Here's What Black Lives Matter D.C. Is Calling For, And Where The City Stands Ahead of Saturday's massive protests, the local chapter laid out its demands for change and action.
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NPR logo Here's What Black Lives Matter D.C. Is Calling For, And Where The City Stands

Here's What Black Lives Matter D.C. Is Calling For, And Where The City Stands

Protesters on June 4 at I and 17th NW. Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU

The protests that have spread across the U.S. and brought thousands to D.C. streets in recent weeks all have a similar rallying cry: Black Lives Matter. It's a simple and powerful statement of principle, but what does it mean in practice? To show Black lives matter, what policies do activists say need to change, especially here in D.C.?

Ahead of Saturday's massive protests, D.C.'s local Black Lives Matter chapter laid out its demands for change and action. Many of them center on police and criminal justice reform, though activists often ally themselves with broader causes related to economic and social justice. Additionally, the Black Lives Matter movement speaks with many voices representing a broad array of demands.

The local list of demands comes just as the D.C. Council itself is taking up the first of what could be many police reform measures to come, a bill that would ban chokeholds, speed the release of bodycam footage, and require police at demonstrations to better identify themselves. Some activists have called the proposals a start, but not enough to truly meet the goal of making Black lives matter. And there's two upcoming budget hearings for the Metropolitan Police Department: June 9 for government witnesses, and June 15 for the public.

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We've compiled the group's demands below, and assessed what's already been done — and what's left to do.

Defund Police

Whether "defund" or "divest," this has become one of the loudest national rallying cries in recent weeks for what needs to be done to change police departments, practices, and culture. On Saturday, protesters in D.C. made this point as concretely as possible, painting "Defund the Police" in large yellow letters next to the "Black Lives Matter" slogan Mayor Muriel Bowser had painted on a two-block stretch of 16th Street on Friday.

Activists say that police departments rarely lack money, while mental health services, housing, schools, and other social programs are often left wanting. The last few months have seen nurses struggling to get personal protective equipment to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, while police officers have appeared at protests with all manner of equipment and weaponry.

In D.C., at least, the discussion around defunding comes in the midst of budget season — and just as Bowser is proposing a 3.3% increase to the Metropolitan Police Department's budget to $580 million while suggesting cuts to other programs, including violence interruption. All told, public safety programs (which include police, the D.C. Jail, and more) account for $1.6 billion of spending, third behind social services ($5.1 billion) and education ($3.1 billion). Bowser said in a press conference on Monday that the D.C. police budget has grown more slowly than funding for schools and social services.

"We keep seeing a massive investment into the D.C. police even though policing isn't working," Stop Police Terror D.C. Project organizer Sean Blackmon tells DCist. "I mean, homicides are going up in Washington, D.C. So we have to ask ourselves, why does money keep going to an institution, an agency that is clearly not working?"

Earlier this month, At-Large Councilmember David Grosso — who once called for D.C. police to not carry guns — made a similar point. "The District of Columbia already has more police officers per capita than any other city in the nation, and yet our city is not any safer," he wrote. MPD employed roughly 3,800 police officers as of 2019.

Grosso is introducing an amendment to Tuesday's police reform legislation that would cap the number of officers at 3,500. "D.C. would still lead the pack of similar cities with 50 officers per 10,000 residents under this new limit," he said in a statement.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has taken issue with the idea of cutting his department's funding. Newsham said less money could mean more risk in an interview on The Kojo Nnamdi Show's Politics Hour last Friday. "The number one thing that contributes to excessive force in any police agency is when you underfund it," he said. "If you underfund a police agency that impacts training, that impacts hiring, that impacts your ability to develop good leaders or thoughtful leaders."

And that was the same message from Gregg Pemberton, the head of the D.C. Police Union, when he spoke on The Larry O'Connor Show last Friday. "I've never seen something that wasn't functioning or wasn't working right all of a sudden start working better when you took money away from it," he said.

The challenge with the "defund" and "divest" message is that it means different things to different people. For some, it refers to fewer police with less gear, while others view it as no police at all. (In Minneapolis, for instance, a majority of the city council announced it wants to dismantle the police department and create a new model of public safety based on community input.) The definition can impact the politics of the debate. According to an early June poll conducted by Monmouth University, 7 in 10 respondents said they were satisfied with their local police department. (There were racial differences in those who said they were "very satisfied.") And any elected official can easily recount neighborhood meetings where residents pressed for more police, not less.

