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Commission to reimagine police in District grapples with effort to defund

Robert J. Contee III, acting D.C. police chief, in January. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Pool)

A commission created to help the District reinvent policing is preparing a final report that could propose sweeping changes, including taking officers out of schools, curtailing traffic enforcement and shrinking the department’s size and budget.

But its members are in a tense debate over how explicitly to address the impetus for establishing the commission seven months ago: the “defund the police” movement born out of last summer’s demonstrations following the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Some members of the Police Reform Commission want the D.C. Council to consider cutting the police department’s $500 million budget in half over the next three to five years, while reducing the number of officers through attrition. But others said pushing for specific dollar cuts might detract from the effort to reshape policing in a city struggling to curtail violent crime and regain the trust of residents in troubled neighborhoods.

The group is expected to vote on final language and recommendations for its report at its final meeting Monday.

The word “defund” — a catchphrase from activists that has been interpreted widely, from eliminating law enforcement altogether to shifting some police responsibilities to other agencies — was not used by the panel, which couched it in softer terms such as “divestment” and “decenter.”

“Divestment means realigning [the police] budget to match the work that they’re doing, taking dollars away from policing and reallocating them into a broader public safety approach,” said commission member Samantha Davis, the founder of Black Swann Academy, a nonprofit that empowers Black youths through civic engagement.

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Christy Lopez, the commission’s co-chair and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law, said that budget issues are beyond the scope of the commission and that the panel “set the table for that work to be done” through recommendations that could inevitably lead to a smaller police force spending less money. Just how that is accomplished is up to other groups and agencies, she said.

“We have called for the divestment of responsibility from [police] to other agencies,” said Lopez, who led the Justice Department investigation of police conduct in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. “That means dollars should follow. The dollars would have to shift to where the need is.”

The D.C. police force has already grown smaller, from about 3,850 officers in 2019 to around 3,650 today, because of budget cuts lawmakers imposed last year and an increasing number of resignations and retirements. About 90 percent of the department’s budget is spent on personnel.

Acting police chief Robert J. Contee III, who faces a confirmation hearing March 25, said in an interview this month that he would like a force 4,000 strong. He noted new challenges and responsibilities posed by the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and future threats of domestic terrorism. Contee has been holding his own town halls to gauge changes residents want in policing.

This very debate could play out during Contee’s confirmation hearing, led by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), an advocate of shifting resources from police and the chair of the public safety committee. In June, during the height of the social justice demonstrations, 500 people signed up to testify at a police budget hearing, and 15,000 others submitted statements, the majority favoring cutting police funds.

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But only one person spoke at a virtual town hall Allen sponsored Thursday night to discuss whether Contee should be confirmed as police chief, and she accused lawmakers of undermining efforts to fight crime.

Sandra Seegars, a longtime resident of Congress Heights in Ward 8 and a local activist, said she supports Contee.

She told Allen, “What I need the elected officials to do is not impede him from performing the duty of chief of police. Allow the police to treat criminals like criminals.” Seegars said: “Do not consider defunding the police. . . . Do not micromanage [Contee] and his department.”

At a March 16 meeting of the Police Reform Commission, member Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent defense attorney, said he would not agree to recommending police cut their budget or the number of officers. He suggested he might write a dissenting opinion if outvoted.

“Violent crime is going up, and this commission wants to reduce the number of police officers,” Bennett said. “That makes no sense to me.”

He said that he agreed with shifting certain responsibilities from police and supports many of the commission’s recommendations, and that implementing those changes may in fact result in a smaller force spending less money. But he also said some proposals, such as police collecting more data to study impacts of police practices, could require the department to spend more money.

“They may be happy to be out of the business of being in schools,” he said, “and they can use the money for something else. . . . I’m not prepared to say that divestment or defunding is an appropriate issue to resolve.”

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Bennett warned that the group’s work would be reduced to a headline: “Commission recommends police lose 50 percent of their budget” instead of focusing on proposals about how police should do their job.

Davis responded that avoiding recommending specific budget cuts could also result in this headline: “Commission created because of defund movement completely avoids the defund movement.”

She said many “are going to feel as if they haven’t been heard.”

Naïké Savain, a supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, said there needs to be explicit wording to ensure money police save by eliminating responsibilities gets moved out of the department and not just shifted elsewhere in the agency.

Some members proposed adding provisions to mandate money leaves as responsibilities shift.

LaShunda Hill, executive director of a District program to help youths who are incarcerated and have experienced the criminal justice system, said “there’s a degree of hypocrisy” writing “a report on decentering police if we’re not willing to be really clear” in calling for cutting funds.

Davis said reducing the size and budget of police is key to implementing changes the commission was established to do. “I’m concerned that if we water this down too much,” she said, “we will lose a key part that talks about over-policing Black and Brown communities.”

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