Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety
Budget Oversight Hearing for the
Metropolitan Police Department
Ahoefa Ananouko, Policy Associate
March 31, 2023
Hello Chairperson Pinto and members of the Committee. My name is Ahoefa Ananouko, and I present the following testimony on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union for the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC).
The ACLU-DC works to safeguard fundamental civil liberties and rights of District residents. This includes fighting to ensure that residents are not being harmed by a policing apparatus that is sworn to protect them; and that officers are held accountable when they do harm members of the community. This also means advocating for the District to decenter policing as its dominant approach to public safety—especially when policing has been shown to be an ineffective solution to crime and safety concerns.
The Mayor’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 24 budget is a disappointing step backward at a time when District leaders should coalesce around addressing public safety needs. It moves D.C. away from recent reforms by reversing legislation the Council has already passed phasing out School Resource Officers (SROs) and the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) School Safety Division. More broadly, the Mayor’s proposed budget continues the trend of investing far too heavily in growing the police force, even as it leaves crucial non-police programming that would help address public safety underfunded. The Committee must address this, moving forward with a more comprehensive approach to public safety.
DC LEADERS SHOULD NOT TURN THEIR BACKS ON REFORM
The Council has taken important steps toward improving public safety by passing legislation such as the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act of 2021 . However, District leaders run the risk of placing residents in danger if the Council reverses course on critical reforms.
In the last month at least two bills , have been introduced that profoundly stray from the progress District residents, advocates, and some Councilmembers spent years (if not decades) fighting for. These bills are based on an unsubstantiated, if not false, notion that more police equate to more safety, and are undergirded by dated racist narratives about crime.
The Mayor’s and some Councilmembers’ sentiments that increasing the number of police officers is the appropriate response to District residents’ concerns about safety are misguided. All District residents want to feel safe in their communities. But the Council has heard countless stories of traumatic encounters members of D.C. communities—especially Black and lower income communities—have experienced at the hands of MPD police officers. Further, the Council has heard from residents across the District—including members of communities most impacted by crime and violence—that the District needs to take a more comprehensive approach to addressing public safety challenges. A District in which residents are and feel safe does not require making police the focal point of all conversations about public safety. And if police must be involved in addressing public safety concerns, communities need police that are accountable for their actions.
District leaders must be willing to stand up to MPD, continue to insist on greater accountability, and put more resources into developing and scaling up alternative approaches to public safety concerns. The Mayor’s FY24 proposed budget and recent legislation appear to suggest that District leaders are content to return to the status quo—continuing to reinforce the dangerous carceral system by investing in police. Decades of experience and data continue to show the ineffectiveness of policing in preventing crimes. Continuing to call for more resources to be poured into a Department whose budget already stands at more than half a billion dollars communicates to those communities that their voices and wellbeing do not matter.
THE COUNCIL SHOULD CONTINUE PHASING OUT SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS AND PASS COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL SAFETY LEGISLATION
We are disheartened that the Mayor’s proposed FY24 budget would repeal the Council’s already twice-passed phase-out of SROs and MPD’s School Safety Division. We call on the Council to reject any effort to reverse the phase out, which was a recommendation of the Police Reform Commission. Further, the Council should pass recently-introduced legislation that would require schools and District education leaders to take a more balanced approach to school safety.
School Resource Officers are Unnecessary for School Safety and Harmful to Students D.C.’s young people deserve to feel safe and nurtured in their schools—school police are antithetical to that. As the ACLU-DC, many advocates, and students with direct lived experience have told the Council time and again, police in schools do not actually improve safety. Police presence in schools creates a hostile environment that shifts focus away from learning and supporting students to over-disciplining and criminalization,—ushering students through the school-to-prison pipeline, as students are more likely to be arrested.
Black and brown students, as well as students with disabilities, are disproportionately harmed by the presence of police in schools. Already the targets of harsher disciplinary actions due to racial and gender stereotypes, these students are more likely to be subjected to physical restraint, referred to law enforcement at greater rates, and have their right to due process be impeded. During the 2018-19 school year, Black D.C. students composed 92 percent of students referred to law enforcement. Latine students reported feeling unsupported by SROs and school security guards, fearing referral to immigration officials. In New York City, a study even found that more police in schools hurt the test scores of Black male students. Making matters worse, accountability is a one-way street, because students have no recourse for bringing complaints about harms done to them by SROs.
In approving the gradual removal of SROs from schools, the Council listened to students, school leaders, and experts, and recognized the damaging effects that SROs can have on school environments. The Council should not allow the Mayor to reverse course in the Budget Support Act.
The Council Should Pass the School Safety Enhancement Act of 2023
Instead of turning back on reforms that it has already passed, the Council should build on its work to date by further passing and funding legislation that takes a more comprehensive approach to school safety. Specifically, the Council should hold a hearing on, pass, and fund the School Safety Enhancement Act of 2023.
While the phase out of SROs has been blamed for recent crime in D.C., this commonsense policy solution is not the actual issue. The problem is that District leaders have not lived up to the promises they made to school leaders about providing resources to help them better address their concerns about safety. This has left a critical gap. Data shows that when gaps like this exist, school leaders tend to revert to what they know—police—as ineffective as it may be.
