THE CONTROVERSY about police conduct that has roiled Ferguson, Mo., has caused ripples across the country as communities undertake their own examinations of police tactics. The District was no exception; Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier recently sat down with a D.C. Council committee for what she saw as “the opportunity to have a frank discussion” about how her officers interact with the public. Instead, it was a missed opportunity, with council members relying on unsupported anecdotes to fan residents’ fears and showing seemingly no interest in the chief’s constructive suggestions for change.
Chief Lanier’s Oct. 27 appearance before the council’s judiciary committee followed a hearing at Howard University in which residents and advocates complained that the Metropolitan Police Department systematically profiles, harasses and violates the black citizens it is paid to protect. “There is no question that there is a deep racism here,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), the committee’s chairman, after hearing complaints from residents and advocates and telling of a tense traffic stop he experienced during a ride with an acquaintance.
But the picture of a department run amok falls apart when viewed against the statistical evidence. Complaints about police misconduct are down, with the Police Complaints Board reporting 440 formal complaints in fiscal 2013 as compared with 550 in fiscal 2009 and 574 in fiscal 2012. Of the 20 people who complained about their treatment at the Oct. 8 Howard University hearing, only one could be pursued by internal affairs; the rest of the cases were too old to trace or involved other police agencies, or the people who testified did not return calls by investigators. Interestingly, when we asked Mr. Wells whether he had complained of his incident, he said he had not since there was no misconduct. Moreover, department records show its 4,000 officers recording only 3,074 instances of people stopped and frisked in 2013, a common source of complaints of police mistreatment.
None of that is to suggest that there aren’t legitimate issues and concerns or that there aren’t officers who abuse their authority. “I do realize that it only takes one negative interaction with one officer to change the perception of police in general,” Chief Lanier testified. That is why she repeatedly stressed that residents who believe they were mistreated should call 911 and demand to speak with a supervisor. And it is why she asked for the council’s help in tackling the “pressure points” that cause tension between residents and law enforcement. Included here is overly broad language in the misdemeanor charge of assault on a police officer that includes behavior that is not an assault but rather resisting or impeding an arrest and laws that essentially mandate the issuance of multiple tickets. Most compelling was the chief’s plea for putting new emphasis and resources into treatment for nonviolent drug users so that they are dealt with as a public health, not law enforcement, challenge.
Instead of grilling police about why they need to handcuff people they arrest or wonder if officers really need guns — a thought actually expressed by council member David Grosso (I-At Large) — we would urge the incoming council to work with Chief Lanier on practical solutions to legitimate complaints.