Details about the review panel were not included in the board agenda item posted on the Metro website Monday. But board first vice chair Stephanie Gidigbi, who represents the District, said the review panel will be independent of Metro and the transit police department and will be given full authority to review any case.
“I’m very hopeful for what this means,” Gidigbi said.
As proposed, the review panel would include seven members, she said. Four would be drawn from the community and have no ties to law enforcement. Maryland, Virginia and the District would each appoint a civilian member, while a fourth would be chosen at large.
Three other members would be selected from other law enforcement agencies in the region. Maryland, Virginia and the District, again, would each be allowed to pick one officer. The appointee must be ranked captain or above, Gidigbi said.
The panel would review cases quarterly, selecting from among those that have already been investigated by police internal affairs. Members would be able to review all investigative documents, but they would not be able to interview officers because of union constraints, Gidigbi said.
The reviews could take place only after administrative rulings had been completed within the police department. The panel’s recommendations would act as a check on police internal investigations, and rulings would be used to judge the work of internal affairs, she said.
At a D.C. Council hearing earlier this year at which transit officers came under scrutiny for the alleged use of arrest quotas, Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. said he was open to bringing in outsiders to review the department’s internal affairs investigations.
“This is something that the chief has been saying could have been an option,” Gidigbi said. “I think the current events have pushed the board toward acting more quickly and having some kind of review board.”
Leaders in the District, where the majority of complaints against transit police originate, have called for Metro to go further and establish an independent panel to review all complaints of police abuse. Council members have urged Metro to create a system similar to one used in the District.
The District created the Office of Police Complaints and the Police Complaints Board in 1999. The office is independent from the Metropolitan Police Department and the Housing Authority Police Department, and does not have any law enforcement members. The office and board that oversees it review complaints related to police misconduct, harassment, inappropriate conduct, retaliation, unnecessary or excessive force, failure to identify and discrimination, according to its website.
Earlier this month, the D.C. Council strengthened and expanded its civilian review, making it easier to fire officers while requiring the police department to publicly release the names of officers involved in deadly confrontations and associated body-camera footage. The council also banned neck restraints and prohibited police from using rubber bullets or chemical irritants such as tear gas on protesters.
But Gidigbi said Metro cannot create a similar office or panel without opening up the Metro compact — the governing agreement between the jurisdictions. Doing so, Gidigbi said, is a complex process that could require lengthy renegotiation of several unrelated issues.
Police union constraints also limit the panel’s power to change administrative rulings on individual cases. Meanwhile, the panel’s discussions and work would not be conducted in public because that could leave Metro vulnerable to civil suits. But final recommendations would be posted on a website, Gidigbi said.
D.C. Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who has pushed for greater oversight of transit police with Metro officials, said the proposed panel is progress. But he said greater accountability can come only with a true civilian review board like the District’s, and he said he plans to work on reopening the Metro compact to accomplish that.
“It is a strong step. However, I believe that a review panel with significant law enforcement representation that cannot take original complaints does not go far enough,” White said. “Tomorrow, in my committee budget markup, I am proceeding with an effort to amend the [Metro] compact to create a civilian review board that closely resembles the Office of Police Complaints in the District.”
At Metro’s June 11 board meeting, transit agency leaders pledged to address issues of systemic racism, bias and discrimination throughout the system.
Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg read a statement saying: “We collectively condemn systemic racism within and throughout our transit system. Furthermore, we acknowledge the historic role of transportation in the civil rights struggle in the United States.
“To that end, the [Metro] board will come back in July, if not sooner, with an action plan to address inequitable policies and practices that do not advance our mission. We will be transparent, publicly accountable for these efforts, as we continue to look for ways to lead the conversation around these critical issues,” Smedberg said.
“It is my hope and expectation that tomorrow will be our first step, but certainly not our only step. I think it’s better to take a step than to talk about taking a step,” Smedberg said Monday.
Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said at the time of the June 11 meeting that the transit agency had already begun a review of police practices, having hired a law enforcement consultant this year after officers were accused of excessive force and selective enforcement.
Kevin Cramer, a founder of the Palm Collective and organizer of the Freedom Day March, has been among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marching outside the White House and elsewhere, demanding changes to the criminal justice system following the killing of Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis police custody on Memorial Day.
Cramer, 24, who lives in Arlington and uses both Metro and Metrobus, said the agency needs to rethink the priorities of transit police. He said that he supports greater oversight but that transit police need to stop using fare jumping as a reason to investigate or engage riders.
A report from the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs found that between January 2016 and February 2018, 91 percent of Metro Transit Police citations and summonses for fare evasion were issued to African Americans. The report said that locations where enforcement was most frequent serve a high proportion of African Americans, suggesting targeted enforcement.
“The greatest gift of what Metro could do is how they could police by making sure [they realize] that transit and poverty go hand in hand just like race and poverty go hand in hand,” Cramer said. “I’m not trying to justify people breaking the law. . . . But people just can’t afford it. The cost of living just has gone up and the cost of transit has gone up.”
It was such concerns that prompted the D.C. Council to vote in 2018 to decriminalize fare evasion inside the city. The move was opposed by both Metro and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), whose veto the council overrode.
Then, in February, the arrest and handcuffing of a 13-year-old boy at the Shaw-Howard University Metro station reignited criticism of excessive force and selective enforcement targeting black teens and young adults.
The police said they thought the boys were fighting. The boys, who were friends, said they were engaged in horseplay.
Days after the teen’s arrest, The Washington Post reported that a supervisor in one of the department’s districts had held an unsanctioned competition that rewarded officers who made the most arrests.