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Bill aims to expand authority of D.C. police oversight board, make officers’ discipline records public

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson proposed the policing bill. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Legislation proposed by the D.C. Council chairman would give District residents a greater say in police procedures governing the conduct of officers and would for the first time open their disciplinary records to the public.

It also would create a position in the Office of the D.C. Auditor to review internal police investigations, including those into fatal shootings by officers and other uses of force, and the handling of demonstrations.

The bill’s provisions were drafted by Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and filed Monday. The council is wrapped up in budget talks and hearings, and action on the policing bill is not expected to begin until fall.

Many of the proposals follow recommendations made by the council-appointed Police Reform Commission that concluded its work in April with a report calling for sweeping changes in virtually every aspect of policing in D.C., including allowing more public input.

If approved, Mendelson’s bill would give D.C. residents a voice in the day-to-day operations of the police department, which could include input on rules governing police pursuits or the handling of juvenile suspects, and even on the job description and qualifications required of the police chief.

“It would be a huge change in overall police accountability and transparency,” said Robert Bobb, who co-chaired the Police Reform Commission and was a city administrator in the D.C. in the mid-2000s. “It would give the public an opportunity to look under the hood on how policing functions in the District.”

Lawmakers in District, Maryland and Virginia seek to make police more accountable

Mendelson said his legislation was spurred by the recommendations from the Police Reform Commission, which sought to strengthen oversight of the police department.

“When you look at [Derek Chauvin] in the George Floyd trial . . . when you look at the upset over police officers who shoot and kill, the question is, are they being held accountable?” Mendelson said. “This is a big deal in terms of accountability. It’s going beyond what we used to think was best practice in having an independent police complaints board.”

The administration of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) did not comment on specifics of the proposed legislation.

In a statement, her office said officials are studying the bill “and we will work with the Council regarding any questions or concerns upon this review.” D.C. police referred comment to the mayor’s office.

The chairman of the D.C. police union, Gregg Pemberton, did not respond to an interview request Tuesday. He has been critical of the Police Reform Commission and blamed previously passed legislation increasing public accountability and restricting some tactics for officers leaving the force and for a spike in homicides and shootings.

Other jurisdictions also have passed laws to increase accountability and oversight in policing. In Maryland, lawmakers abolished the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which had set up special protections for officers in the disciplinary system.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the committee on the judiciary and public safety, said Mendelson’s proposal advances separate legislation he introduced on an emergency basis last year. Allen plans to move a permanent version of that bill this fall.

Allen praised the push in Mendelson’s bill for greater transparency in disciplinary action. The new law would amend the District’s Freedom of Information Act so that police disciplinary records “can no longer be withheld from the public.” It also would require police by Dec. 23, 2023, to publicize a database listing each sworn officer’s commendations and training and disciplinary history.

Mendelson’s proposed law would rename the Office of Police Complaints the Police Accountability Commission, and would expand its authority and scope.

The agency’s five-member board would grow to nine and would include three residents ages 15 to 24 living in areas “with higher than average levels of police stops and arrests,” giving young people who have interactions with police a say in how the department functions. Members of immigrant populations, the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities also would be represented.

If enacted, the law would require the police chief to submit all policies and procedures on policing and training to the commission for review, comment and votes. The commission could hold public hearings on issues. If the chief rejects the input, a written response “and justification for the rejection” would have to be provided to the commission.

Police Reform Commission seeks to reinvent law enforcement

Michael G. Tobin, the executive director of the Office of Police Complaints, said the new law would transform his office from a body that makes recommendations that can disappear into one with a legitimate say in police affairs.

“Right now, the department can choose to do what it wants, and it frequently chooses to do nothing,” Tobin said of his board’s reports. “This will give us far greater input into the policies and procedures of the department.”

Tobin said residents who want the department to change or adopt new police policies have either to convince the administration or to get a law passed. He said the new proposal opens up another way for “the community to have direct input in setting police policies and procedures.”

D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson said she supports the establishment of a new post: deputy auditor for public safety. Her office has recently reviewed several police investigations into officers’ use of deadly force and concluded that many of the internal police reviews were deficient.

More formalized reviews, Patterson said, would help the public to have “a better understanding of whether officers are ever held accountable, and the extent that they are held accountable.”

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