Unfortunately, the D.C. police force is no different when it comes to the shootings of civilians by police officers.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) spent $5 million for a body-camera program ostensibly designed both to put police officers on their best behavior as they became aware of more meaningful oversight and to provide more information about police-citizen interactions to the public. As it stands, body cameras are very far from a perfect tool for accountability: For one, unlike video taken by independent groups such as Copwatch, body-camera footage shows only the actions of the civilians involved and not the actions of the police officers themselves. But Bowser stripped the body-camera program of any benefit by giving the Metropolitan Police Department complete control of the body-camera footage. As a result, the MPD regularly refuses to release all body-camera footage when requested.
For example, the police department denied families access to the body-camera footage in every high-profile police killing in 2018. The families of D’Quan Young, Jeffrey Price and Marqueese Alston have been waiting about 12 months for the body-camera footage related to their killings. But instead of being allowed to access this video — which would not only shed light on what happened to their loved ones but might also be used as the basis for a formal complaint, a lawsuit or public advocacy — the families have been forced to rely on the social media videos gathered by strangers.
In the case of Alston, his family was informed by D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham at a news conference June 13 that there was “overwhelming” evidence that Alston fired a handgun at police and the police fired fatal shots to save their own lives. However, almost a year later, his family still has no details about his death or this evidence. In fact, social media videos released in the aftermath of the killing directly contradict statements made by the police. They show Alston’s body apparently lying on the sidewalk a good distance from any grassy area, even though police supported their claim that Alston had a gun with a close-up photograph of a handgun well ensconced in a random patch of grass.
After Bowser’s investment in the body-camera program, a study found that police behavior has not changed since body cameras were purchased. Newsham claims this is because his officers are so virtuous that they did not have much to change. But video taken by citizens — including the disturbing footage of local area police arresting 9- and 10-year-old black boys and slamming black mothers to the ground at bus stops — tells a very different story. Newsham also testified this year that there was no stop-and-frisk program or practice taking place. Social media video footage and testimony from citizens throughout the city document the exact opposite.
The mayor’s budget asked for $3 million to hire more officers. Rewarding the MPD by increasing the number of police officers is not a step toward decreasing police violence in our communities. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) proposed instead that the city should provide additional funding to the Office of Police Complaints and increased investment for violence prevention and intervention.
Ultimately, all of these are stopgap methods. If the city is truly committed to reducing police violence in the long term, it needs to make structural changes in the form of serious investments in schools, mental-health resources and affordable housing. But in the short term, before that vision is realized, our responsibility is to make sound public-safety decisions for the city.
Nothing can bring Marqueese Alston, D’Quan Young, Jeffrey Price or Terrence Sterling back to their loving families. At the very least, however, the mayor and the D.C. Council can promote transparency by giving families immediate access to body-camera footage of their loved ones’ killings.