D.C.’s littering enforcement is not really about cleaning up the city


When the D.C. Council enacted the Anti-Littering Amendment Act of 2008, it appeared to be an innocuous piece of legislation designed to assuage residents worried about the damage inflicted by careless residents. To the more cynical, it could also have appeared as another attempt maximizing city profits through fines, even if on a small scale. It stemmed from a bill introduced by then Council member Kwame Brown (D), and gave the Metropolitan Police Department and the Department of Public Works authority to issue “notices of infraction” for littering. But it never seemed like many tickets were doled out.  It was literally a law with no teeth.

“Nobody was doing it. As complicated as it is for law enforcement to issue tickets to people on the street, it would be even more so for any other agency, such as DPW (Department of Public Works) or DDOE (District Department of Environment),” said Kelly O’Meara, executive director, Strategic Change for MPD on Wednesday. “Their tickets are generally written to businesses, home owners, vehicles, and so forth.”

Nonetheless, last month, the Metropolitan Police Department announced that they’d be expanding this pilot ticketing program from the the Fourth and Sixth Police Districts to a city wide operation. Effective this week, you can now get a $75 ticket for littering, or even be arrested. All of this, seemingly in the name of keeping the streets clean. In a press release, MPD claims “A clean city is essential to the health and safety of our residents and the economic vitality of our neighborhoods. Everyone shares responsibility for maintaining a clean and green city!”

Yet when you look more closely, this process seems to be more about making sure the city can effectively adjudicate marijuana than keeping the city clean. For one, even law enforcement officials admit that enforcing the trash rules is next to impossible. In their annual report, the force said that the pilot program was basically pointless. “In order for littering enforcement to be effective, the government must be able to hold violators accountable for their actions,” it reads. “Without repercussions for an offense, the government’s ability to hold violators accountable for this civil offense is limited, and the tickets may not be enough of an incentive to motivate people to change their behavior.”

But the next sentence is the most enlightening. “This is important to recognize because the Council used the same enforcement scheme as the model for the Marijuana Possession Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2014, which establishes the same type of civil violation with a $25 fine for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana,” it says.

Ah, now we’re talking.

Who would have thought that Brown’s initiative would eventually make a difference in how the city effectively enforced the laws that hopefully will lead to less arrests and needlessly putting people in jail for minor offenses. But there was legit testing that needed to be done before they could determine whether or not this would work in a practical way. Hence the reason for the ticketing-for-littering pilot program.

“It was testing a brand new adjudication process with the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) as well as a new ticket book for MPD officers,” O’Meara explained via email. “It was a success in that the processing between our two agencies works. The pilot was not intended to determine whether littering enforcement is an effective deterrent that changes people’s behavior.”

So, admittedly, the whole “MPD officers, with their round-the-clock presence on the streets, will also help deter people from littering,” bit in the release is bunk. Which, frankly, is fine. I wouldn’t expect a police force to suddenly start getting tough on a crime that in the long run is so relatively minor,  especially when the Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier’s stance on “zero tolerance” policies is well known. Last year, on a wider-ranging interview on C-SPAN, she talked about how the law must be more fluid.

A zero tolerance stance  “is not one that I think works very well here. I think we’ve done it, and I think it has kind of the opposite impact,” she said in the hour-long interview. ” After describing how eliminating such policies helped reduce homicides in Anacostia because an entire community didn’t feel besieged by officers sending all sorts of people to jail for small things, she added that violent crime went down because people felt more comfortable talking to police.

“So when you do the opposite, I put foot patrol officers over there. Pulled those…zero tolerance teams out of there and people start to get to know the police,” Lanier added. “They start to get to know you by name. They start to provide information. … So zero tolerance, to me, in my communities alienates the people we need.”

Translation: hitting people up with fines and potential jailtime over small things is counterproductive to the overall goal. So, don’t expect to see anyone get popped with a whole ton of littering fines by officers who are out trying to catch so-called actual criminals. If you won’t go to jail for a federally banned substance, don’t expect to go to jail for throwing a candy wrapper on the street.

The city needed a way to make sure that they could properly process the likely large amount of tickets they’ll be handing out to people now that marijuana is decriminalized up to a certain amount. The littering initiative provided a nice little way to kill two birds with one stone in sorting out how to make that more doable on the ground for officers.

“The Department decided to allow enforcement citywide at this time because the civil marijuana tickets are using the same process and ticket books. Since those are now in use citywide, it made sense to allow officers to write tickets for littering throughout the city,” O’Meara said.

It’s about grass, not trash.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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