The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If GOP wanted a safer D.C., it wouldn’t have targeted police reforms

The political game Congress is playing stands to further erode trust between the police and the public

The Capitol dome and a D.C. flag. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The child was already calm by the time a D.C. police officer arrived.

The officer found the child’s mother and two crisis specialists from a charity organization outside the family’s house in Southeast Washington. He listened as the mother explained that her son had been tearing up their home and disrespecting her but had since calmed down and cleaned up. When the officer entered the home, he found the boy sitting at a desk in the living room and playing video games.

What happened next caused one of the crisis specialists to file a complaint against the officer, alleging he “behaved in an aggressive and unprofessional manner” during his interaction with the family.

A report from the Office of Police Complaints, which reviewed the officer’s body-camera footage and interviewed the officer, contains those details above. It also tells what happened when the officer approached the child, whose age is not listed. It describes the officer as asking the boy what happened and the child replying that he got mad but was “good now.” The report says the officer kept asking what happened in various ways and, after the child repeated that he had nothing to say, the officer cursed at him, raised his voice and lobbed threats at him.

“You are A MINOR,” the officer said. “You’re going to find yourself in a group home real fast.”

The crisis specialist, according to the report, said the officer eventually walked outside with the boy’s mother, turned off his body camera and instructed her to put her foot up her son’s behind “and beat him.” He suggested, the report says, she hit him with an open hand and not a fist to prevent leaving a mark.

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That complaint, which is one of many that have been filed against D.C. police officers in recent years, is not the most egregious one. Not by far. Those cases involve excessive force, including chokeholds, fired weapons and hair pulling. But as I read through online reports of the complaints, that one stood out to me as a mother and as someone who has written frequently about policing in the region. That encounter shows how quickly and easily trust between the police and members of the public can be broken. That child will grow up knowing that officer not only didn’t help him, but also instructed his mother on how to hurt him.

The public’s trust in the police has been tested repeatedly across the nation in recent years through big, impossible-to-ignore cases of misconduct. But trust is also lost every day in small, unseen negative encounters. Those hit at a personal level, and they stay with people.

Ugly encounters with officers fuel loss of trust, costly payouts

Years ago, I wrote about a D.C. woman who was at home when 13 officers, some wearing ski masks, broke through her front door with a battering ram. Once inside, the officers ordered her and her brother at gunpoint to get on the floor. As her brother, who suffered from back pain so debilitating that he qualified for disability, slowly lowered himself, an officer shoved him to the ground, according to a lawsuit that argued that the raid should have never been conducted.

When I spoke to that woman, she described that incident as leaving her with a shattered sense of security and a changed view of the police. Before that day, she had been a legal assistant who had a deep respect for law enforcement and regularly donated to the Fraternal Order of Police. After that day, she said, “It made me hate the police.”

It made me hate the police. Consider those words and what it means to stand on both sides of them. Policing is an inherently difficult job. Policing in a community where people don’t trust you makes that job even more challenging and dangerous.

Transparency and accountability in policing does not just help the public; it also helps officers who get into the field for the right reasons and honor their uniforms with their conduct — and there are plenty of those.

A D.C. police officer explains why he knelt before protesters. His reason matters.

On Wednesday, House Republicans continued their political show of power by questioning D.C. officials and targeting the city’s Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act.

That police accountability legislation would make permanent the measures the city put in place on an emergency basis after George Floyd’s murder. Those measures include prohibiting neck restraints, increasing public access to police body-cam footage, expanding the authority of the Office of Police Complaints and not allowing the police union to negotiate police discipline.

Right now, across the nation, police departments that fire officers for misconduct, including sexual assaults and child abuse, are often forced through an arbitration process to rehire those officers.

FIRED/REHIRED: Police chiefs are often forced to put officers fired for misconduct back on the streets

House Republicans will have you believe that the D.C. legislation is anti-police and that they voted to advance a measure to block it for the same reason they, with support from their Democratic counterparts, blocked D.C.’s revised criminal code: public safety.

But if they truly cared about the public’s safety, they would’ve backed off. Congress playing puppeteer with D.C. is insulting to every taxpaying, unrepresented resident. But their willingness to block the city’s police accountability legislation stands to erode trust between the public and police at a time when we need to be focused on repairing it.

The city, like many places, is facing a police staffing shortage. The way to fix that is not to make it easier for “bad” cops to stay on the force; it’s to make the job one that draws more quality candidates.

“Right now, we have an epidemic of community mistrust of the police in many parts of our country, not just in parts of D.C.,” said Michael G. Tobin, executive director of the Office of Police Complaints. “Law enforcement depends on community cooperation to function. If the community has trust in their police force, every cop’s job will be easier and the community will be safer. That’s what these police accountability measures do — they improve community trust, which in turn improves the ability of law enforcement to do their job. It is not an ‘us vs. them’ proposition but rather a way to pull together some of the missing parts of our current system of policing to make it better for everyone.”

Better for everyone. Better for “good” cops. Better for cops who have made reasonable mistakes but want to do better. Better for members of the public who count on the police for their safety.

The report of that officer who yelled at that child offers only a snapshot of what happened. The officer’s name is not included, so there is no way to know if that was one bad moment for him in a string of impressive ones or an indication of how he regularly treats people. But the fact that we’re able to click on that report, and others, and know what’s happening in policing around us matters. It helps us better understand where more training, more education, more resources are needed.

Transparency and accountability in policing help make us safer. Blocking that from happening won’t solve crimes or staffing problems. It will only gets votes from people who don’t live here for people who aren’t invested here.