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D.C. crime in spotlight at GOP-led hearing targeting police reform bill

Officials representing D.C. during a House panel hearing Wednesday were, from left, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), city Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee and DC police union chairman Greggory Pemberton. (Michael A. McCoy/For The Washington Post)
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D.C. officials were peppered with questions about crime and policing in the nation’s capital Wednesday during House Republicans’ first oversight hearing of the year targeting the city, before a committee voted to advance a measure to block D.C.’s major police accountability legislation.

The hearing took place as D.C. weathers a barrage of GOP intervention in its affairs. Republicans have brought forth back-to-back-to-back resolutions disapproving of various local bills and — with help from a majority of Senate Democrats, dozens in the House and sign-off from President Biden — that blocked D.C.’s revised criminal code earlier this month, leading to uncertainty among D.C. officials about whether Democrats could be counted on as allies in defending home rule.

Now, D.C.’s policing bill is in jeopardy as well. The GOP-led House Oversight Committee on Wednesday advanced Republicans’ latest disapproval resolution seeking to overturn D.C.’s Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act, potentially queuing the resolution up for consideration on the House floor — which would be the third time hundreds of federal lawmakers would consider local D.C. laws.

But House Democrats on the committee were broadly opposed to the Republican intervention, questioning why the hearing was happening at all, while they continued advocating for D.C. statehood.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), top Democrat on the committee, said Republicans’ disagreement with policies in D.C. was “beside the point,” while Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) noted that in theory he might like to overturn laws in red states that he disagrees with but that doesn’t mean lawmakers should, applying the same logic for D.C.

“This hearing, called to malign the people of the District of Columbia and their leaders for criminal violence our colleagues will do nothing to stop, should instead be a hearing to examine and move statehood for the people of Washington, D.C., in the 118th Congress,” Raskin said.

The Constitution grants Congress authority to oversee the federal district’s laws and spending, and Republicans have exercised that authority with vigor — especially this Congress.

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Congress has oversight of D.C. through a provision in the Constitution, and all legislation that the D.C. Council passes must go through congressional review before becoming law.
Congress rarely disapproves D.C. legislation; it happened three times in the past three decades before the rejection of the D.C. crime bill.
In early March, a GOP-led disapproval resolution against D.C.’s criminal code rewrite passed the Senate; it passed the House in February. President Biden signed it.
While Democrats say they are for D.C. statehood and autonomy, fear of seeming soft on crime probably fueled their votes against the code, which lowered sentences for some violent offenses while raising others.
House Republicans targeted the city’s policing legislation, which D.C. wrote in 2020 and finalized in January.
The GOP members argued the legislation, which bans chokeholds and increases public access to footage of police body cameras, among other measures, is “anti-police,” while supporters say it is important for holding police accountable for misconduct.
The House voted April 19 for a disapproval resolution to block the policing legislation from becoming law in D.C., while the Senate voted May 16 to block it. .
Biden has already said he plans to veto the disapproval resolution.


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Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) kicked off the hearing by questioning the impact of city policies on crime in the city — which he described as a crisis — while touching on concerns about the impact of pandemic-era school shutdowns on children’s education and the District’s financial footing as it heads into a more challenging budget year.

“D.C.’s officials have failed in their responsibility to keep safe its citizens and visitors and provide economic and educational opportunities for them,” Comer said — claims that D.C. Council members mounted a vigorous defense against.

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle used D.C. crime statistics to make their points about the state of public safety in Washington, selecting data comparisons that show the city either struggling with rising violence or far safer than it was decades ago.

The raw numbers paint a more nuanced picture. The District is still experiencing a rising number of homicides and carjackings compared to the last number of decades, with homicides on track to surpass 200 killings for the third consecutive year and carjackings outpacing even last year’s surge. But while one Republican lawmaker called D.C. the “least safe it has ever been,” overall killings remain far lower than what the city saw in the early 1990s. Overall violent crime has similarly fallen since 2015, while gun-involved crime has increased.

In his testimony, Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) called the trends with homicides and carjackings troubling and of serious concern to District leaders. But he and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) sought to place the trends in context, including noting crime is problematic in cities across the country. Mendelson, though he said it “belies common belief,” rejected the idea that D.C. is seeing a “crime crisis,” citing the city’s historical data.

“With regard to crime, yes, there is considerable concern. But while perception is important, the reality is less concerning,” Mendelson said at the hearing.

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D.C. police union chairman Greggory Pemberton argued at the hearing that retention problems in the police force were leading to a negative impact on combating crime — an issue that he largely laid on the shoulders of the D.C. Council, arguing its rhetoric and legislation on police accountability were leading officers to leave.

He said that all the provisions in the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act “are completely detrimental to keeping and retaining and hiring new candidates.”

Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.), the sponsor of the resolution to overturn D.C.’s bill, came as a guest to the hearing to argue that though the bill does not deal with police funding, it’s a “back door to defund the police,” because “you reduce their morale and make them quit so they don’t want to work for D.C. anymore.”

But supporters of the legislation argue it’s important for police transparency and building trust with the community — especially in a plurality-Black city — and that police retention is a national problem not specific to D.C.

Police departments across the country have reported waves of officer resignations and struggles to attract recruits — citing the pandemic and the unrest of 2020 following the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, among other explanations. This year, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has proposed maintaining incentives for police hiring, with the goal of adding about 260 police officers.

The provisions of D.C.’s policing bill, many of which have already been enacted on a temporary basis and are currently in practice, were crafted in the aftermath of Floyd’s death. The bill prohibits the use of neck restraints and restricts certain vehicular pursuit tactics. It would expand public access to police disciplinary records and access to police body-camera footage in excessive force incidents. Police would also be required to issue Miranda-like warnings before conducting a search with a person’s consent under the legislation. And the bill would also prevent hiring officers who have committed misconduct while not allowing the police union to negotiate police discipline, which the union strongly opposes.

