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D.C. Council reconsiders sweeping police bill

Black Lives Matter protesters face police on July 4. (Astrid Riecken/for The Washington Post)
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A month after approving sweeping measures to overhaul policing in the nation’s capital as thousands demonstrated for racial justice, the D.C. Council is preparing to scrap the standards it set for using nondeadly force to stop suspects and delay the identification of officers who used deadly force.

The emergency legislation passed June 9 and had been scheduled to take effect Tuesday, barring a mayoral veto. But the council will instead vote that day to repeal and replace the measures, to address objections from the administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) — delaying enactment by weeks.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee with oversight of city police and who spearheaded the emergency bill, said he agreed to make changes after consulting with the mayor and other lawmakers.

His original bill would have forced the police department to disclose the names of officers who used deadly force and associated body-camera footage as of July 1. The new legislation would push that deadline back to Aug. 15 and allow the next-of-kin of those killed by police to stop the footage from going public.

The department would also have five days instead of three to provide the D.C. Council with the names of officers and footage from deadly-force incidents.

The new legislation would remove provisions from the original bill that barred officers from using force to apprehend suspects unless there is probable cause to believe they committed a crime.

Police Chief Peter Newsham has said that language “essentially eliminates the police department’s ability to arrest violent offenders at the scenes of crimes.”

For example, Newsham said, police called to a robbery could not use force to detain a person leaving the scene and wearing clothes that match the description given by the victim. The matching description would not meet a probable-cause standard, and the suspect could simply ignore an officer trying to question them, Newsham said in an earlier interview with The Washington Post.

The new bill preserves the standards the council set for using deadly force — limited to situations when it is “immediately necessary” to prevent serious bodily injury or death and when all other options have been exhausted.

Neither Bowser, who urged the council to slow down and hold public hearings on the measures, nor the D.C. police returned requests for comments on the revised legislation.

The D.C. Council is planning to further revise the proposals before taking up a permanent version of the bill in the fall. Emergency legislation is in effect for only 90 days.

Allen described the changes to the bill as “relatively minor tweaks” and said they were a normal part of emergency lawmaking as officials had more time to think through the proposals.

Other provisions of the police legislation originally passed by the council are untouched, including a ban on the use of chemical irritants or rubber bullets on peaceful protesters. Police unions also would not be allowed to negotiate disciplinary measures during collective bargaining.

The updated police bill contains some new measures.

The department would be barred from hiring officers who were found to have committed serious misconduct at other law enforcement agencies, in addition to the original hiring ban on officers who were forced out of earlier jobs for misconduct. Newsham said the new language would not affect current hiring guidelines.

It would also enfranchise D.C. felons while they are incarcerated — adding the nation’s capital to Vermont and Maine as the only jurisdictions that allow prisoners to vote. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) spearheaded the idea.

Lawmakers are also scheduled Tuesday to cast their first vote on a nearly $16.7 billion budget, of which the city controls about $8.5 billion. It is the first budget in about a decade with declining revenue, creating a hole of about $800 million that elected officials are filling by freezing pay for D.C. government workers and tapping reserves.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) on Monday unveiled his proposed changes to the budget that would increase taxes, including on gasoline, while boosting funding for public-housing repairs, rent subsidies and assistance to undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for federal coronavirus relief aid.

Mendelson would preserve $15 million in cuts to the police budget proposed by Allen, who suggested redirecting that money to alternatives such as “violence interruption” programs, in which community members are paid to mediate neighborhood disputes before they turn deadly.

Police officials have said the shrinking budget could lead to the loss of 200 officers from the roughly 3,800-member force by hamstringing their ability to hire new officers to fill vacancies. Bowser said it could result in slower response times for residents calling for police.

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But Mendelson said the proposed cuts would strike the right balance between protecting public safety and addressing concerns about overpolicing. “This is not something we can’t revisit in the future if we find the reduction is too great,” said Mendelson.

He proposed more funding for a host of city initiatives, including $5 million to continue a cash assistance program for undocumented people who lost work because of the coronavirus, $6 million for rental assistance and $9.5 million to reverse cuts proposed by the mayor for a behavioral-health rehabilitation program.

Mendelson also is proposing $2 million to fund measures to assist tipped workers, part of legislation repealing a 2018 ballot initiative that would have required employers to pay servers, bartenders and others a standard minimum wage in addition to customer gratuities. He cited The Post’s reporting on how elected officials did not follow through on their promise to address voter concerns about the industry after repealing the wage increase.

To balance the new spending, Mendelson is proposing about $37 million in new taxes. The proposed gas tax increase would amount to an additional dime per gallon, bringing the District in line with Northern Virginia’s approximately 34-cents-per-gallon tax rate after state lawmakers authorized a hike.

Mendelson is also proposing a 3 percent tax on the sale of advertising and personal information, as well as a rollback of tax breaks for technology companies.

Lawmakers may propose amendments to the budget Tuesday.

The second and final vote is scheduled for July 20.

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.

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