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D.C. police department faces tough talks on budget amid calls to defund

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham addresses a group of officers, cadet corps and recruits at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on June 5. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

A long line of District residents on Monday called on D.C. Council members to redirect police funds to other programs, taking a sentiment expressed during more than two weeks of demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd directly to lawmakers.

Calling it a “movement, not a moment” and warning, as one man did, “either listen to us, or we vote you out,” speakers at a public hearing on the D.C. police budget said that past efforts to change law enforcement have failed, and that policing has made them less safe, not more.

The specter of Floyd’s killing in police custody in Minneapolis and the “defund the police” mantra recited by demonstrators and written onto streets across the country turned what once would have been a routine budget discussion into a referendum on policing in the nation’s capital.

More than 500 people signed up for Monday’s D.C. police budget hearing conducted online by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). An additional 15,000 people submitted statements by phone, email and video, which Allen’s office said skew in favor of cutting funds to police. Just 22 residents testified at last year’s police budget hearing.

Danielle Geong said she has relatives who are police officers but nevertheless asked lawmakers “to abolish the MPD.” She said, “The only way to stop police violence is stop policing.”

Only a handful of the roughly 90 people who testified over six hours supported the police force, saying gun crime and homicides continue to rise.

William Leibner, who supported some of the ideas about alternative ways to fight crime, also said the city still needs short-term solutions to stop shootings. If anything, he said, the police department would need more money as it undergoes change.

“Crime was an issue” before the demonstrations, Leibner said, “is an issue today and will be an issue tomorrow.”

Police Chief Peter Newsham defended his department’s budget and 3,800-member force at a separate hearing last week, warning that underfunded police agencies are less accountable and have less money for training and programs that teach de-escalation, recognizing implicit bias and cultural sensitivity. The result, he said, could make issues of excessive force even worse.

But Allen, who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, signaled his thoughts that day, telling ­Newsham “there needs to be a significant rebalancing of how we use our public dollars to support and improve communities of black and brown residents away from policing and toward programs better suited for social challenges.”

Just how Allen plans to navigate this issue will be known June 25, when he is to put forward any changes he wants to the police department’s proposed half-billion-dollar budget. If they get through his committee, the budget goes to the Committee of the Whole and is reviewed and tweaked by the council chairman. The budget then needs two votes by the council to approve.

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In an interview, Newsham said 91 percent of his budget goes to salary and benefits, leaving few places other than personnel to make large cuts. The chief warned that “to all of a sudden dramatically reduce the number of officers in our city without a plan of how we’re going to handle the calls for service and the violence is a little scary for me.”

The police department’s current budget is $515 million, but that does not include $25 million spent for contractual pay raises for officers. The proposed budget for fiscal 2021 is $533 million. Factoring in the $25 million, the department has less money to spend in the fiscal year than in the past fiscal year.

Newsham said the proposed budget — before any changes from Allen — will shed about 60 officers from the force, through attrition. He said deeper cuts could lead to a longer hiring freeze and an even smaller department. The economic impact from the novel coronavirus has already forced D.C. police to freeze hiring for six months, beginning in October.

Monday’s hearing came days after the council unanimously passed emergency legislation to expand civilian oversight, to make it easier to fire officers and for the public to see body camera videos when officers use significant force. Newsham told council members last week that the department has undergone 20 years of reform, turning around an agency that in the 1990s led the nation in shootings by officers. He said he felt lawmakers had forgotten that history and had “abandoned” his officers.

But speakers at Monday’s hearing called changes the department made insufficient. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said D.C. police “are in deep need of reform. . . . Anyone who gets in the way of that progress is part of the problem.”

The Washington Interfaith Network, a coalition of more than 40 congregations, is urging District leaders to redirect $100 million — nearly one-fifth of the department’s budget — to invest in violence prevention programs and mental health and domestic violence teams to respond to crises.

“Fundamentally, policing has to be rethought,” said William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, after the group submitted written testimony for Monday’s hearing. “Using police to solve problems that are not law enforcement problems exacerbates negativity and inflames the kind of challenges we are seeing in our cities.”

Abel Birhanu told the committee that “if police are the only public institution that consistently receives budget increases when every other service is cut, we cannot be surprised when we have a police state.”

Nia Evans called the legislation passed by the council last week “not sufficient in any shape or form.” She called for police to be out of city schools and called on lawmakers “to be on the right side of history. MPD is failing. It breeds a culture of violence and racism that cannot be reformed.”

Moran Monroe simply said, “Defund MPD, and refund our community.”

The chairman of the police union called the testimony unrepresentative of the vast majority of residents, saying in a statement the hundreds of thousands of annual emergency calls “to summon an officer for help . . . directly refutes the narrative that no one wants or needs cops in their neighborhoods.”

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Kathy Henderson, an outspoken supporter of police and a former Advisory Neighborhood Commission member, testified from her laptop outside a D.C. police station. She lauded some changes the council made last week, including increasing civilian oversight but also pointed to a recent video showing a shootout involving young men with assault-style weapons.

“Do you think unarmed police are able to deal with those individuals that were clearly undermining black lives?” said Henderson, who is black.

At last week’s hearing, some council members demanded Newsham defend a force that is among the largest per capita in the country. Before covid-19, the administration had wanted to make the force even larger, bringing it up to 4,000 by 2023.

“What’s special, what’s magical about 4,000?” council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) asked the chief when he appeared at the Zoom hearing in the past week.

Newsham said that there is no “magic number,” but that the 4,000 mark was derived after hearing people at community meetings across the District say they wanted to see more police walking foot posts or riding scooters. Administration officials have noted that the District’s population nearly doubles with the influx of federal workers and grows even more with tourists. They also say officers have unique national security responsibilities.

D.C. police fatally shot more people than in any other department in 1990s

Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) last week told Newsham that for years, the approach to crime was “increasing funding for law enforcement, and therefore an increase in public safety.”

He added, “I think the premise is not accurate.”

Newsham told McDuffie he is convinced the violence stems from a “prevalence of guns in our community” coupled with “repeat violent offenders and a failure to hold those violent offenders accountable.”

In a tense exchange, Newsham said he fears killings sometimes “get lost in the conversation” over budgets, and he added that the rest of the criminal justice system needs to step up.

“It’s counterproductive to try to find solutions if we always deflect and say the U.S. attorney is not prosecuting folks or the judges aren’t locking them up long enough or the politicians aren’t tough enough,” McDuffie responded. “The fact of the matter is, we incarcerate more people than any other city in the country, and yet . . . homicides are up 9 percent.

“It’s not working, and we have to change the approach.”

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