Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety Performance Oversight Hearing for
The Metropolitan Police Department
Ahoefa Ananouko, Policy Associate
February 17, 2022
Hello Chairperson Allen and members of the Committee. 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 the following testimony on behalf of our more than 15,000 members and supporters across the District.
For years, the ACLU-DC, alongside community members and advocates, has urged the Council to: 1) strengthen oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and establish meaningful accountability for police misconduct; 2) decenter police from the District’s public safety response and invest instead in non-police resources and services that directly meet the needs of community members; and 3) place limitations on police powers that regularly lead to harm and violations of civilians’ constitutional rights at the hands of police.
Calls for change reached a peak in the summer of 2020, as Black District residents and allies took to the streets to say, “enough is enough!” On top of risking their health and well-being in the middle of a global pandemic to demand that their voices be heard, a historic number of District residents showed up before the Council to demand that the people they elected rise to the occasion and act.
In response, the Council passed the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Second Temporary Amendment Act of 2020, which among other things, established the Police Reform Commission (PRC).1 Tasked with examining policing practices in the District and providing evidence-based recommendations for reform, the Commission released its report on April 1, 2021. Following release of the Commission’s report, a number of important policing bills were introduced at the Council and many discussions before this body and in the community emphasized the urgency of taking action.
It is therefore exceedingly disappointing that despite all these efforts, nothing has significantly changed to improve MPD’s transparency, accountability, or policing practices.
The Council has yet to place meaningful limitations on police powers and the District still lacks effective mechanisms for holding police accountable for misconduct. Officers continue to harm members of the community, and act in ways that are not in the public interest or conducive to public safety. In addition, the Mayor and Chief Contee continue to advocate for more policing and criminalization to address public safety concerns, without providing any evidence that the tactics they promote are effective in reducing crime. What we continue to see is business as usual.
Lack of Accountability for Police Misconduct
Last August two MPD officers were caught on camera repeatedly punching a man they were trying to arrest in the face, while a third officer stood by without intervening or later reporting the incident. Chief Contee responded with the customary “this is not consistent with the department’s training, tactics and values.” The officers were consequently suspended, but the public has no further information about the status of the suspensions or investigation.
In December, the DCist and Reveal published a joint investigation of MPD’s documented failure to hold officers accountable for criminal misconduct, including domestic violence, DUIs, indecent exposure, and stalking. According to the investigation, at least 24 officers currently on the force should have been terminated for criminal misconduct between 2009 to 2019. And they would have been terminated had MPD’s Adverse Action Panel, at one point led by Chief Contee, not overruled the department’s decision. These 24 only account for about one-fourth of officers who were found to have committed criminal misconduct.
In one of the incidents reported in the investigation, two sex workers described how an officer brandished and threatened one of them with his service weapon after he had solicited sex from them. This officer has since regained his title as a master patrol officer, which is an experienced high-ranking patrol officer who receives additional compensation to ”provide effective coaching, mentoring, and guidance to other officers.” In all but three of the 24 cases reviewed, records indicate that the Adverse Action Panel blocked termination of the officers and instead issued lower-level reprimands.
This is one of the most salient examples of police failing to police themselves. As we have recommended in the past, the Council should transfer enforcement of discipline for serious misconduct from MPD to the Office of Police Complaints (OPC). The Council should also make police disciplinary records publicly accessible and mandate a specific timeline that they be published. To incentive MPD to follow through on reporting mandates and other requirements, the Department’s budget should be tied to its compliance with laws and progress on recommendations, such as those from the OPC and the D.C Auditor. These proposals should be included and passed with the “Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act” (B24-320) and the “Strengthening Oversight and Accountability of Police Amendment Act of 2021” (B24-356); both currently pending before the Council.
MPD’s gang database is another example of how the police department is empowered to racially profile, harass, and over-police predominantly Black District residents without accountability or oversight. As revealed by the Intercept in June of 2021, MPD’s policies allow officers to use overly broad and vague criteria to add individuals to the database—including what they wear, who they are related to, where they live, or whether they are identified as a gang member by “an unproven informant.” Recent MPD documents accessed through a FOIA request revealed a profound increase in the number of those added to the gang database between its inception in 2009 and 2021, including children ten years old or younger.
Inclusion in the database has had significant consequences for Black and brown D.C. residents. People on the database are targeted for police surveillance and use of force, and face immigration consequences as a result of unreliable information from the database being shared with other government entities. Because individuals who are added are not notified, there is no way to appeal inclusion in the database. In addition to the significant due process and Fourth Amendment concerns, operation of the gang database is under the purview of MPD’s Violent Crime Suppressive Division (VCSD), a unit that has engaged in aggressive tactics that have led to the death of D.C. residents at the hands of police, and the operations of which the Police Reform Commission has recommended be suspended.
