Statement on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia before the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Budget Oversight Hearing for The Office of Police Complaints
Ahoefa Ananouko, Policy Associate
June 17, 2021
Hello Chairman Allen and members of the D.C. Council. My name is Ahoefa Ananouko and I am a Policy Associate at the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present this testimony on behalf of our more than 15,000 members and supporters across the District.
The ACLU-DC is committed to working to dismantle systemic racism, safeguard fundamental liberties, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based solutions to public safety and criminal justice policies. Accountability for police misconduct is fundamental to creating a public safety system that communities can trust and on which they can depend. We have testified over the years in support of expanding the authority of the Office of Police Complaints (OPC), as we believe the agency is well-suited to bring much-needed oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).
OPC’s primary responsibility is to investigate complaints about police misconduct filed by members of the public against MPD and D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA) Office of Public Safety officers. The agency has authority to process, investigate, and mediate complaints regarding “harassment, the use of unnecessary or excessive force, discriminatory treatment, the use of language or conduct that is insulting, demeaning, or humiliating, and retaliation for filing a complaint with OPC,” as well as other issues involving MPD and DCHA, such as officer failure to wear identifying information or to identify oneself upon request.
However, OPC does not currently have the authority to recommend or enforce specific discipline when it makes determinations of wrongdoing; this power resides with MPD, serving as a significant barrier to police accountability. Additionally, OPC is limited in the types of complaints it can investigate and lacks the capacity to implement other best-practices reforms of police oversight that are detailed in the recent report by the D.C. Police Reform Commission (PRC), “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety.”
The Mayor’s FY22 Budget proposal does not make significant changes to OPC’s operating budget. The proposed funds and resources for the office may be adequate for its current responsibilities if they continue as they stand. However, to realize the goal of increasing police accountability as detailed in the PRC report, the Council must both pass legislation to expand OPC’s authority and jurisdiction this year and ensure that the agency has adequate funding in FY22 to meet the duties of its expanded role. Without allocating additional funding to allow OPC’s growth, we fear that any legislation the Council passes to expand the role of this critical oversight body will run the risk of becoming an unfunded mandate, placing OPC on an unsustainable trajectory and setting the agency up for failure.
The ACLU-DC urges the Council to pass and fund the following reforms in the FY22 budget:
- The Council should authorize OPC to conduct administrative investigations and make findings on all MPD “serious use of force” incidents and ensure OPC has adequate resources to carry out this responsibility. According to the PRC, although OPC currently has authority to investigate complaints of serious uses of force under District law, the agency refers complaints involving these types of incidents back to the MPD, due to lack of sufficient funds. This defeats the purpose of having an independent oversight body. As the PRC recommends, OPC should, at a minimum, be able to conduct independent investigations and reach dispositions on all MPD serious uses of force when an individual with “personal knowledge” files a complaint regarding the incident or under circumstances delineated in Recommendation 3(b).
- The Council should authorize OPC to receive and investigate anonymous complaints. Currently, OPC can only investigate complaints filed by individuals with personal knowledge of the incident (alleged victim or eyewitness), or their legal representative. This means the agency cannot receive and investigate anonymous complaints. This restriction likely prevents certain segments of the public from filing complaints against officers due to fear of retaliation.
- The Council should make permanent the provisions of the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Temporary Amendment Act on initiating investigations that are not complainant driven, and clarify the language to ensure OPC is not limited in the misconduct it can investigate. OPC does not currently have the authority to conduct investigations sua sponte—meaning they can only investigate misconduct expressly raised by complainants. For example, if someone complains about an act of excessive force but does not mention that the officer performed an illegal search as well, OPC is powerless to act on the search—even if an investigator sees it happen on body-worn camera footage. OPC should be allowed to take independent action when its staff catches officers using improper force, making unlawful arrests, or otherwise infringing on rights that were not mentioned by a complainant.
- The Council should grant OPC statutory authority to recommend discipline for officers who are proven to have engaged in misconduct and expand the agency’s ability to obtain relevant personnel records to make informed disciplinary recommendations. As we have testified in prior testimonies, resting all disciplinary decision making within the MPD essentially allows the police to police themselves, which we know has not historically worked. This recommendation is critical to achieving greater police accountability. Furthermore, transferring disciplinary functions to OPC that currently reside with MPD should be coupled with reallocation of budget dollars from MPD to OPC.
- The Council should grant the Police Complaints Board authority to review and approve MPD policies prior to issuance. This would ensure that MPD policies not only reflect best practices, but also align with the District’s public safety goals. As noted by the PRC report, there are police commissions across the country that perform a similar function.
- The Council should empower and require OPC to create a searchable public database, like that which exists in New York City, enabling the public to easily access, for any officer, the status of open investigations, the outcome of administrative investigations, and the disciplinary action taken with respect to each act of misconduct. Lack of access to police disciplinary history has long been a barrier to holding accountable officers who have engaged in repeated violations of civilian rights.
The Office of Police Complaints is an essential resource for ensuring oversight and accountability of the District’s policing practices, but it is hampered by limitations in its authority and capacity. The ACLU-DC urges the Council to enact reforms that give OPC greater oversight of police practices in line with the recommendations of the Police Reform Commission, and allocate District dollars in the FY22 budget to ensure OPC can deliver on this expanded mandate.
 District of Columbia Police Reform Commission (PRC). “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety: A Report of the DC Police Reform Commission.” April 1, 2021. Available at https://img1.wsimg.com/blobby/go/dd0059be-3e43-42c6-a3df-ec87ac0ab3b3/DC%20Police%20Reform%20Commission%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf.
 Id. Page 167.
 Id. Page 164. Recommendation 3(a) under Section VIII of the PRC report.
 Id. Recommendation 3(b).
 The Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Temporary Amendment Act, first passed in June of 2020, attempted to remedy this issue by allowing OPC to act if it uncovers “evidence of abuse or misuse of police powers that was not alleged by the complainant in the complaint.” However, the temporary legislation falls short by limiting the provision, as it states in subsection (g-1)(2) that this power “shall include circumstances in which the subject police officer failed to” intervene in or report misconduct. This language could be misconstrued to mean that Subtitle C only applies in the circumstances listed. Supra note 7. Page 11.
 Supra note 2. Page 168.
 Supra note 2. Page 26.
 The NYPD Member of Service Histories can be accessed at https://www1.nyc.gov/site/ccrb/policy/MOS-records.page.
 Supra note 2. Page 177.