"I don't even understand what that means," says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh about the calls to defund police. "Are you saying, you know, not have police? Would we want to just turn a blind eye to any and all violence band and criminal acts? Of course not."

Cheh, who teaches constitutional law and police practices at George Washington University and worked on reforms to how D.C. police handle protests more than a decade ago, says she'd rather work to make the MPD the country's model police department.

The mayor also remains cool to the idea of defunding police, though she did say Monday that she was listening. "They are demanding change and they are not going to go away," she said of protesters. "We have to all be open to looking at our policies, looking at our forces and making sure they are fair."

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie thinks there's a middle ground. "I want community policing in my neighborhood, but I do not and do not condone over-policing in any neighborhood, particularly in communities of color, where there's a long history," he says. (McDuffie wrote the NEAR Act, which addresses crime and violence as a public health problem and puts money into programs like violence interruption.)

The results of D.C.'s June 2 primary sent mixed results on where residents may be on defunding the police department. While victorious Ward 4 challenger Janeese Lewis George survived an onslaught of mailers accusing her of being anti-police (she had said she would divest from MPD and put money into violence interruption), Anthony Lorenzo Green, a strong critic of D.C. police, lost his challenge to Ward 7 incumbent Vince Gray — who has pushed for more police in the past.

Charles Allen, the Ward 6 councilmember who chairs the committee that oversees the city's public safety agencies, says he plans on scouring the police department's budget for savings, and would like to see money for other non-police programs restored. McDuffie says public safety takes more than just police, requiring investments in other programs and services to address root causes and advance racial equity. At-Large Councilmember Robert White tweeted Sunday that he wants to "change our budget to move $ from policing to uplifting/protecting."

The Stop Police Terror Project D.C. has a separate-yet-related demand: to demilitarize police. And that cause does echo with Cheh. "You see police departments outfitted in big vehicles and heavy-duty weapons and things that are completely outsized for ordinary policing," she says. "That itself gives a sense of an occupation force."

A photo of D.C.'s jail. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

No New Jails

Because of D.C.'s nonstate status, virtually anyone convicted of a felony ends up being sent to a federal prison somewhere in the U.S.

D.C.'s jail, on the other hand, is used to hold people convicted to short sentences for minor offenses, those awaiting trial, and D.C. prisoners from the federal system about to be released. There are currently some 1,300 inmates at the jail's two facilities (Correctional Detention Facility and Correctional Treatment Facility), the overwhelming majority of them men. Of the male inmates at D.C. jail, 88.5% are Black, according to April data from the D.C. Department of Corrections

The jail itself — which is located on the east end of Capitol Hill, near RFK Stadium — is in poor shape; a report from the D.C. Auditor last year said conditions at the decades-old facility are unsafe and unsanitary. Efforts to remedy those conditions have been slow in coming, largely because of a significant price tag (likely north of $600 million) and inevitable debate over where a new jail should go. A task force looking into the issue recommended last year that the city build a new jail, but also urged officials to think more broadly about reforming its criminal justice system and considering more non-jail alternatives for offenders.

Some D.C. activists, primarily those with the No New Jails D.C. movement, have taken the abolitionist stance: there shouldn't be any new jail at all, because that will only encourage the city to fill it. "We understand that the current jail conditions are inhumane. This is why we must focus on decarceration efforts rather than trying to make a new 'better' jail. A new jail is still a jail," the group's website states.

That's drawn pushback from some defense attorneys who say that, while they share the ultimate goal of reforming the criminal justice system to minimize incarceration, having modern and humane jails until broader changes are made is necessary. A survey conducted by the city's task force found that support for a new or renovated jail was higher among those with a history of incarceration than other segments of the public.

Separately, there have been efforts in D.C. to address the incarceration of residents. In 2016, the D.C. Council passed a bill that lets offenders who committed a violent offense before their 18th birthday petition for early release after they have served 15 years of their sentences. A more recent effort to expand the number of people who could ask for early release has gotten pushback from the U.S. Attorney's Office for D.C., which prosecutes almost all felonies in the city.

That reality again speaks to a significant challenge D.C. could face in making changes to its criminal justice system — much of it is controlled by the feds.

