Those colliding visions came into stark view at a recent meeting of the District’s new Police Reform Commission, established by the D.C. Council to reimagine what policing in the District should look like in the aftermath of violent and sometimes deadly encounters involving law enforcement in cities across the country.
Before Kay was killed, the 20 members of the panel had met once, long enough to introduce themselves and start setting up committees, aiming to deliver a report by year’s end. The Kay shooting on Sept. 2 has given members a new focus and urgency.
They called an emergency meeting on Sept. 4 with D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham and the interim deputy mayor for public safety, Robert Mitchell Jr., who is also the District’s chief medical examiner. Members pressed them on why officers had to confront Kay so quickly after suspecting he and another man had firearms inside a vehicle.
But those discussions also included broader questions that challenge some of the core tenants of policing. Could officers, for example, have seized the firearms in a different, safer way, such as obtaining a warrant and arresting them later?
“I believe had the officers given themselves more time and more space, we wouldn’t be having this conversation now,” said one of the commission members, the Rev. Delonte Gholston, senior pastor at Peace Fellowship Church. “We’d be talking about a different kind of policing, one that doesn’t take lives.”
Police said officers saw video live-streamed over social media of Kay and at least one other man brandishing firearms inside a parked Dodge Caliber. They recognized the men and tracked them to a parking lot at the River Hill Apartments.
A chase ensued before Kay encountered Officer Alexander Alvarez, police said. Video from Alvarez’s body camera shows Kay turning toward the officer while holding a gun in his right hand, which was extended. Alvarez, running toward Kay, fired once, hitting him in the chest, a split-second before, during or after the young man threw the firearm.
Kay’s aunt Marie Kay said during a protest that she believes her nephew had thrown the firearm before the officer fired, and thus was unarmed when he was shot. The weapon landed down a grassy hill, 98 feet away.
The fatal shooting — the first by D.C. police this year — sparked anger and demonstrations.
On Saturday, hundreds gathered for a vigil where the young man was shot, on Orange Street SE in Congress Heights. They moved on to the 7th District police station, where Alvarez is assigned, and demanded he and the police chief resign.
“Why’d y’all shoot my son?” Kay’s mother yelled at officers.
Newsham cautioned members at the most recent commission meeting that investigators have just begun their probe of Kay’s shooting. Asked by a commission member whether the shooting was justified, Newsham said, “We are a long way away to make that determination.” Newsham said the release of the body-camera footage allows “people to look at the video and decide how they feel about it.”
As with other reform commissions across the country, the D.C. Council created the body at a time of growing frustrations with law enforcement that have boiled over in recent months in places such as Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Kenosha, Wis. Council chairman Phil Mendelson (D) chose the commission members and said in an interview that it is up to the panel whether to recommend broad or narrow changes, or any at all.
“It could end up looking at training or suggesting alternatives to police officers showing up at certain incidents,” Mendelson said. “Theoretically, it could go as far as saying we shouldn’t have a police force at all.”
The commission is chaired by Robert Bobb, a former D.C. government city administrator, and Christy Lopez, a professor and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law. She previously worked for the Justice Department, leading teams investigating alleged abuse and racial bias in police departments, including in Ferguson, Mo., Chicago and Newark.
Members include an expert in juvenile justice, a director of a behavioral-health company, the chief executive of the Greater Washington Urban League, a retired D.C. police officer, a teacher, the head a substance abuse program, a lawyer with the Children’s Law Center and a representative from the D.C. attorney general’s office.
Mendelson said that the council listed categories from which he chose members and that active law enforcement was not among them. He defended the exclusion, saying many members have extensive experience in examining policing and communities, including Gholston, the D.C. pastor, who helped bridge gaps between residents and police in Los Angeles.
The chairman of the DC Police Union, Gregg Pemberton, said the labor group supports the commission. But he said it appears “the voices of the hard-working men and women of MPD’s rank-and-file are an unwelcome addition to the deliberations of the commission.”
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said reimagining policing has thus far been a vague concept. He said activists tend to ignore a reality that is for some hard to accept: “There is an element of oppression” to the job.
“Police are telling people they can’t do something,” Moskos said. “The job does involve force, or at least the threat of it.”
Moskos said he fears police commissions in the District and other cities “are set up for failure.”
“If they get what they want, more people die,” he said. “If they don’t get what they want, it’s a failure of reform.”
Newsham told the D.C. commission that seizing illegal firearms — police seize about 2,000 annually — is a priority in the District. The chief said 633 people had been shot in the city through Sept. 3, up 40 percent from last year. Gun-related homicides are up 30 percent.
Meanwhile, shootings by D.C. police have dropped markedly since the 1990s, when The Washington Post found officers in the District shot and killed more people per capita than in any other large city. In a five-year span that decade, police fatally shot 57 people, with 640 shooting incidents. From 2015 through 2019, D.C. police fatally shot 11 people, with 114 shooting incidents.
Commission member Patrice Sulton, director of the DC Justice Lab, a group that advocates changing the city’s criminal justice system to give residents a voice and make it racially just, said at the meeting that Newsham and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) have failed to adequately respond to community concerns over the shooting.
“The public statements that you have made about Deon and the evidence you decided to disclose so far has largely emphasized why the shooting was justified, and not whether it was avoidable,” Sulton said to Newsham. “You’ve been focusing on whether it was legal and not whether it was right. You’ve been focusing on whether it was necessary in the moment instead of whether it was necessary at all.”
Newsham said the District complied with the new legislation the council passed in June that requires body-camera video from officers using deadly force be made public within five days of the incident, along with the names of the officer.
“We are going to be as transparent as we possibly can be,” Newsham said.
After some debate, Mitchell, the interim deputy mayor, said he would inquire whether the commission could privately view body-camera video from other officers, along with Alvarez’s disciplinary record, to get a fuller picture of the shooting.
Naïké Savain, a supervising lawyer at the Children’s Law Center, asked whether there was a particular urgency that required police to so quickly confront Kay, such as, “Was there some information or indication he was about to shoot someone?”
If not, Savain said, “wouldn’t it be safer to find him later, to speak to him in a less urgent situation?”
Newsham simply said the officers “went there to interdict those firearms.”
Mitchell said the administration supports finding alternatives to police in some instances, such as when dealing with people suffering mental health crises.
“We have to engage in a way that ensures law enforcement is working with the community,” Mitchell said.
But he does not agree with defunding police.
“We’re always going to need law enforcement to respond when we’re in danger,” he said. “Reframing, retooling — it looks a little different, but not abolishing.”