“We live in a time that demands our immediate attention,” said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. The memo was signed by seven union officials, including Chairman Colin Dorrity.
“The very least we can do in response to those demands is recognize the legitimate grievances of our community and institute meaningful and immediate reforms within our Police Department to address those grievances,” the letter said.
Among the policy changes the union calls for are ending the evaluation of officers based on the number of arrests they make and eliminating needless background checks on anyone they make contact with. It also calls for the end of discriminatory treatment of Black and Latinx officers.
Black Metro customers have long decried their treatment by the department, testifying at numerous government hearings that transit police disproportionately stop and detain them, use excessive force and escalate minor situations into violent confrontations that lead to arrest, injury or death.
In some cases, the complaints have been backed by statistics. For example, a study by 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 Black riders, suggesting targeted enforcement.
The striking acknowledgment of and objection to ingrained law enforcement practices from a police union reinforces the impact national protests and demands for reform have had since Floyd was killed when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes while detaining him on Memorial Day.
The memo urged agency leaders to find better ways to judge officer performance than “quantitative metrics,” or the total number of stops and arrests made. Not every contact police make warrants detainment or a background check, the union said. Recruits should be trained to resolve conflicts and de-escalate situations, and police culture should be more cooperative, supportive and open, it said.
Minority officer recruitment, retention and promotion should become a bigger priority, the memo said.
“We in the MTPD often say that we are ‘Leaders in Transit Policing,’ ” the union said. “We need to own that now, and lead the way towards meaningful reform. Our community cannot wait.”
The memo was addressed to Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, who was not available to comment.
In a response Wiedefeld sent to the union that was provided to The Post, the general manager said he wants to work closely with labor officials to organize meetings and committees to tackle the issues.
“Together, both management and labor, we must rethink how policing works and how best to provide public safety in the Metro Transit System, while improving public trust between MTPD and the communities it serves,” Wiedefeld wrote.
In a joint statement to The Post, Pavlik and Dorrity said both union and police leadership “have been working in partnership since June to review and, where necessary, reform policies and procedures with the goal of building community trust and to ensure that we are holding ourselves to the highest standards of equitable treatment under the law.”
They said five police committees have been created to evaluate each of the union’s concerns, and that officers should expect a new performance evaluation process as soon as next year.
Pavlik relayed these sentiments to the department on June 26, according to a memo he sent to officers.
“Part of our professional obligation to the citizens we serve is to always look for continuous improvement in all aspects of our profession and organization,” Pavlik wrote. “I believe these committees are a first step.”
In a statement, Metro Board Chairman Paul C. Smedberg said the cooperation between the union and Pavlik is the latest “positive step forward” as Metro continues “reviewing equity matters, including police reform.”
Yaida Ford, a D.C. attorney who has represented multiple defendants in lawsuits against transit police over the use of excessive force, said she has long thought that there is a racist culture within the department that is enabled by leadership. The self-acknowledgement of some of these issues by union representatives, who also are officers, did not surprise her.
“There is a culture within MTPD that is similar to the racism and bias that they employ when they are arresting folks,” Ford said.
Ford, who has won settlements for some of her clients in suits against transit police, said she is glad the union wants to reform practices, but it’s also about changing attitudes. Officers inherently believe that people at stations with predominantly Black riders are always up to no good, she said.
Officers in the department have referred to stations such as Anacostia in Southeast Washington by derogatory names such as “Animalcostia” or “the Jungle,” according to Ford and testimony from a former officer at a D.C. Council hearing last year. Such racist labeling colors how new officers treat people in those areas.
Using quotas or expecting officers to make a certain number of arrests, she said, just gives officers a green light to be even more heavy-handed in those areas.
“So you’re more likely to give chase,” she said. “You’re more likely to question when you have no basis, you’re more likely to be physically aggressive and confrontational with arrestees because you already have this perception that that’s how they are.”
In the District, which has more Metro stations than any other jurisdiction, the D.C. Council has long sought to address its residents’ concerns about unequal treatment by transit police and to hold them accountable. It was concern about such treatment that led the panel to vote in 2018 to decriminalize fare evasion inside the city.
Long-simmering issues came to a head in February when transit police arrested and handcuffed a 13-year-old at the Shaw-Howard University Metro Station.
A few days later, it was reported that a supervisor in one of the department’s districts had held an unsanctioned contest involving officers based at Fort Totten in Northeast that awarded prizes to those who made the most arrests.
