The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. advocates, officials who want to overhaul policing face hurdles after violence spike

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III speaks to the public on 14th Street NW on July 23, after a shooting the previous night sent diners on the street running for cover. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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At a marathon news conference last month to announce an arrest in the fatal shooting of a 6-year-old girl, D.C.’s mayor and police chief talked tough. Some criminals may not want help, the chief said, and need to be confronted. The mayor said there was an urgent need to hire more police officers.

The next day, lawmakers pushing for a smaller, more accountable police force struck a markedly different tone, questioning the need to enlarge the force. Instead, they said, the daily drumbeat of shootings calls for swifter adoption of packages to combat crime as a public health challenge.

In weighing how to keep residents safe, the full D.C. Council ended up with a compromise that left advocates of both approaches dissatisfied.

“The council is splitting the difference, putting some money toward traditional policing and some more toward alternative approaches,” council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said last week, ahead of the council’s unanimous vote on the city’s $17.5 billion budget. “And I think we have to be real . . . we don’t know if the alternative approaches will reduce the shootings either.”

In the District and other places nationwide, the push to overhaul public safety — seeking more accountability for police and alternatives to policing and jail to stop crime — is hitting new pushback from those who argue robust policing is needed to combat spikes in gun violence.

In D.C., that tension became even more acute after a weekend in which residents confronted both street violence and possible police misconduct. More than a dozen people were shot, three fatally. And on Sunday an officer, captured on video, repeatedly punched a man being arrested. D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said the incident left him ashamed, and he suspended three officers pending an investigation.

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Naïké Savain, a member of the council-appointed Police Reform Commission, which in April recommended sweeping changes to reduce and realign the force to decrease aggressive tactics, said she was disappointed in the council’s decision to add funding for some new officers but does not think it is a blow to the momentum behind the push for change sparked by outrage over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Many items in the latest city budget align with the commission’s recommendations, including investing in alternatives to police; however, adding more officers does not. To Savain and many others, putting more police onto the streets is a regression to broken policies of the past.

“It goes against the central theme of our report,” said Savain, policy counsel for the DC Justice Lab, a criminal justice advocacy group. “It’s an easy request to make in response to what’s been going on. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. It doesn’t mean it’s good policy. It doesn’t mean that it will be effective. The call for more police essentially just creates this never-ending cycle.”

Changing 'tune' on reform

The killing of soon-to-be first-grader Nyiah Courtney on July 16 in Congress Heights and recent shootings outside Nationals Park and along 14th Street near Logan Circle that scattered and frightened fans and diners made the nation’s capital the latest example of an American city in distress over crime.

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had first tripled funds for some alternative-justice programs while spending less on police in her May budget proposal. But after the spate of high-profile shootings, she also asked the council for an additional $11 million to hire 170 more officers.

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) countered with a pitch that allowed immediate hiring of 20 new officers and $5 million to hire 40 more later. The remaining $6 million was rerouted to violence intervention programs.

Before last week’s budget vote, Bowser pushed back. “If the council wants to experiment more with violence interruption, obviously they can do that — go find it someplace else in that budget,” she told reporters. “The police chief says we need many, many more officers — 170 of them we can hire in the next year. We probably, actually, need more.” The council, unswayed, approved Allen’s scaled-back version.

The union representing D.C. police officers have blamed crime on a variety of factors, including the council for “demonizing” officers and “passing misguided legislation under the guise of ‘police reform.’ ”

The labor group said it surveyed residents in June and found that 91 percent of those surveyed wanted more or the same number of officers in their neighborhoods. The union said 71 percent opposed cuts to police funding.

On July 30, after the mayor tweeted that residents “want to see a strong, sustained police presence,” the usually critical union answered on Twitter: “Thank you @MurielBowser for setting the right tone! We hear this from residents every day. Hopefully @councilofdc will start to listen.”

Delonte Gholston, the senior pastor at Peace Fellowship Church and a member of the reform commission, said he felt encouraged during the racial justice protests of last summer by what he described as “real traction” from top city officials on supporting alternatives to policing.

“What is concerning is how quickly that tune has changed,” Gholston said. “The notion of adding more officers right now is more of a reflection of what happens when there’s a shooting in Logan Circle versus a shooting on Randle Circle in Southeast D.C. . . . We have an underinvestment problem, not a homicide problem.”

'Why can't we have both?'

Chief Contee, a native Washingtonian who won over the council with his story of growing up in a home affected by illegal drugs, has said he believes most people need help rather than prison. But he also said a shrinking police force — down roughly 200 officers from last year and projected to soon be the city’s smallest in two decades — makes his job more difficult.

A neighborhood where violence is a part of everyday life

At a July 29 council roundtable on gun violence and prevention, he agreed his department alone can’t fix crime, and that arresting people is not a long-term solution.

But the chief urged lawmakers and activists to move cautiously on reform, worried that shifting responsibilities away from police, such as enforcing traffic infractions or responding to mental distress calls, should come only after alternatives are fully staffed and operational.

“I have heard people say ‘I don’t feel safe in the community with guns in our streets,’ ” Contee said during a sometimes tense hearing for council members to evaluate programs such as violence interruption and the new Building Blocks DC initiative, focusing on the 151 blocks on which about 40 percent of the gunfire occurs.

In Contee’s mind, criminal justice reform and having a strong police force are not mutually exclusive. “We have an opportunity right now . . . Why does it have to be either/or?” he asked. “Why do we got to have less police? Why can’t we have both?”

Allen, in his opening remarks at the roundtable, said, “We should know by now that only looking at arresting and convicting a shooter” will “not stop the next shooter from stepping up to fill the vacuum.”

The lawmaker said, “It is the conditions that allow someone to become that next shooter that we must also focus on,” adding that talks of arrests and incarceration too often distract from those efforts.

The discussion over how to change these conditions has been far-ranging. It has included suggestions of a sharper focus on education for communities of color, greater cohesion among existing anti-violence programs and stronger tools to assess whether they are working as intended.

During the news conference on the arrest in Nyiah’s killing, Contee said the District is at a “pivotal moment” to not only rethink policing, but also examine the entire criminal justice system.

Asked by a reporter to define accountability in criminal justice, Contee answered: “Being rid of people who make our communities unsafe.”

He noted the mayor’s commitment to alternative-justice programs in her budget proposal, though he cautioned, “Some people will not take advantage of those, and when they commit violent crimes in our community, what are we going to do about it?”

Locking up people found responsible for crime will not solve the gun violence crisis, said April Goggans, a core organizer for Black Lives Matter DC, which advocates abolishing the police.

“Does that mean that people who perpetuate violence should be allowed in the communities where they’ve caused harm? Nope,” Goggans said. “But do I believe that the place that they should go is prison? Nope. Do I think that we have all the answers as to what it is? No, and I think it’s okay to say that.”

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