In a city scarred by racial disparities in policing and home to historic unrest over how to address it, local leaders tried something new this month: a 10-day conversation.

The marathon workshop, organized by The Lab @ DC in partnership with Georgetown Law School and Howard University, focused on understanding and reducing bias in police stops in the District. Among the 130 participants who virtually convened over the course of 20 hours were D.C. officers, community members who said they have been traumatized by interactions with law enforcement, and a long list of top criminal justice researchers ready to offer data.

At the center of the dialogue was data released in September 2019 by D.C. police, which revealed racial disparities in police stops. Though African Americans make up less than half the population, 70 percent of people stopped by D.C. police between July 22 and Aug. 18 of that year were Black, while only 15 percent were White.

“I have been discouraged recently that there hasn’t been more conversation between, for example, activists and police,” said Christy Lopez, a lead workshop organizer and professor of practice at the Georgetown University Law Center. “But I have been really encouraged by the openness of this group as a whole, no matter where they are on the political spectrum, to the idea that the way we are using stops has to change.”

During its final workshop Thursday, participants narrowed their focus to long-term research questions and shorter-term policy goals, ramping up pressure on D.C. police Chief Peter Newsham, among others, to show signs of committing to change.

Workshop participants over two weeks said police stops cause psychological trauma and diminished academic performance.

“One of the things that I am capturing is almost a failure by the police department to recognize the impact that stops may have on our communities, and particularly stops that are biased or procedurally unjust,” Newsham said, appearing in uniform over Zoom. “Publicly having that acknowledgment when we speak is critically important.”

Newsham went on to suggest that D.C. should consider following Virginia’s lead in passing a statute that restricts some discretionary stops, which he distinguished from investigative stops and most traffic stops. He also stressed the importance of investing in mental health treatment for officers and asked researchers to suggest ways he could incentivize his force to proactively engage with communities.

Patrice Sulton, director of DC Justice Lab, dismissed Newsham’s comments as disingenuous, saying he should take it upon himself to prohibit officers from making discretionary stops.

“I just don’t know why he would reference that as a good policy point and frame it as though the council needs to act when he is the chief of police,” she said. “What kind of leadership is that?”

Over the course of the 10-day workshop, participants focused on understanding the motivation behind police stops, explored research regarding police encounters and worked to design policy suggestions to reform police stops to improve health and safety outcomes. After days of breakout sessions, many participants recalled constructive and sometimes tense moments that pushed them to think deeply about policing in the District.

Michael Perloff, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C., said he and participants in one breakout group had agreed that police should impose limitations on stops and searches. But they had not yet agreed on which types of stops should be banned.

The group came to a similar crossroads on funding police, Perloff told participants in a Thursday virtual panel. Some group members advocated increased funding to improve outcomes, while others thought reallocating resources and minimizing law enforcement responsibilities would foster more equality and safety in the region.

While Perloff’s group wrestled with competing perspectives, Brenda Richardson, who sits on a Ward 8 outreach committee, emphasized on behalf of her breakout group the importance of community engagement.

“We are so grateful for the researchers and the data, but at the end of the day, you have to make sure that everything works,” she said on Thursday’s panel. “So as we look at these police stops, I think it is important that the community play a greater role and then we figure out why so many African Americans are being stopped and really do something about it.”

Ronald Hampton, a retired D.C. officer, came away from the workshop even more sure of his long-standing belief that police stops should be entirely prohibited.

“I have heard some people say that stops are an effective tool to fight crime,” he said. “I don’t agree with that because I was there. I saw the negative results.”

Researchers attending the workshop — including Jack Glaser, a renowned social psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley — generally agreed that increases in police stops do not necessarily correlate with reduction in violent crime. They left the Thursday workshop committed to developing recommendations that would ultimately increase the benefits and reduce the harms associated with police stops, in D.C. and nationwide.

“I am a student of history, and I know that . . . when we realize there is something deeply wrong that is causing our democracy to fracture because of a sense of unfairness, then we definitely know that we have the will to change it,” said Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of the Howard University Law School. “I truly believe that, as long as we are around and doing the work, we have to have hope.”

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