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Group seeking to reinvent policing in District calls for sweeping changes

D.C. police officers, cadet corps members and recruits gather at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington on June 5. (Amanda Voisard/for The Washington Post)

The commission helping lawmakers overhaul policing in D.C. on Thursday recommended changes that would reverberate far beyond upending police culture and policies, potentially affecting a broad swath of city government.

In its final report, the Police Reform Commission said officers should be removed from schools, barred from making traffic stops unless there is an immediate threat to public safety, and stop responding to most calls involving people experiencing mental health crises. The report also recommends raising the age for offenders who can be charged as juveniles from 18 to 21.

To fill the void in responding to calls that police no longer would handle, the commission said other government workers such as those in the 911 call center and behavioral health workers would have to take on new responsibilities.

The commission also is calling on D.C. leaders to reduce the size and budget of the police department as duties shift, and invest more in agencies and programs to increase the “strength of the safety net for vulnerable residents,” with the aim of getting help for people who commit nonviolent offenses instead of sending them to jail.

It is now up to the D.C. Council, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and acting police chief Robert J. Contee III to decide whether — and how — to act on the report. Some recommendations would require new laws or the amending of existing ones, while other ­changes could be made by the police chief and the mayor.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) urged lawmakers and other officials to take the recommendations seriously.

Speaking at a news conference, Mendelson called some proposals “edgy but necessary” and said a proper balance needs to be struck between the power that police possess and their role of keeping people safe.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said society and government have “continuously disinvested in communities and doubled down on law enforcement. It would be at our own collective peril to ignore the urgency of these challenges.”

To implement the recommendations, police, residents and policymakers would have to fundamentally alter a mind-set that makes police the default agency for a wide variety of minor complaints such as illegally parked vehicles, unruly teens, loud ­noises and people suspected of being high on drugs.

The panel said that in many instances in which police are called, making an arrest “rarely solves the underlying problem and can trigger a range of negative consequences.”

The commission’s co-chair, Christy Lopez, said at the news conference that parts of the District are “over-policed and underprotected,” and she urged “focused deterrence” to concentrate on violent criminals.

“Peace is not made from the barrel of a gun,” said Delonte Gholston, a pastor and commission member. “Peace is not made from the sounds of sirens. . . . Communities can own our own solutions to peacemaking.”

Police Reform Commission to recommend sweeping changes

The panel, appointed by Mendelson at the behest of the council after demonstrations over the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, called on authorities to abandon a “warrior” model of policing and adopt a “guardian” model in which “officers are guided by empathy and see themselves as public servants devoted to understanding, protecting, and working with community members.”

The commission warned that the District “cannot achieve the public safety that all residents need and deserve if policing remains at the center of that effort.”

The 259-page report recog­nizes that a rise in homicides and gun violence in D.C. “is taking an intolerable toll, especially on those who should be the District’s future: young Black and Brown residents.”

But the report says that every recommendation is animated by a determination to do better by residents, especially those in troubled neighborhoods, “so that far fewer are killed or must live with the debilitating fear and trauma that accompanies a public safety crisis of gun violence.”

The 20-member commission has met publicly for seven months discussing a wide range of issues. Its members include a retired police officer, a consultant and former city manager, and several advocates for children and marginalized communities. The co-chair Lopez is director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law, and she led the Justice Department’s investigations of police conduct in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer there in 2014.

Not every member of the commission agreed with every recommendation, and the report gives a breakdown of the voting tally on each provision. One member, Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent defense attorney, disagreed with the premise that the police force needs to shrink in size and budget. He noted that many of the proposals would require more funding, not less.

Bennett opposed many of the recommendations, such as increasing the age at which suspects may be treated as juveniles in the court system, and he wrote his own addendum saying residents living in neighborhoods besieged by crime should be listened to more. He wrote that people should not “fear harm from criminals or from police misconduct,” but he said “an anti-police bias at times” seeped into the commission’s discussions.

Other cities are embarking on similar efforts. Last week, Baltimore’s state’s attorney announced that the city no longer would prosecute drug possession, prostitution and a number of other offenses, allowing a greater focus on violent crime. It continues a policy put in place at the onset of the pandemic, in which crime dropped even as fewer people went to jail.

Contee — who on Wednesday won the unanimous backing of the council’s public safety committee to permanently assume the job of police chief — has told lawmakers he supports changing the department to reflect a shift in police culture being contemplated in cities across the country.

The chief has embarked on his town-hall-style meetings to hear firsthand from residents what they think police should and should not be doing. He is changing the operations of the Gun Recovery Unit to minimize indiscriminate arrests, recognizing that its tactics have alienated communities.

But Contee has pushed back on calls to cut the department’s budget and the number of officers, noting the rising number of homicides and new threats of domestic terrorism after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

D.C. police on Thursday referred questions about the report to the mayor’s office.

Chris Geldart, the acting deputy mayor for public safety, noted a new initiative called Building Blocks DC that is intended to coordinate violence intervention, social services and community outreach to help at-risk communities. He said officials will work with the council and residents “to identify these opportunities and determine our best path forward.”

The D.C. police union said commission members were “clearly on a mission to defund police” and urged council members to ignore the “detrimental recommendations.”

In a statement, the labor group said other cities that made similar changes did so “to their own detriment,” saying crime spiked in Seattle, Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, Ore., and New York City.

The union’s chairman, Gregg Pemberton, called “preposterous” what he dubbed the report’s recurring theme that policing is harmful.

“Our members are tasked with the difficult job of dealing with violence and chaos every day,” Pemberton said, “and every day our members handle this responsibility with respect and professionalism.”

In all, the reform commission made more than 80 recommendations. The report also details ways in which the proposals can be implemented.

Shifting to a model where police are no longer the prime responders for people experiencing mental health crises, the commission said, would require training health workers, including those skilled in dealing with domestic assaults, and having them ready to respond quickly to calls.

Group studying reimagining police struggles with efforts to defund

It also would require a realigning of the 911 center so that dispatchers can discern which calls need police, which can be handled by health professionals, and which should have both. Several cities have turned to similar models.

“Law enforcement should be one option in an array of emergency responders, not necessarily the first option,” the panel suggests.

The commission also says civilian officials in the D.C. Department of Transportation should handle most traffic enforcement, a shift that would require new training. The idea is to stop police from pulling people over for minor infractions as a pretext to look for other crimes such as possession of drugs or guns. Critics complain that such stops affect minority communities at disproportionately high rates, and police data says Black people are stopped at disproportionately high levels.

The commission said lasting change requires “shifting our collective focus and resources to invest far more in community centered programs that prevent harm, while simultaneously realigning and reducing the size, responsibilities, and budget of MPD in line with a narrower scope of work for police.”

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