By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
The D.C. Council rejected a proposal yesterday that would have made it easier to arrest and detain suspected gang members, gutting a key provision of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's strategy to fight crime.
The vote on the emergency crime bill, designed to prevent an increase in violent crime this summer, followed an unusually heated council debate.
Several council members, including a majority of the African Americans on the panel, fiercely protested the gang proposal because they feared it would lead to racial profiling. The objections outraged several other members, who argued that their constituents are increasingly afraid to leave their homes at night.
"This is what the entire law enforcement community is asking for," said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2). "If we do nothing, then we are responsible for what happens" this summer.
But several council members recounted their, and their children's, experiences with D.C. police in stating their opposition to the gang provision.
"It's a dangerous proposition," said council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who is black. "I have three boys. If my three boys are walking down the street and they get pulled over, are they now the Thomas gang?"
Instead of adopting Fenty's emergency crime bill, the council approved a separate proposal by Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) that focuses on gun crimes.
Mendelson's bill also was adopted on an emergency basis and would be in effect for 90 days. He is working on a permanent crime bill.
The gang provision, which was voted down 9 to 4, would have allowed authorities to target alleged gang members in civil proceedings. A prosecutor could obtain an injunction barring an alleged gang member from engaging in a range of activities, such as associating with known gang members.
Violating the order would have led to a criminal charge of contempt of court and, upon conviction, a jail term of up to six months.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and Acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips pushed for the proposal. But the American Civil Liberties Union, backed by the NAACP, argued that it would undermine civil liberties in the District.
In a statement late yesterday, Fenty (D) said he was pleased that the council enacted an emergency crime bill but added: "I must express my great disappointment in the Council's failure to enact civil gang injunction legislation. We all know that the City experiences an increase of violent crime during the summer. . . . The community demands that we deal with the gang problem now."
"I am tough on crime, but I don't want to compromise on anyone's constitutional rights," said council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7). "Maybe none of you have experienced racial profiling, but I personally know people who have experienced racial profiling, and it's not a good thing."
She added, "We have some overly aggressive officers who make assumptions based on someone's appearance."
Kristopher Baumann, head of the D.C. lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, called Alexander's comments "unfortunate and inaccurate."
Baumann added that the council had "failed the public" by voting down the gang provision.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) noted that crime has been an issue in the city for decades and said tens of thousands of African Americans have been victimized by previous crime-fighting efforts.
"I'm tired of these black men and women being locked up for things that sometimes are beyond their control," said Barry, who said more jobs and social programs are needed instead of new laws. "I do not condone criminal activity, but we know it's not only black people committing crimes."
Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) countered that her constituents in upper Northwest Washington worry about their safety.
"It is not a question of whether you support civil liberties or not," said Bowser, who is black. "But I believe the people in my ward have the right to go in and out of their house without fear of being shot."
Yesterday's vote follows weeks of haggling between Mendelson, chairman of the judiciary committee, and Evans over the emergency crime legislation.
Mendelson said during yesterday's debate that "citizens should not be looking to the council to reduce crimes."
"We have plenty of laws on the books," Mendelson said, adding that the emphasis should be on "effective prosecution" and combating recidivism.
Mendelson did win support yesterday for several new crime-fighting measures, many of which had been championed by Fenty in his initial proposal.
Mendelson's bill, which will be in effect until September, establishes a minimum 30-month sentence for repeat felony convictions and a three-year mandatory minimum for someone convicted of possessing a firearm while committing some felonies. It also makes it a crime for someone to knowingly be in a vehicle in which there is an illegal firearm.
In addition, the bill creates a gun offender registry program and makes it a crime for the mentally ill, perpetrators of domestic violence and people who have been dishonorably discharged from the military to own a firearm in the District.
Evans, who took credit for forcing the bill out of Mendelson's committee, was successful in attaching an amendment that will make it harder for someone arrested for a violent crime to be released from jail pending a trial.
But the council rejected an amendment by Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) to set the curfew for teenagers 15 and younger at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends, an hour earlier than now.