One of the first tangible products of the passage of the Near Act has exposed disturbing facts about police violence in the District.
The District’s new sweeping criminal justice reform and public safety law, the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, was passed unanimously by the city council in 2016, and after a protracted battle was funded in 2017.
As required by the Near Act, the Office of Police Complaints has begun gathering data on use of force by Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers. The first report on use of force by the District’s police officers has revealed a significant increase in police violence in the past five years — a nearly steady rise since 2012. No matter how these measurements were taken, by “reported use of force incidents,” by “uses of force,” or by the number of “officers using force,” every single data set shows the same line climbing upward.
This should be especially troubling to residents because the data provided by MPD was often woefully inadequate. Between July 2014 and August 2016, MPD did not require officers to document use of force if it occurred during a planned “takedown,” and there was no reported injury from the individual who was “taken down” (meaning that a victim of police violence had to depend on an officer choosing to complete more paperwork). Yet even within that period reports of use of force continued to increase.
Forty-eight percent of D.C. residents are black, but black community members “were the subjects of 89% to 93% of MPD reported uses of force per year,” while only “four percent” of victims of force were white. In a city where crime is apparently down, law enforcement officers still somehow found reasons to use violence more than 2,000 times, nearly every time on a black person.
What this report has exposed is not simply a few bad officers, or even a few hundred. It has laid bare a toxic culture and systemic problems embedded in the MPD. A toxic culture we already caught glimpses of in the form of t-shirts with white-supremacist imagery worn proudly to court and racist memes posted to social media. Systemic problems that resulted in the deaths of innocent men such as Terrence Sterling and allowed officers Brian Trainer and Jordan Palmer to keep their jobs.
Training has not fixed this problem nor is it likely to. True change is not suggesting an officer occasionally use pepper spray instead of bullets. It is not even firing officers who are openly violent or racist (although that would be a welcome start). True reform requires transformation, starting with the full implementation of the Near Act.
The Near Act was passed not just to reduce police violence but also violence in our communities. Full implementation of the law, which emphasizes a public-health approach to violence by addressing its root causes, must include a staffed Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, detailed plans for community engagement and input and clear cooperation between the offices and other areas of D.C. government. And it must include comprehensive data collection by the MPD, not just on use of force but on all stops and searches by D.C. police, including the reason for the stop.
The Near Act was not conceived to add another layer of bureaucracy to the D.C. government. Nor was it meant to make the mayor’s office look “tough on crime.” A fully implemented Near Act will connect community members affected by violence directly with the help and support they need. Under an implemented Near Act, violence interrupters and returning citizens will work together to prevent violence before it happens. Victims of gun violence will be treated as just that, victims, and not criminal suspects. Those experiencing mental illness will be able to access services and assistance provided by health and social workers, not poorly trained police officers. And community members who want to change their lives will be given opportunities to do so through education and job training.
This will not happen all at once. Changing an institution takes time and actual results can take even longer.
But we are not going anywhere. The community members and activists who supported the Near Act through passage and funding are in this for the long haul and will keep asking questions until we get answers. Full implementation of the law will take time and dedication. We are ready to do the work and to support those who, like us, are committed to putting the promise of the Near Act into practice.
Eugene Puryear is a journalist, author and activist. He is co-founder of Stop Police Terror Project-DC and a member of D.C.’s Movement for Black Lives Steering Committee.