Decriminalize Sex Work

If this demand sounds familiar, it's because it wasn't long ago that it came before the D.C. Council. The issue of whether sex work should be decriminalized was subject of a long and contentious hearing last October. This was the council's first hearing on the matter, though a similar bill was also introduced in 2017.

On one side were the bill's proponents, who said passing it would offer some of the city's most marginalized people — trans women of color, for one — a chance to avoid the criminal justice system for engaging in consensual sex.

"Policing and criminalization of sex work is one of the primary sites of racial profiling, police violence, and mass incarceration of Black and brown women, girls, and trans and gender nonconforming folks," says Decrim Now, the organization that pushed for the bill's passage. "This violence is compounded when they are also denied access to housing, health care, transportation, healthy food, and other basic human needs based on discrimination and stigma. The decriminalization of sex work is one step in ending this violence."

But on the other side were critics who worried that the measure would encourage human trafficking.

"This will cause more harm and more exploitation of our most marginalized people," said Yasmin Vafa of Rights4Girls to The New York Times. "Girls have told us they heard about the bill for the first time from their pimps, who were excited about it. If pimps and sex buyers are on the same side of this legislative proposal, doesn't that say something to the other supporters?"

The D.C. Council ultimately decided not to move forward with the bill.

Earlier this year a national group proposed putting the issue to D.C. voters on the ballot this November. That drew opposition from local activists, who complained that the national group was led largely by white people — including a man who in the past had been accused of sexual misconduct. The idea for the proposed ballot measure was dropped in March. A bill has yet to be re-introduced in the Council.

Separately, there have been claims of D.C. police officers themselves abusing or harassing sex workers and using questionable tactics in sting operations; trans residents say they have also had other troubling run-ins with police.

Police-Free Schools

In D.C., like in many other cities across the country, police aren't only on the streets. They're also in D.C. public schools.

In 2004, the D.C. Council passed a bill delegating security in schools to MPD; since then, the department has been in charge of managing the contract for what's roughly 300 security guards in 116 D.C. Public Schools facilities. It's MPD's largest contract, coming in at more than $20 million. D.C. police themselves also assist with security through the department's School Safety Division — that's specially trained D.C. cops known as School Resource Officers — and regular patrol officers.

According to an annual report from the city, D.C. police help address a number of challenges in schools, from gang-related violence to providing "safe passage" for kids coming and going, and other potential in-school emergencies. They even run a Junior Cadet Program in some elementary schools, teaching kids about "safety, civics, history, the mission and responsibilities of MPD, life skills development, prevention of drug abuse and violent behavior, and academic achievement."

But activists say the presence of police inside schools can cause problems and make students of color less safe. Not only could they traumatize students who already have had negative interactions with police outside schools, but they can contribute to a system that already suspends and expels Black children at higher rates than many other groups. Additionally, they can steer kids into the criminal justice system early.

"Given that school policing originated and is concentrated in Black neighborhoods, it should be no surprise that school arrests disproportionately affect students of color. Nationally, Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement," wrote the American Civil Liberties Union in a 2017 report.

Activists also say the money used for the security guards could well be used for other things that students need. "Schools need resources, not school resource officers," wrote the Institute for Policy Studies in 2018.

The debate over the use of police in schools is certain to continue, especially in light of calls to increase their presence because of recent school shootings.

DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee said on Monday that he is disinclined to meet this demand. "I don't think defunding police or reducing the presence of law enforcement in our schools is going to resolve the challenges that we have experienced for decades with oppression and systemic racism," he told told DCist / WAMU, pointing in particular to the Safe Passage Initiative and school resource officers. "We have a great working relationship with MPD to ensure those people are appropriately trained and are fostering positive relationships in our students."

A look at graffiti in on H Street NW near the White House on the morning of June 1. Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/DCist/WAMU

Drop Charges Against Protesters

Since protests started in early June, hundreds of protesters have been arrested in D.C. — some for more serious charges like rioting, assault and burglary, but the overwhelming majority for violations of the city's curfew the days it was in effect.

An overwhelming majority of curfew violators have been cited and released, and it's still unclear if anything else will even come of those charges. D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine questioned on CNN whether it was even worth his office's time and resources "to prosecute people for simply being out in the street in a peaceful way minutes after a curfew."

