House Republicans took aim Thursday at D.C.’s major policing reform bill just after Congress had blocked a separate D.C. crime bill, signaling that the city will continue to face an onslaught of continued federal intervention in its affairs.
Clyde and Garbarino launched the effort to block the policing bill just a day after the Senate voted overwhelmingly to block D.C. legislation updating its century-old criminal code and drastically changing how crimes are defined and sentenced. A majority of Democrats joined Republicans in rejecting the legislation amid political sensitivity about appearing soft on crime, and President Biden has signaled he will sign the resolution.
That shift among Democrats away from standing up for D.C. home rule and joining Republicans to reject D.C. legislation signals a new frontier for the District as it contends with bipartisan congressional intervention, especially on the issue of criminal justice. The city is grappling with violent crime, which decreased last year but remains higher in some categories than pre-pandemic levels. And Republicans signaled early this year that they planned to put the city under pressure by pouring energy into scrutinizing public safety in the nation’s capital.
Now, the new effort to block the policing bill will test just where Democrats will draw the line between defending D.C. home rule and defending themselves from political vulnerabilities on the issues of crime and policing. They had broadly supported federal policing changes through the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2021, though they faced Republican campaign attacks that dragged into 2022.
Republicans had framed D.C.’s criminal code bill as too lenient for reducing statutory maximum sentences for a host of violent crimes, though the political debate largely ignored other tools prosecutors and judges could use to increase sentences under the new code. In the latest effort, Clyde and Garbarino are framing the police accountability package as an “anti-police” bill that would hamper law enforcement.
“This Joint Resolution would disapprove of the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act of 2022 which was passed by the DC Council in defiance of very real safety concerns raised by law enforcement,” Garbarino said in a statement to The Washington Post. “It’s time to say enough is enough and push back on the anti-police narrative, starting here in our nation’s capital.”
“Now that Congress has effectively used its constitutional authority to strike down the D.C. Council’s dangerous Revised Criminal Code Act, we must now move to swiftly block this anti-police measure to ensure our nation’s capital city is safe for all Americans,” Clyde said in a statement.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said the congressional push to block the policing bill shows how the recent vote on the city’s criminal code “emboldened some Republicans to attack the District and to use the District for national campaign rhetoric.”
Mendelson likened the city’s policing bill to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and said both pieces of legislation play important roles in holding law enforcement accountable. He specifically referenced provisions in the D.C. law that create a deputy auditor for public safety and prohibit the police union “from bargaining its own discipline.”
“The members of Congress would have to explain why on the one hand they are pushing for accountability and on the other hand they would reject it,” he said.
The policing bill came out of a commission that issued its final report on April 1, 2021, a sweeping 250-page overhaul of D.C. police practices and procedures that impacted discipline, use of force, and public access to records and video of police who use deadly force.
The council enacted the law in January without the signature of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who objected to some provisions, citing what she called last-minute additions. It was sent to Congress on Jan. 26 for its review, since Congress under the U.S. Constitution has the final say on D.C. laws.
Members of the reform commission, born out of the murder of Floyd and the nationwide demonstrations that followed, were appointed by the D.C. Council and included a Georgetown law professor who led the Justice’s Department’s review of policing in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer there in 2014.
The bill was first passed as temporary emergency legislation in July 2020, and many of its provisions have been part of police policy for nearly three years. The bill adds civilians to disciplinary review boards and gives voting rights on those boards to an independent agency that reviews police conduct. It limits police searching people or property based on getting consent, instead of a warrant, and restricts the use of less-than-lethal weapons during riots and the use of military-grade equipment. The bill also requires police to make video from body-worn cameras public when police shoot people, and the public disclosure of those officers’ names, which has now been routine for years.
The legislation also bans police from using neck restraints, which codified rules the department already had in place. Bowser objected to provisions allowing an independent review agency “unfettered access” to police disciplinary records and some restrictions on police responding to civil disturbances, saying it “micromanaged routine police work.”
Bowser did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Republican effort to block the legislation.
Greggory Pemberton, chairman of the D.C. police union, issued a statement supporting the effort, calling the policing bill a “pro-criminal policy” that has led to a “public safety crisis.”
“This act is laced with bad policies with real-world consequences that delay justice for families and victims,” he said.
Naïké Savain, a Ward 7 resident who was a member of the council-appointed Police Reform Commission, sees these efforts as part of a broader backlash to the push for structural changes to the criminal justice system after the murder of Floyd, who died after an officer had his knee on Floyd’s neck and another on his back while pressing down with most of his body weight for more than nine minutes.
This D.C. policing bill, she noted, included prohibiting officers from using neck restraints, or chokeholds.
“At what point are we allowed to decide as a community how we want to be policed?” said Savain, now the policy director for the DC Justice Lab, a criminal justice advocacy group. “These are not good-faith concerns about our legislative process or even about the substance of these bills.”
Though the Police Reform Commission recommended decreasing aggressive tactics, many of those recommendations were not implemented. Savain characterized the final bill as “the bare minimum in terms of accountability and transparency.”
The bill also prohibits officers from reviewing body camera recordings when writing initial reports, a practice Savain said was exactly how departments operated before the advent of body cameras. “These are not radical anti-police recommendations,” she said. “None of these are transformative. None of these are in any way, honestly, defunding police.”
Retired D.C. police officer Ronald Hampton said he knows intimately that policing needs to be reformed to include more transparency, accountability and the input of the community. The policing act passed by the council, he said, began to address that.
“Those are reasonable reform steps in that legislation,” said Hampton, who was a member of the council-appointed Police Reform Commission. “Politicians can’t find or separate themselves from the idea that the only tool that we have to provide public safety is policing. And that’s not true.”
He also pointed out that in Garbarino’s home state of New York, the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board made public in 2021 a database of complaints for more than 83,000 active and inactive NYPD officers. That kind of public oversight is not available in the District, he said.
“Each and every one of those [recommendations] are critical to develop the accountability that the police department should have to the citizens they serve,” he said of the reform commission recommendations.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said in a statement that he feared the effort to block D.C.’s criminal code overhaul was “just the first of many Republican efforts to undermine, and ultimately try to end, Home Rule.”
“Senate Democrats and the President naively believed their betrayal of the District would settle the issue, but in reality, they just handed the GOP a winning strategy to both undermine the District’s autonomy and undermine Democrats,” he said. “Until the District is a state, and until those in power stand up for Home Rule, this is going to keep happening.”