A slew of bills intended to quickly increase public safety in the District by expanding the police force, cracking down on suspects who commit crimes while awaiting trial and strengthening the city's sex-offender registry were delayed or rejected by the D.C. Council yesterday.
The votes represented an embarrassing setback for council member Harold Brazil (D-At Large), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who had gone to the council's last scheduled session of the summer hoping to win passage for his anti-crime package.
Instead, one by one, the council rejected every major proposal, after members told Brazil that although they, too, wanted to make the District safer, they feared his bills were far too broad or too expensive or lacked adequate public review.
Ultimately, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D-At Large) agreed to hold one council meeting Tuesday before a three-month summer break, giving Brazil a last chance to get some of his proposals reconsidered before this fall.
Brazil was most angry at the council's rejection of a new sex-offender registry law, which would have required that the city compile and make public a list of people who live or work in the District who have been convicted of sex-related crimes. The District enacted a similar law in 1997, but because of flaws in the law and trouble implementing it, only 117 sex offenders are listed, out of several thousand estimated by the city to live or work there.
As in the other crime-related bills, Brazil was pressing for "emergency legislation," meaning the council would adopt the laws for 90 days without review by Congress, while debate continued on more permanent measures. But after several council members indicated they wanted to amend the sex-offender proposal, Brazil failed to win the two-thirds majority he needed for approval of the emergency legislation.
"All 50 states have sex-offender registries," Brazil said after the vote, adding that the delay could cost the city $200,000 in federal grants. "This is like putting up a neon sign which says, 'Sex Offenders, You Are Welcome in D.C.' "
The bid to expand the police force came in the form of an emergency bill that would have created a financial incentive for law enforcement officers from other cities or other government agencies to join the District's police force. The District loses an average of 20 officers a month, but hires only about 12 to 14, Brazil said. The result is that even though the department can afford to add officers, it has been unable to do so. The shortage of officers was particularly noticeable two weekends ago, after a series of shootings. Ultimately, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey had 509 officers work overtime June 26 to ensure he had enough coverage.
As with the sex-offender proposal, the plan to offer higher salaries to attract police officers from other communities had the support of several council members. But council member David A. Catania (R-At Large) and others wanted to know how much the proposal would cost the city pension system.
Brazil hopes to bring up the sex-offender registry and the police department hiring incentive plan next week for reconsideration. But it will not be until this fall, at the earliest, that two of his other defeated proposals would be reconsidered.
One bill would have allowed police to immediately arrest suspects who do not honor agreements while they are free pending trial. Under the proposal, for example, suspects found in a neighborhood where they had been banned, or who leave a halfway house without permission, could be fined up to $1,000 and imprisoned up to 180 days.
Brazil also had proposed a measure that would have allowed civil court judges to involuntarily commit mentally retarded people who were considered a risk to themselves or others. The proposal was in part a response to last month's release to a group home of a 52-year-old mentally retarded District man who had admitted assaulting and raping a 12-year-old boy.
In both cases, public hearings had not been held on the proposed laws and council members questioned whether Brazil understood their potential impact.