D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham supports some of the changes but said he believes the council acted too quickly and without enough consideration and input, particularly on the body-camera provisions, and his agency is scrambling to figure out what the emergency legislation requires.
Newsham described the effort “as unilateral legislation” done “in knee-jerk fashion” in reaction to calls for reform amid days of demonstrations after the killing of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
The chief said members of his 3,800-member force “feel they have been abandoned” in part by “actions by the council,” whose members he accused of failing to acknowledge more than a decade of reform efforts that have made D.C. police a national model.
“We are not the Minneapolis Police Department,” Newsham said.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) challenged the contention that lawmakers moved too fast. “I think the national outrage requires that the government move more quickly than it traditionally does,” he said in an interview. “If you could point to something in the bill that truly makes it more difficult to catch a murderer, then we’re moving too fast. I don’t see that in the bill.”
Perhaps the most significant change — and the most contentious — is giving the police chief more power to fire officers for misconduct by cutting out the role of the labor union, which has typically shaped the disciplinary process and mechanisms for appeals through collective bargaining. The legislation says future contracts “should not be used to shield employees from accountability, particularly those employees who have as much power as police officers,” and must not “restrict management's right to discipline sworn officers.”
The union contract with police expires in September — when the new rules would be implemented — and discussions are underway to begin talks. But under the new law, discipline will no longer be a subject to negotiate; it will be fully under the purview of District leaders, who could revamp the entire system now in place.
“I know we get accused all the time that we’re protecting bad cops or getting cops back on the force through some sort of loophole,” said Greggory Pemberton, chairman of the police union. “That’s all rhetoric. The union helps manage the disciplinary process to make sure it is meted out fairly.”
Mendelson said he “absolutely sees a role for unions” in disciplining officers, but he also said that “police and police unions don’t get that protecting the blue line has to have limitations.”
The council chair said that “if a police officer here were to do what we saw in Minneapolis, we would want the police chief to fire that officer — today. And under the current bargaining process, the chief can’t do that. . . . We are held hostage to a process that is cumbersome.”
The emergency legislation passed unanimously with a veto-proof majority, with the bill’s sponsor, council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), saying the District needs “to completely and radically rethink the way in which we deliver public safety.”
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) urged the council to slow down, though she plans to sign the bill. She has voiced objection to one of the measures regarding body cameras, saying she is concerned the quick release could complicate trials.
Tuesday’s vote enacts the changes for 90 days, and they can be extended to 225 days with a second vote. To permanently change the law, the council will need to hold public hearings and vote again.
The legislation addresses issues small and large.
It adds civilians with voting rights to the department’s Use of Force Review Board, which reviews cases and recommends punishment for officers. At least one civilian appointee has to have “personally experienced the use of force by a law enforcement officer.”
The bill also grants more power to a separate independent civilian review board and extends the time the police department has to investigate claims of misconduct against officers.
Two provisions in the legislation pertaining to when officers can use force or conduct searches largely mirror rules already spelled out in the police department’s general orders. The law mandates officers make it clearer to people the rights they give up when they consent to a search.
Mendelson said codifying those rules “makes them stronger and harder to unilaterally tweak by management.” In effect, the council has taken away the ability of the police chief to alter some of his directives.
One significant change deals with video from police body cameras.
The department will now have to publicize within 72 hours video from any incident in which police use lethal or significant force. The bill also requires that by July 1 the department release the names and video recordings of deaths in custody since the body-camera program began in October 2014.
Lawmakers said families need to be notified beforehand, which would require someone in the police department to find them in the next three weeks.
Newsham noted that the body-camera program was crafted after months of study and debate and that there were “a lot of strong opinions from a lot of different groups,” including over how and whether to make the videos public.
People who are subjects in the videos can view them at a police station, and the public has always been able to file records requests for videos, though the process can take weeks or even months and police typically denied release during open investigations. The mayor could make videos public in cases of public interest or outrage, and she has done so in at least four instances since 2014.
Newsham has been cautious in his comments regarding some specific aspects of the emergency legislation. That includes the provision that appears to give him unfettered control over disciplining his officers, even as he has complained for years that it is too hard to fire members for misconduct.
“We’re talking to lawyers to get to the bottom of it,” the chief said, adding, “I don’t have any desire to take away our employees’ due-process rights.”
Newsham does want to eliminate arbitration. He told a D.C. Council committee this week that arbiters have forced him to rehire eight officers he had recently fired for misconduct, including one who he said sexually assaulted a woman, another caught in a prostitution sting and a third who had shot someone on his own property.
“There is a critical gap in credibility when my decision to terminate an employee for egregious misconduct is all too often overturned in arbitration,” Newsham told lawmakers, “either for technical reasons or because the arbitrator believes he can substitute the judgment for the chief of police.”
Mendelson said that the union should not have “zero say” in discipline and that both the labor group and police officials should discuss the topic and ways for officers to appeal decisions and punishment. “But I don’t think it should be bargained,” the council chairman said, referring to a process that locks the department into a set of rules for the duration of the contract.
Pemberton, the union chair, said it appears the legislation leaves his labor group to negotiate only salaries and working conditions, leaving out discipline, which he described as a core union principle, and carves out police officers as a separate, less protected class of District workers.
“The allegation that, somehow, police officers should not be entitled to the same employment rights as firefighters or nurses is preposterous,” Pemberton said. “We hope that cooler heads will prevail before there is an exodus of officers, who can easily go to other departments where their rights are protected.”
Correction: An earlier version of this report said the law expands the number of crimes eligible for citations, to curb the number of arrests. That provision was removed from the bill.