Lawmakers were responding to widespread demonstrations against police brutality in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody. In recent days, the committee received more than 18,000 comments via email and video that overwhelmingly favored shrinking funding for police.
“The council, like all Americans, is grappling with undoing centuries of layered and systemic racism and its permutations throughout our society,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee. “This budget reflects significant action and aligns with other sweeping reform this committee has undertaken, but it’s also one piece of a movement. . . . Every level of government, including among executive branch agencies, must make change.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham declined to discuss the council’s actions at length but said the cuts would force a hiring freeze that could reduce the 3,800-member force by 200 officers or more.
Bowser had planned to increase the police department to 4,000 officers by 2023. District officials warned in 2017 that falling below 3,700 officers could endanger crime-fighting efforts; Newsham has said underfunded police departments lack proper training and equipment, creating circumstances in which officers tend to use more excessive force, not less.
On the other side of the debate, activists denounced the cuts in the proposed budget, noting that overall spending on police would still increase compared with this year. They were furious that Allen, one of the city’s most liberal council members, had not taken more drastic action.
Allen’s office said the overall police budget would grow in part because of a pre-negotiated raise for officers.
“It seems he is another one of those white people who have good intentions but haven’t worked to fulfill our goals,” said Cam Morris, an organizer of the D.C. chapter of Black Youth Project 100, which protested outside Allen’s home Wednesday evening. “People are constantly talking about going through the system and elected officials and how this is supposed to work, and it hasn’t worked that way.”
The episode illustrates the challenges ahead for protesters nationwide as they try to channel the energy on the streets into sweeping policy change.
Many activists contend that policing is fundamentally broken. They say measures adopted in the District and elsewhere — such as body-worn cameras and implicit-bias training — have not ended killings by police and racial disparities in the enforcement of laws.
But city leaders say they also hear often from residents who seek additional police patrols in their neighborhoods in response to shootings or spates of violence and who want policy changes to ensure police are law-abiding.
Violent crime in the District is down about 12 percent this year, driven by fewer robberies. But homicides are up 10 percent over this time in 2019, a year that saw the highest number of killings in a decade.
Troy Donté Prestwood, an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner in Anacostia, said his constituents often ask for more police, not less.
“They don’t want police that are going to come and abuse and harass them,” said Prestwood, who tweeted critically of the defund police movement after the fatal shooting of a 21-year-old woman in his neighborhood. “They want police to come and serve and protect them.”
Patrick Burke, a former assistance police chief who now leads the D.C. police foundation, said the force needs full staffing to address crime. He also criticized lawmakers for redirecting money into community-based violence-interruption programs, saying three years of such efforts “haven’t reduced homicides or gun violence yet.”
Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) also cited rising crime in the District as a reason to employ caution on issues of police funding. “It’s incumbent on us to do the right balancing between unhappiness over policing in general and ensuring public safety,” he said. “There continues to be an awful lot of violent crime in the city.”
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), a vocal critic of the police, said it would take years to successfully overhaul policing, as the city continues to experiment with alternative approaches.
“It’s really only been a few weeks since we have had enough public support to trim police budgets and enough room to try a different path,” White said. “We have to make sure that the programs we are instituting are working and make sure people don’t feel unsafe.”
Even council member David Grosso (I-At Large), who has called for Newsham’s resignation and the police force’s reduction, said the city does not have the “political will” right now to radically alter its approach.
“Without the mayor’s support, you are not going to see major changes,” Grosso said. “There are too many people still stuck in the old ways of a law-and-order kind of approach.”
Bowser has defended D.C. police as more reform-minded than other departments and says her funding proposals are “not a penny more or a penny less” than needed.
Her administration blasted the council for rejecting the addition of 50 slots to the police cadet program, which pays salaries and college tuition to D.C. residents to prepare them for the force.
“They ought to be ashamed of themselves for not allowing homegrown D.C. residents to become police officers,” Newsham said.
Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), a member of the public safety committee who has championed growing the police force, raised similar concerns, though he ultimately voted for the budget proposal.
“I am concerned we may be unwittingly sacrificing an opportunity to diversify the police force to make it more inclusive of black, brown and native Washingtonian individuals with cultural competency,” said Gray, a former mayor.
Allen said the existing 100 cadet slots were enough and he wanted to prioritize funding for crime-prevention programs that the mayor would have reduced.
Hours after the committee vote, a group of protesters gathered outside Allen’s residence in Northeast Washington, stopping in front of a line of rowhouses as curious neighbors poked their heads out windows and doors. They shouted and booed at the proposed cut, which the protesters believed was too modest.
Allen did not appear at the protest, but demonstrators seemed determined to get his attention. They urged people to return to the house until the city council takes its final budget vote.
“We need to get the point to where we take abolition seriously,” an organizer said.
The crowd cheered in response.
In neighboring Montgomery County, elected officials on Thursday announced the formation of a new committee to “reimagine public safety” and plans for an external review of practices and budgets in the police department.
County Executive Marc Elrich (D) added that he anticipates some resources will be diverted away from police to fund social services.
“There’s a whole bunch of things that ought to be handled by social service agencies,” he said. “The challenge is identifying the officers doing those activities.”
Julie Zauzmer, Marissa J. Lang and Perry Stein contributed to this report.