Should the bill get a floor vote, it would be likely to pass the GOP-majority House — and it would not be subject to the Senate filibuster, meaning that the vote could once again come down to Senate Democrats, who narrowly control the chamber.

The White House recently said in a statement to The Washington Post that Biden was reviewing the legislation, but stressed his support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and executive actions on police accountability. Many city officials have compared the D.C. policing bill to that federal legislation, which passed the House with near-unanimous Democratic support in 2021.

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Comer told D.C. officials during the hearing that they could expect to continue to see more disapproval resolutions unless the city would “work with” Republicans.

“Your position seems to have been, ‘Hands off D.C.,’ but that’s not going to fly with Republicans on the House Oversight Committee,” Comer said. “We want to work with you, and you’re going to have to work with us, or we’re going to continue to pass legislation” like the disapproval resolution Congress passed this month targeting D.C.’s criminal code overhaul.

During the hearing, Republicans on the committee repeatedly sought to return attention to what they called the “soft-on-crime” Revised Criminal Code Act, which would have drastically restructured the city’s outdated criminal code by changing how crimes are defined and sentenced. The bill would have eliminated all mandatory minimums except for first-degree murder while reducing statutory maximums for certain violent crimes, though the code also added other tools for adding enhancements or stacking charges to increase penalties.

Considering the surge in carjackings, asked Rep. Jake LaTurner (R-Kan.), “how can you morally justify your efforts to relax minimum sentences for carjacking by 16 years?”

Allen answered that, while the maximum for armed carjacking would have been reduced from 40 to 24 years, with enhancements, that penalty is still “greater than many of the states represented in this room.” “Our problem is our old criminal code,” Allen said of the 120-year-old code written by Congress in the early 1900s. “It needs to be revised.”

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Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) focused particular attention on public urination, which she mistakenly thought the Council decriminalized in the RCCA. Allen corrected her that it wasn’t — although public urination continued to come up in the hearing.

“My first question to anyone on the panel is, do you think parents in this country, as they’re putting their young kids in pajamas at night, you think they’re worried about public urination in Washington, D.C., or do you think they’re worried about sending them to school and making sure they’re coming home?” asked Rep. Jared Moskowitz (Fla.), one of the dozens of Democrats who voted to block D.C.’s criminal code.

Moskowitz, who is from Parkland, Fla., said Republicans should be “consistent” with their focus on crime and, rather than examining carjacking problems in D.C., examine the nationwide problem with school shootings. “Who cares about the cars? What about the kids?” he asked.

Moskowitz, the only Democrat on the committee who voted to block D.C.’s criminal code, did not return to vote on the disapproval resolution. A spokesman for him said he hasn’t made up his mind with regard to a floor vote.

Multiple Republicans on the committee said that they or members of their staffs have encountered crime in D.C., returning to the idea that they had a duty to oversee public safety in D.C., a city they and their staffs live in and that their constituents visit. The hearing unfolded days after a Senate staffer was brutally stabbed in broad daylight; a suspect, who had recently been released from prison, has been charged with assault with intent to kill.

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Mendelson said what happened was “horrible.” He also pointed out that, in fact, under the revised criminal code, the suspect would have faced a higher penalty for attempted murder.

The federal government funds much of D.C.’s court system, and the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. functions as its local prosecutor. As The Post reported Wednesday, federal prosecutors declined to prosecute 67 percent of arrests in D.C. in 2022, which is significantly higher than in many other jurisdictions across the United States.

Both Pemberton and Mendelson said the city found that deeply frustrating, and Pemberton said it was hurting morale of police.

D.C. U.S. Attorney declined to prosecute 67% of those arrested. Here’s why.

Allen called on Congress to return full control of the justice system to D.C., noting D.C. does not have any control over how or whether crimes are charged — or over the people tasked with carrying out justice in the courts. D.C. judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

“We have no ability to hold the U.S. attorney accountable,” he said, adding that, “on the back end, when people come home from prison, there’s no coordination with the District of Columbia.”

While crime and policing dominated the hearing, lawmakers also sharply criticized D.C.’s schools, blasting local officials for low test scores and high rates of chronic absenteeism. One Republican, Rep. Gary Palmer (Ala.), described D.C.'s schools as “dropout factories” and “inmate factories” — drawing objections from Mendelson.

D.C. students fell behind in reading and math over the pandemic. It is a trend, however, that has touched virtually every school system in the country. Test scores nationwide dropped to their lowest in decades under the toll of the pandemic. School attendance in D.C. has also not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, but chronic absenteeism had fallen from 48

percent last school year to 41 percent in December, according to the city’s attendance task force.

D.C. Chief Financial Officer Glen Lee also came to testify about D.C.’s financial situation. While he acknowledged D.C. is facing economic head winds due to inflation and declining commercial property values due to remote work, he said the “fiscal foundation of the District is extremely strong and is capable of overcoming the fiscal challenges that lie ahead.”

On Wednesday morning before the hearing, demonstrators with the Hands Off DC Coalition held a march to the Rayburn building, imploring Congress to leave D.C. alone while defending the policing bill.

Outside the hearing, two Hands Off DC members told Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), a member of the committee, to stay out of local affairs. “No one in the District of Columbia asked for this to happen,” Alex Dodds of Hands Off DC said. “They’re absolutely ignoring us.”

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said at a news conference after the hearing that members who vote in favor of the disapproval are choosing to substitute their policy judgments for the judgment of the city’s representatives.

“They will choose to govern D.C. without its consent,” Norton said.

Omari Daniels, Emily Davies and Lauren Lumpkin contributed to this report.