian]
  • Don’t just think of sandwiches as a delicate finger food. D.C. restaurants offer some massive and messy options that require a knife and fork but still taste great. [Washingtonian]
  • Greg Casten, the restaurateur behind Ivy City Smokehouse and The Point, is opening a new spot in the historic Strand Theater in Deanwood—a property that local officials have eyed for development since the Fenty administration. [Axios]

By City Paper staff (tips?

  • A few newish music (and music-adjacent) venues spark hope for the city’s post-pandemic nightlife. [Post
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  • Jonathan Woody, the locally raised, New York-based classical singer returns to his musical and hometown roots this weekend to perform at Strathmore’s Music Center with the Washington Bach Consort. [Informer]

By Sarah Marloff (tips?

  • Dozens gathered yesterday to send the Howard men’s basketball team off to Iowa for their first NCAA Tournament game in three decades. HU plays Kansas tomorrow at 2 p.m. and if local productivity drops off around then, make an educated guess as to why. [WTOP, Post]
  • The Wizards had “a good talk” before their game against the Pistons last night, and snapped a three-game losing streak to keep their playoff bid alive. [Bullets Forever]
  • The ongoing dispute over TV rights between the Nationals and the Orioles continues. This time, lawyers for MASN and the Nats appeared in the New York Court of Appeals to argue over the impartiality of Major League Baseball in the matter. [Post]

By City Paper staff (tips?

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