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Metro Transit Police chief says changes underway to address community concerns

Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik.
Metro Transit Police Chief Ron Pavlik. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The Metro Transit Police Department is making strides in addressing community concerns about policing, its chief said Thursday, highlighting efforts to rewrite policing standards, review past internal investigations and improve transparency.

Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. updated Metro board members on a slew of committees working to improve the department’s relations with Black and diverse populations, which have strained after controversial arrests and claims of abuse in recent years.

Since last year, police have been confronted with allegations they used excessive force to detain a 13-year-old “horse-playing” with a friend inside a Metro station and the revelation that officers held a short-lived and unsanctioned competition to see who could make the most arrests.

The contest supported the beliefs of many Black Metro customers who have attributed disproportionate arrests and interactions with police to internal pressures on officers to meet arrest quotas.

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis set off protests against police departments across the nation and in Washington, while also prompting Metro board members to call for greater equity in policing.

In June, the Metro police union sent Pavlik a memo that indicated officers’ performances were judged on “quantitative metrics,” although Pavlik publicly denied that the department set arrest and enforcement goals.

Metro Transit Police union calls for reforms, including ending emphasis on arrests and ‘stop and question’

The memo, which called for an end to quota-based officer evaluations and certain stop-and-question tactics, prompted the union and Pavlik to set up committees to evaluate police practices and hiring. The Metro board also created an independent panel to review how police investigate abuse, misconduct and excessive force by transit police.

Critics said the panel, which includes four appointees with no policing background and three law enforcement members from unaffiliated departments, lacked authority to discipline and fire officers. But board members said the panel could benefit the department through recommendations to Pavlik and the Metro board.

In November, panel members were given training on documents and cases they are reviewing while meeting on a monthly basis.

“So far, the meetings are running very good, and they’re starting to share feedback and will report back to the board in a timely manner, Pavlik said.

He did not say what type of feedback the group provided. Metro officials said Pavlik wasn’t available later Thursday to discuss the findings.

Metro board creates transit police review board; critics say it’s not enough

With schools restarting in-person learning, Pavlik said he also has been working with D.C. Public Schools and city officials on improving relations and interactions between police and youth.

Metro board vice chairwoman Stephanie Gidigbi-Jenkins said she supported those talks as schools reopen and more in-person classes are expected this fall.

“I also am encouraged by the work that you’ve been able to do with the superintendent’s office, with D.C., and trying to ensure that we’re connecting with young people, recognizing that that’s a group in which we have seen in the past the area of opportunity to strengthen relationships,” she said.

Metro board to vote Tuesday on creation of transit police review panel

Pavlik said an internal committee working on updating the department’s general orders — which govern police tactics and day-to-day operations — have been updated and should be finalized by next month. The department also issued training bulletins on the limits the Fourth Amendment sets for stop-and-question tactics.

Citing the pandemic, Pavlik said police have not been able to make much progress in de-escalation training.

“Unfortunately, we’ve only been able to do some of this virtually when most of this training is actually required with hands and physical contact,” he said. “Due to covid, we can’t accomplish most of this training because of the restrictions and the [personal protective equipment] we would have to wear.”

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A group of officers looking into improving ethical training and peer support has helped several officers undergo courses in ethics, Pavlik said. The committee is also finalizing a general order that will strengthen ethics and peer support, he said.

Pavlik said transit police continued to work toward hiring more Black and women officers, which was a union goal. He said the department is consulting with an outside firm on recruitment, but hiring across all law enforcement is down.

He said transit police are short-staffed by about 10 percent.

“We hope this will make more progress as we go on,” he said. “One of the challenges is the effort. We’re doing everything virtually. We’re not attending job fairs like we used to.”