The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A commission makes a good start at reimagining policing in D.C.

Acting chief of D.C. police Robert J. Contee III.
Acting chief of D.C. police Robert J. Contee III. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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THE KILLING of George Floyd last year at the hands of Minneapolis police spotlighted the damage that unjust policing has caused to Black neighborhoods, and there seemed to be general agreement about the need for serious reform. How to go about it, though, has proved to be contentious. Some cities, such as Seattle, slashed police budgets and eroded public safety; others, such as Minneapolis, made promises they couldn’t keep and confused the community. An absence of strategy doomed those efforts, so it is encouraging that the District has taken a different approach: creating a commission that undertook serious study of the issues and has produced a thoughtful report.

The D.C. Police Reform Commission, appointed eight months ago by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), last week released a 259-page report that lays out an ambitious vision to reimagine public safety. The 20-member commission, which included experts in racial and social justice, a former police officer and community members, centered its recommendations on the core principle that police alone are not the answer to protecting public safety. Instead of advocating that police be defunded, the report proposed that police be “decentered,” their role augmented by other trained professionals answering calls for people in mental crisis and by an expanded safety net to keep vulnerable people out of the criminal justice system.

“We were told that we had a broad mandate to re-envision policing and public safety,” said Christy E. Lopez, co-chair of the commission. “We didn’t want to have a set of anodyne recommendations that were kind of boilerplate. We wanted to make sure that our commission report didn’t just talk about policing, but the entire public safety infrastructure.” (Ms. Lopez is a professor at Georgetown’s Law Center and a Post contributing columnist.)

The group’s 90 recommendations are sweeping — including removing police from schools, raising the age for offenders who can be charged as juveniles, decriminalizing minor offenses linked to poverty, such as panhandling, and expanding existing violence interruption efforts. Not all members of the commission agreed with all recommendations. No price tag was put on what the changes would cost, and the report acknowledged many proposals would take years to implement. Changing a mind-set that expects police to respond to all of society’s problems — and hiring and training the people to take on new roles — will take time as well as money.

The report comes as the police department comes under new leadership, with acting police chief Robert J. Contee III expected to be confirmed after winning unanimous approval of the council’s public safety committee. The acting chief has expressed his willingness to adapt police to a new role, and is holding his own town-hall-style meetings to hear from residents firsthand. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has undertaken new initiatives to deal with gun violence as a public health issue, and to coordinate violence intervention, social services and community outreach to at-risk neighborhoods. No doubt there will be pushback — some perhaps justified — to many of the recommendations, and there is sure to be a debate about the size of the department. But the commission is right to say that agreement should come first on what we want police to do, and what others might do better.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Reimagining Safety

Radley Balko: Both parties’ police reform bills are underwhelming. Here’s why.

Paul Waldman: The public is ready for police reform, even if Congress may not be

Benjamin Lloyd “Ben” Crump: Details matter in Maryland’s police reform

The Post’s View: ‘Defund the police’ is a call to imagine a safer America. We should answer it.