The purpose of making the phase-out of SROs gradual was to give District and school leaders time to develop better school safety plans that are not police-centric. Yet, the Mayor and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education have made little to no attempt to respond to school safety concerns outside the realm of policing. In 2021 D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) made a half-hearted attempt to address school safety issues by convening a workgroup of various stakeholders, ranging from non-executive level individuals from DCPS to experts working at the intersection of education and juvenile justice, to work collaboratively on re-imagining school safety. The group sought to develop solutions that considered school safety systems with many components including mental health professionals and restorative justice practices. This group recognized that our collective notion of safety must evolve as we gain knowledge and understanding of the failings of the current approach, and that we should not be so staunchly focused on policing as the central solution. The group’s efforts were undermined and ultimately unsuccessful because there was no support from leadership at DCPS and the Chancellor’s office, who were very adamant about continuing the school safety contract with MPD.
If passed, the School Safety Enhancement Act of 2023 would give schools a real opportunity to create truly safer schools that center non-carceral interventions like restorative justice, mediation, de-escalation, violence interruption, and other methods that do not involve law enforcement. Among other things, the proposed bill would fund a fulltime School Safety Director (as well as a School Safety Assistant Director for high schools) and School Safety Teams for every DCPS public and charter school. School Safety Team members would work together to make school safety plans that offer a range of interventions to address the variety of issues that can impact school safety and reflect each school’s unique needs.
Reforms like those envisioned in this legislation will transform schools into environments that are responsive to the safety needs of students, teachers, and school administrators—without putting the current and future well-being of students in jeopardy.
THE DISTRICT MUST DECENTER POLICING AS ITS PRIMARY PUBLIC SAFETY TOOL
The call for removal of police from schools is part of a larger paradigm shift that District leaders should be making if they want to achieve true safety for D.C.’s communities. The District should strive to be a model for other jurisdictions in moving toward a public health approach to public safety. A truly people-focused response to public safety concerns should center undoing of harms done to communities—especially Black and lower income communities—by government policies and decisions. Doubling down on harmful practices already in place runs counter to this.
District leaders should usher in an era of public safety strategy that is grounded in restorative justice and real opportunities that lift people out of survival mode. That cannot happen with continuation of the current levels of investment in policing, while communities only receive a fraction of those investments. Simply put, the sheer size of MPD’s budget crowds out investments in non-police programs that are absolutely necessary for solving longstanding public safety issues. And the Mayor’s FY24 proposed budget continues this trend, even as evidence suggests that the Department is not making effective use of the resources it has been given.
The Mayor and other District leaders have expounded on their concerns about crime and violence. Yet the Mayor’s FY24 budget proposes cutting at least $3 million in funding for some violence interruption programs, bringing those funds down to $13 million. This funding level pales in comparison to MPD’s.
Every year, for at least the past three years, MPD leaders, including Chief Contee, have come before the Council asking for more resources, claiming they do not have enough officers. And every year, for at least the past three years, the Department has had funded vacancies left unfilled. When asked what is keeping them from filling these vacancies, MPD leadership often claims there are not enough incentives to attract people to join the force. Yet, no other agency enjoys the level of incentives that have been allotted to MPD.
Last year the Council approved nearly all of the Mayor’s proposed increases to MPD’s budget. This included funding for an additional 347 officers, $14.2 million enhancement to hire 108 new officers, convert 42 cadets, and keep on 17 senior police officers. It also included the following recruitment and retention incentives:
- $20,000 signing bonus for new recruits.
- $500,000 for the Housing Allowance Incentive Program, a 150% increase over the FY22 approved budget, to cover six months of costs associated with temporary housing for new recruits.
- $1.2 million for the Police Officer Retention Program, a 200% increase over the FY22 approved budget, to subsidize tuition reimbursement and educational incentives.
- $5.2 million for a new enhancement for recruit hiring bonuses.
- $210,000 for a new enhancement for cadet conversion bonuses.
Funding for these incentives were approved even though the Council was aware that they were not fully taken up in the previous year. In comparison, gun violence prevention and youth programs, including behavioral health community response teams, Safe Passage, and the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement’s Leadership Academy, received $145 million in total.
With concerns about recent projections regarding the District’s revenue, it would be irresponsible for the Council to continue investing in MPD at the current bloated levels without clear guidelines for how those funds will be spent differently than in previous years—especially when the Department continues to fail to demonstrate accountability and effectiveness in its programs and practices. And, ultimately, District leaders only compound this irresponsibility when they are not as aggressive in funding non-police resources to proactively address public safety.
Another argument that has been made by Chief Contee and the president of the police union is that people do not want to join the force due to new laws the Council has passed. To that, the Council should ask if those are the types of people MPD should be aiming to hire in the first place. The Council must interrogate whether its willing to risk the lives of District residents in order to appease to individuals who balk at measures meant to improve accountability and transparency (even before those measures have been implemented). The structural problems that exist within MPD and with practices and behaviors of officers are not going to be resolved with more funding or more officers on the force. They will only occur with drastic change.
While there is no evidence to support the notion that increasing the number of police officers leads to less crime or more safety, we encourage the Council to at the very least wait until the D.C. Auditor’s office concludes and publishes its assessment on MPD staffing needs before proceeding with efforts to increase the size of the force. The Auditor’s report should improve everyone’s understanding of how police resources are currently being utilized—vital information that ought to inform any decision to add more resources for MPD staffing.
Imagine how different D.C. could look if communities currently fighting for survival were actually thriving. If young people had caring adults they trusted and opportunities that set them up for a brighter future. These things cannot, and will not, occur with harmful policing fueled by more resources. They can only happen if District leaders shift those resources to meet the needs of communities destroyed by decades of policing and lack of investment.
D.C. District leaders cannot reasonably expect things to improve with cuts to school budgets and critical violence interruption programs. Because it’s the communities with the most robust resources that thrive.