D.C. Council Passes Emergency Police-Reform Bill, Delays Cutting Size Of MPD The bill addresses the speed at which body-camera footage is made public after a police shooting, among other changes.
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D.C. Council Passes Emergency Police-Reform Bill, Delays Cutting Size Of MPD

Tens of thousands of people marched through Washington on Saturday, June 6 demanding an end to police violence and significant changes to how policing is conducted. Tyrone Turner/WAMU hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU

The D.C. Council on Tuesday unanimously passed an emergency police-reform bill requiring body-camera footage to be made public more quickly after a police shooting, imposing limits on when officers can use deadly force and banning the Metropolitan Police Department from buying military-style equipment from the federal government.

But lawmakers pushed back on an immediate attempt to shrink the size of the Metropolitan Police Department, which At-Large Councilmember David Grosso proposed doing by imposing a cap on the number of officers it can have at 3,500. There are currently 3,863 officers on the force. Many of Grosso's colleagues said they sympathized with his goal of reducing the size of the police department, but not the means he was offering to get there.

A similar sentiment was evident throughout the Council's three-hour debate on the measure, during which councilmembers repeatedly seesawed between wanting to respond to the political moment by taking quick action and the recognition that more significant changes to how policing happens in the city could take more time — and may frustrate activists already impatient with the pace of reform.

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The bill was unveiled last week by Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) amid widespread protests in D.C. and across the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Protesters have loudly demanded an end to police violence and in support of racial equality, and directed chants of "defund the police" at lawmakers.

While the bill passed Tuesday did not directly address the issue of how MPD is funded, it did take on a number of concerns lawmakers said they had heard from activists over the years.

The bill will require body-camera footage and the names of officers involved in shooting to be released within 72 hours of an incident. Currently, footage and names are rarely made public, which critics say has frustrated to hold officers accountable.

The bill also gives the Council more power to obtain footage from serious incidents, and will retroactively release footage from police shootings since MPD started using body-cameras in 2014.

The bill fully bans the use of chokeholds by police officers; reforms the independent office that investigates allegations of police misconduct; adds legal protections for people who are asked by police to consent to searches; expands training requirements for officers; prohibits MPD from buying everything from high-caliber guns to armored vehicles from the federal government; and creates a 20-person Police Reform Commission that will have to issue a report by the end of the year.

It also prohibits the police department from using tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and riot gear to disperse protests (a requirement that won't be applicable to federal police in the city); gives felons held in the D.C. Jail the right to vote; requires a jury trial for anyone accused of assaulting a police officer; expands the department's authority to discipline officers; raises the bar for when officers can use deadly force; and bars MPD from hiring officers with histories of misconduct in other departments.

"The need for systemic change is so great we need to have a real dialogue, an uncomfortable dialogue," Allen said about the bill.

That uncomfortable dialogue even started during the Council's virtual session, when Grosso proposed his amendment capping MPD at 3,500 officers. He said there are currently 55 police officers for every 10,000 residents, more than in Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, and Boston.

"In addition to the thousands of federal law enforcement personnel which create an environment of over-policing, MPD has the highest number by far of officers per resident," he said. "Let's not race to the top number of police officers in the country. Let's put a limit in place now."

But some of Grosso's colleagues pushed back on enshrining such a cap in law, saying a more useful tool would be trim MPD's $580 million budget during the Council's current negotiations over Mayor Muriel Bowser's spending plan for 2021 and redirect some of that money to other programs.

"The initial idea of saying we cut down to 3,500 [officers]... it doesn't get to the underlying issues we're seeking to change. It's not just the number of officers, but policing itself. Just cutting the number doesn't change that dynamic," said Allen, urging other lawmakers to allow the debate to play out during the budget process. (The budget hearing for MPD is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon.)

Still, some councilmembers were hesitant to delay moving forward on Grosso's amendment, saying that the push to shrink the police department's size would likely be slowed by process and bureaucracy. "I'm OK with having this conversation in a more thorough way, but my concern is we won't do that," said At-Large Councilmember Robert White.

"All I have ever heard is, 'how do we have more police?' I can tell you I am tired of that," said Grosso, who added that he was willing to fully dismantle MPD and "[start] from scratch" with the department. (Grosso has also proposed disarming police officers.) The amendment was ultimately withdrawn after Allen pledged to continue discussing measures to rightsize the police department and redirect resources to other programs.

For her part, Mayor Muriel Bowser said in a letter to the Council that while she supported efforts to reform policing, she feared an emergency bill — which requires a single vote and stays in effect for 90 days — was the wrong vehicle for it. "I urge the Council to allow a process where these issues can receive robust public discourse, which I believe will only help to increase community buy-in on any proposed reforms," she wrote.

The slate of changes contained in the bill drew expected opposition from the D.C. Police Union, which warned it would lead to an exodus of officers from the department and "a dangerous path to unchecked violence in the District."

Speaking late last week on The Larry O'Connor Show, union chairman Gregg Pemberton said there would be blowback. "It seems like the country has gotten drunk on the idea of police reform," he said. "And if people don't sober up real quick about this, there's going to be a really nasty hangover."

But as they wrapped up their debate and cast a unanimous vote on Tuesday, many lawmakers seemed sober-minded about what they were doing — and what they say is left to be done.

"There is no question whatsoever about whether we have to significantly reform our policing," said White. "The only question is whether we and our department are ready to stand up to the challenge."

"I support what we're doing today," added Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who wrote 2016's NEAR Act, a law that treats violence as a public health challenge and steers money to violence interruption programs. "But it's also important that this not be a one-off. There's a lot that's been made of the protests... but the police have been over-policing in communities of color for a very long time. There's only so much you can do to change that culture through legislation."

A permanent version of the bill is expected to be introduced in the near future, and public hearings will be held.

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