The legislation includes changes to the disciplinary process, expanding civilian input on review boards, making neck restraints unlawful and requiring making public body camera videos when officers use deadly force. The hearing also covered a bill that could make it harder for police to charge people suspected of rioting.
The measures follow the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and other violent interactions with law enforcement across the country that have prompted demonstrations in many American cities, including the District.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee on the judiciary and public safety, said in his opening remarks that “we are at a very important moment for change in our city.”
Allen noted the complexity of the proposed changes, with police officials initially pushing back on some measures and the chief saying in June that the council had “abandoned” officers.
“We are having a very serious discussion on what safety should look like for everyone, and what justice should like for everyone,” Allen said Thursday.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has said the council has failed to acknowledge more than a decade of efforts to turn the force into a national model. The chief said Thursday that many provisions in the legislation, such as requiring officers to intervene when they see wrongdoing, is already required.
Roger A. Mitchell Jr., the interim deputy mayor for public safety, told lawmakers the administration supports most of the provisions, such as expanding review boards to include civilians and banning neck restraints, which codifies practices the department already forbids.
Mitchell said the hearing “is an important byproduct of the demonstrations.” He also said it was an “opportunity to improve police practices where necessary, to highlight good police practices, and to build deeper relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
More than 100 people signed up to testify remotely at the hearing, and each speaker was given three minutes to talk over Zoom. Most urged passing a permanent version of the emergency legislation. But they also pressed for additional measures, with some saying the legislation before the committee is insufficient.
Suggestions included monitoring police use of surveillance and facial recognition programs, removing police from schools and putting more restrictions on searches by police. Law students at Georgetown and Howard universities pressed confronting racial disparities in police stops of pedestrians and motorists.
Newsham said the department is working to examine police stops.
Police pulling people over on minor infractions as a pretext to search for guns or drugs “increases racial bias in the system and does not provide public safety,” said Akhi Johnson, a former federal prosecutor who now works with a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice.
Anthony Lorenzo Green, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 7, said “communities with the most resources have less violence,” while “people of color have to continue to defend their humanity.”
Bobby Pittman, who chairs the Citizens Advisory Council at the 1st District police station, said he understands that police officers “don’t always do what they are supposed to do.” But he said the community still needs police.
“I need people to be safe,” Pittman said. “I need the public to feel they are not going to get robbed or killed.”
Pittman said “other government services” — which could alleviate the need for police to confront social issues such as mental health crises that can lead to dangerous confrontations — have not stepped up to the plate.” He called the legislation well meaning but said it “will not yield the results that you want.”
Greggory Pemberton, the chairman of the police union, warned the legislation is leading to more police officers resigning while the District is facing “an exponential increase in crime.”
In addition to the provisions in the emergency legislation, the committee also took up a separate bill that would impact how police officers respond to acts of rioting. Police arrested more than 400 people May 30 through June 3 after demonstrations became violent, with fires set and stores looted in several parts of the District.
The bill would require officers to match a specific person to a specific crime, such as assault, arson or destruction of property, and then prove that person knew at least nine other people were committing the same offenses.
“If the officer cannot make this finding, then no arrest can be made,” Mitchell said in his written testimony to the council, calling it an “unworkable standard.”
The proposal would essentially make rioting a secondary charge that could be added after someone is arrested on an underlying offense.
Newsham warned that if the council proceeds, it would be “impossible for this offense to be charged at the time of the riot,” and “rioters will be able to act with impunity.” He said rioters come with the intent of causing destruction, cover their faces, wear similar clothing and exchange hats and bags to make it more difficult for police to quickly identify them.
Allen said in an interview that the rioting bill has been in the works since the unrest during the January 2017 inauguration. He said that the District’s current rioting statute is outdated compared with other cities and that large-scale arrests of people have largely been thrown out of courts.
The council member said police can still charge people with crimes such as arson and assault.
“This doesn’t change the fact the police can made an arrest,” Allen said.