Under questioning during a D.C. Council hearing shortly thereafter to discuss the contest and police practices, Pavlik strongly denied the use of quotas and said officers were not judged on the number of arrests made. But Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who has called for stronger oversight of the department, said the union’s memo shows differently.
“I read this, and certainly it seems like part of the evaluation of Metro Transit Police officers is a quantitative metric,” Allen said. “You are measured and evaluated on whether you’re doing your job based on how many stops you make.”
Community policing, Allen said, is not “to run up and see what type of quota you can meet in terms of making stops, because it is going to put the wrong incentives on the relationship between the police and the riders.”
Pavlik and Dorrity said Metro’s desire to find fair and standardized performance measures for all employees may have fueled the public perception that police use quotas.
“We recognize that, while quantitative metrics may create a level playing field for many job functions, there is the potential for public misconception around ‘quotas,’ which — for the avoidance of any doubt — are something that MTPD does not condone,” their joint statement said.
Change from within
Earlier this summer, the Metro board, acknowledging the complaints and the need for more accountability, established an Investigations Review Panel to review the department’s internal affairs investigations and make recommendations for changes in policies or practices. Critics, however, contend the panel, composed of four civilians and three outside law enforcement professionals, doesn’t go far enough because it cannot investigate or question officers or change the administrative outcomes of internal affairs decisions.
The union said reform must come from within, and now.
“We cannot wait for some faraway police commission to force reform upon us a year from now,” it said. “These are common-sense measures that we can immediately take.”
The union also criticized department leadership for pushing a practice of “stop and question,” in which officers run background checks on anyone they make contact with — even, for example, a homeless person sleeping on a Metrobus.
“Officers in the Department are regularly and consistently chided for not running checks on individuals encountered throughout the course of their normal duties — whether there is actually reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot is not a concern for our officials,” the union said. “It is time to end the culture that insists that members of the community be held by police even when no crime has occurred.”
Ronal Serpas, who ran police departments in New Orleans and Nashville and now serves as executive director of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, said public safety suffers when police pull back on arrests, but he said departments should switch their mind-set on how they motivate officers to make them.
Instead of asking officers to come back with a certain number of arrests, they need to determine what types of crimes are proliferating in an area and ask officers to target those offenses, he said.
“If we’ve got 100 people out with warrants for murder, why aren’t we looking for 100 of them?” he said. “We have 100 people wanted for armed robbery, we have a quota — and that’s to arrest all 100.”
The union wants recruits to receive at least 20 hours of training in conflict resolution and de-escalation, with similar training for current officers. The sessions should incorporate members of the Black community, as well, the memo said.
The union also pointed to disparities between how Black and White officers are treated in the department — something current and former Black officers raised repeatedly at D.C. Council hearings last year.
“Many of our African-American officers have questioned whether they belong in this Department or in law enforcement in general in the past week,” said the letter, which was written shortly after Floyd’s killing and the protests that erupted in Minneapolis and around the country.
“We need our officers of color to know that this Department not only supports them when it comes to the daily challenges of this job, but also recognizes the systemic racism that exists in modern law enforcement and the unique challenges faced by black people in America.”
A former transit officer who said they were fired for allegedly failing to follow reporting protocols and another who said they were terminated despite having a long-term illness, said Black officers have always been reprimanded more harshly and are not afforded the same special accommodations or duty flexibility for illness as White officers.
The former officers, both of whom are Black, said they faced retaliation for speaking out about discrimination. They are in the midst of arbitration or appeals to try to get their jobs back and asked that their names not be used because they fear retaliation should they ultimately succeed.
However, they said that with the strong statement from the union, they feel supported.
“It makes me feel better. It makes me feel I have people behind me, standing with me,” one of the former officers said. “I knew after the first or second [D.C. Council] hearing that people were seeing it the same way, but when [the memo] came out . . . that ultimately gave me assurance that [the union] sees the same thing that I see.”
Tony Lewis Jr., a District community leader who focuses on helping people leaving prison find jobs, providing career counseling to young Black men and working with school districts to help children of incarcerated parents, said transit officers should try to influence youths rather than arresting them, which could change the community’s perception and make their jobs easier.
“A solution would be for [Metro] to contract violence interruption groups . . . in an effort to engage young people . . . or at least to make the train a more productive transit system, a more productive place, where young people can be met with familiar faces and credible individuals that can help them make better decisions instead of siccing Metro Transit Police officers on young people,” Lewis said.
Those kinds of encounters, he said, are “just going to lead to bad outcomes for our young people, and you know we already criminalize our young people, which we know sets them on a journey where they’re marginalized. And that’s not what any of us want in this city.”