As for the more serious rioting charges, it remains to be seen if those are prosecuted either. Prosecutors have already been dropping many charges of felony rioting, according to the Washington Post. And even if any of the charges remain in place, the precedent for conviction isn't great. Virtually all of the hundreds of rioting cases brought in the wake of the 2017 presidential inauguration ended in not-guilty verdicts or dismissed cases.

While protesters arrested during the recent protests may not ultimately face many legal consequences, it's likely that police forces across the board will face scrutiny. There have been increasing calls for investigations into use of force by federal police in the city, and also tactics by D.C. police when they corralled some 200 protesters into a stretch of Swann Street NW. (Newsham has defended the officers' actions.)

End Cash Bail In Maryland

Cash bail isn't a problem in D.C., largely because the city banned the use of bail in 1992 over concerns that low-income residents were more likely to be held in custody while awaiting trial.

Activists raised those exact same issues raised in Maryland when the state's courts made changes to how the bail system worked in 2017. After those changes took effect, the number of defendants required to post bail decreased by 21% according to a study by the Princeton University School of Public & International Affairs. But more recent analysis has found that while fewer people have to post bail, more people are simply being denied a chance to even get out of jail after being arrested.

That's led to broader calls for more dramatic changes to the cash-bail system, including doing what D.C. did and getting rid of it altogether. Last year, Prince George's County State's Attorney Aisha N. Braveboy took a step in that direction, saying she would stop recommending bail for defendants.

Ban Stop And Frisk

Stop-and-frisk could well be one of policing's most controversial practices — and the one that activists will most often point to as evidence of the disparate impact of law enforcement on communities of color.

David Weisburd, the executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, has referred to stop-and-frisk as "lawful but awful." It's lawful under the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which found that police can stop and search an individual if they have a "reasonable suspicion" that person has been involved in a crime. But particular communities feel they are being unfairly and disproportionately targeted by stop-and-frisk, and data bear that out — the most recent figures from MPD show wide racial disparities in who police are stopping.

While many police departments across the country employ stop-and-frisk tactics, the debate over its use was probably fiercest in New York City. The extensive use of stop-and-frisk there and allegations that Black and Latino residents were overwhelmingly targeted led to a class action lawsuit against Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the police department in 2008. A judicial decision five years later found that the tactic violated the constitutional rights of minorities, because there was a pattern and practice of racial profiling in the stops.

What made the lawsuit possible was in part the availability of data on who was being stopped. That became a flashpoint in D.C. in recent years, with the Metropolitan Police Department accused of (and later sued) for refusing to collect and release data on who officers were stopping and frisking. Last September the department finally released that data, and it showed that 70% of all stops citywide during a one-month period were of Black people, whether in car or on foot. A new batch of data released this year showed much the same.

In their defense, D.C. police officials say the data shows that 87% of stops were resolved without a pat down or pre-arrest search, while three in four were resolved in 15 minutes or less. And for every 100 stops, 61 produced a traffic ticket and 21 produced an arrest. In total, 700 guns were seized following stops, according to the department.

Still, Black Lives Matter D.C. and other groups have called on a full ban of stop-and-frisk in D.C. The bill the D.C. Council will take up on Tuesday doesn't go that far, though it does add some new protections for people subjected to a consent search (meaning when police ask for consent from someone to search their person, vehicle or home). In 2017, the D.C. Office of Police Complaints found that data on consent searches wasn't being properly collected, and that police weren't given proper guidance on how to explain a person their rights when asked to consent to a search.

And There's More

As we said above, the list of issues and demands that different chapters and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement support and express is as long as it is diverse. The Stop Police Terror Project D.C., for one, has its own list of demands; there is plenty of overlap, but it also adds a demand that police unions be dissolved, for example. (The AFL-CIO, the country's largest union federation, has already said it disagrees with that, highlighting a possible point of tension within the progressive movement.)

And the national #8CantWait movement demands that police departments make eight specific changes to decrease fatal incidents, from banning chokeholds and requiring de-escalation to bans on shooting at moving vehicles and stricter reporting requirements. D.C. currently meets seven of the eight demands.

Many protesters argue it's not just about police — it's also about schools, health care, affordable housing, jobs, taxes, and more. Some of the energy behind the current demonstrations may make its way into the debates over Bowser's proposed budget, which calls for a pay freeze for D.C. government workers and takes other steps to address a significant budget shortfall, but does not call to raise taxes.

Kavitha Cardoza contributed reporting to this story.

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