Protests across the U.S. have again thrown a spotlight on police practices — and are likely to again prompt calls for reform.
The loud cries for police reform happening outside of the White House this week will move into the Wilson Building next Tuesday. The D.C. Council is expected to vote on emergency legislation that would ban the use of chokeholds, speed up the public release of footage from body-cameras, require that police officers involved in shooting deaths or other serious uses of force be named and reform the city agency that is supposed to police the police.
Authored by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, the new bill comes amid what activists say is a long-delayed reckoning over how American police departments operate and marks the start of what could be months of debate in D.C. over police practices, racial equity and funding for police and other city programs. Allen is the chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, which oversees the Metropolitan Police Department.
A separate bill introduced on Thursday by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau would prohibit D.C. police from using tear gas to disperse protesters. In Maryland, Montgomery County Senator Will Smith has also introduced a police reform bill.
Allen says the D.C. Council has been working on addressing policing and criminal justice in recent years. He pointed to a bill decriminalizing fare evasion on Metro, a community hearing in Ward 7 two summers ago on police conduct, and tense debates over giving young violent offenders a chance to get out of prison early.
Provisions of the new bill had been batted around before, but Allen says the current protests offer an important moment to move them forward.
"I think what everyone hopefully is recognizing is that there's a lot of people in hurt and a lot of people in pain," he said. "And we have an opportunity in front of us to do something."
Among the most significant proposals in the bill are changes to a tool that city officials promised would serve to hold police accountable: body-worn cameras. First introduced in 2014 and now used by 3,600 officers in the city, critics say footage from the cameras is rarely made public. They say that was the case with three men killed by D.C. police in 2018.
The bill would change that, requiring the release body-worn camera footage and the name of any officer involved within 72 hours of a deadly shooting or serious use of force. (In Montgomery County, footage of police-involved shooting is made public within days of any incident.) It would also prohibit officers from viewing body-worn camera footage when preparing incident reports and give the D.C. Council more authority to obtain footage for its own investigations.
The bill would make it unlawful for D.C. police officers to put anyone in a chokehold. While D.C. law already prohibits one type of chokehold, it allows another under some circumstances; the new provision would ban them outright. It would also repeal a decades-old law that makes it a crime to wear a mask with the intent of committing a crime, allow felons in the D.C. Jail to vote and require D.C. police officers at protests to wear uniforms and helmets bearing identifying information.
It would also make changes to the Office of Police Complaints, which investigates complaints filed by the public against officers, prohibiting any of its members from being affiliated with law enforcement. (Currently, one of the five members is a police commander.) The bill would add new members to the Use of Force Review Board, give the police department up to six months to start disciplinary proceedings against officers for serious offenses (currently, the department cannot begin such proceedings after three months have passed), and require officers to undergo continuing education on issues ranging from "racism and white supremacy" to "de-escalation tactics."
"I think everybody has to recognize there's not one bill or one policy or one initiative that is going to get us to the destination that we're trying to go towards," said Allen. "It takes moments, both big and small, to make the type of change and to bend that arc."
It remains to be seen how rank-and-file officers respond to the bill; the chairman of the D.C. Police Union on Thursday did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But critics of the police say that while they are largely supportive of provisions of Allen's bill, they were hoping to see some bigger steps.
"We would want to see a complete ban on stop-and-frisk tactics in the city of Washington," said Sean Blackmon, an organizer with the Stop Police Terror Project D.C. He pointed to data from D.C. police showing that an overwhelming majority of people who are stopped and frisked by police are black.
Allen said his bill doesn't go that far, but it does add procedural protections for people subjected to what's known as a "consent search" — in short, a search they agree to.
Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie says Allen's bill can build upon the NEAR Act, the 2016 legislation McDuffie authored which imposed new data collection requirements on police and moved to treat violence as a public health problem. But he also warns that the obstacles thrown in the way of the NEAR Act's implementation — from budget cuts to police delays in collecting stop-and-frisk data — could befall Allen's proposals.
"It's important that we take this up," he said. "On the other hand, we need the political will and a sustained effort on the part of the public to ensure that the things that have already passed and any future laws that are passed are implemented with fidelity and are supported at the same level you see the police department's budget supported."
McDuffie was alluding to what could be the next fight: Mayor Muriel Bowser's proposed budget for 2021. She's proposed a 3.3% increase in MPD's budget, while decreasing funding for some violence interruption programs. Blackmon says he and other activists are pushing to defund the police department.
"What we've always said is that not only does more policing not make us safer, it in fact makes us less safe. And that's particularly true in D.C.'s black and immigrant communities," he said.
Allen, who oversees budgets for public safety programs, says he will look for savings within the police department's budget and hopes to increase funding for other non-police programs like violence interruption. But he says change won't come from pursuing just one approach.
"All these actions together, I think that's what people are demanding, rightly. And I think that we have an opportunity to meet the moment," he said.
And there could be other police-reform measures on the horizon. Beyond Nadeau's bill banning the use of tear gas on protesters, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh says she'd like to take a broad look at everything from qualified immunity (which protects police officers from some lawsuits for actions taken while on duty) to whether police should more regularly issue citations instead of arrest people.
"Let's take a holistic view of the department, both in terms of how it's run, its openness, its transparency and make changes from top to bottom as we see that objective," she said. "I want to put it that way: How can we be, for the nation, the model police force?"