In a positive step, the Council passed the “Reducing Law Enforcement Presence in Schools Amendment Act of 2021” as part of the Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Support Act, prohibiting MPD from obtaining or using information provided from School Resource Officers in the database. Now the Council must address the existence of this secretive and harmful database in its entirety.
Lack of Transparency & Obstruction of Public Access to Information
On February 2nd a D.C. public defender filed a federal lawsuit against MPD, bringing to light the Department’s practice of delaying, denying, or improperly altering FOIA requests of people and organizations who have been critical of the department. Despite Chief Contee’s denial that such a policy exists, the ACLU-DC has first-hand experience with MPD’s FOIA delay tactics. And we have testified in the past regarding MPD’s practice of preventing public access to records by not responding to requests in a timely manner, denying fee waivers, or charging exorbitant fees. In 2018 for example, MPD tried to charge the ACLU-DC $310,362 to obtain 1,077 videos containing NEAR Act data the Department is mandated to collect. The 1,077 videos accounted for less than half of one percent of the videos required to reveal the relevant data. Meaning the ACLU-DC would have had to foot a bill of over $9 million dollars had we wanted to receive the full cache of 31,521 videos.
To address some of these issues, we recommend the Council update FOIA provisions as part of B24-356. We also recommend that the Council require reporting of MPD’s timeliness to FOIA requests that details the type of requests, who made them, whether the request was approved and when, and the grounds for denial.
Responding to Mental Health Crises
Beyond accountability, the evidence that a police-centric approach to public safety does not work is right in front of us. It is the status quo. These past two years, D.C. communities have suffered unimaginable losses and experienced significant trauma. Inequities created by longstanding District policies and systems have only become further entrenched, and the need for mental health supports, affordable housing, violence prevention and intervention resources, and positive opportunities for our youth have only increased. And yet, the District continues to respond to these crises with police.
This past October, Jaron Wimbish was left in critical condition after MPD officers shot him. The officers were sent to respond to a call from his mother for mental health experts. At the agency’s recent performance oversight hearing, the Office of Unified Communications touted success of the mayor’s 9-1-1 call diversion pilot program, by stating that it had transferred 412 calls to the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH). What we do not know is whether Wimbish was one of those 412 calls, how many other situations escalated due to police presence, and how many calls were not diverted that should have been. It is also unclear what metrics are used to determine which calls are diverted. What we do know is that the Executive and leadership at DBH are prioritizing training police on de-escalation tactics, when police should not be responding to mental health crises in the first place.
The ACLU-DC recommends that the Council work closely with the mayor’s office, DBH, as well as community stakeholders—including providers of mental health services and community members who have used services—to create a robust non-police crisis intervention system in the District and ensure that the current 9-1-1 call diversion program is implemented in good faith.
The above examples underscore the urgency of the need for stronger oversight and accountability of the MPD, and a drastic change to the way the District approaches public safety. In addition to passing the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Act and the Strengthening Oversight and Accountability of Police Act, other measures the Council should prioritize this session include:
- Removing police from traffic enforcement and transferring that responsibility to the Department of Transportation.
- Banning stop and frisk practices such as consent searches and jumpouts.
- Passing Bill 24-213 – “Law Enforcement Vehicular Pursuit Reform Act of 2021.”
- Introducing and holding a hearing on the Community Oversight of Surveillance legislation.
- Passing B24-306 – “Youth Rights Amendment Act of 2021.”
- Passing B24-49 – “Street Vending Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2021” and B24-49 – “Street Vending Decriminalization Amendment Act of 2021.”
- Ensuring that the phasing out of MPD’s School Safety Division is implemented in good faith, and that school resources officers are removed from all DCPS public and charter schools no later than July 1, 2025.
- Passing Bill 24-254 – “School Police Incident Oversight and Accountability Amendment Act of 2021.”
- Passing strong legislation to end qualified immunity, which shields police officers from accountability for violating the constitutional rights of civilians.
The District made strides in increasing non-police interventions last year, and the Mayor properly characterized the rise in gun violence as a public health emergency in February of 2021.16 However, in recent months the Mayor and other District leaders have doubled down on dated, racially coded rhetoric about crime and violence and pushed for increased investments in policing and criminalization. It is clear the District is in danger of continuing the same “tough on crime” approach to public safety that led to the war on drugs, militarized police departments, the traumatization of Black communities, and our mass incarceration crisis.
We hope that the Council refuses to revert back to failed carceral approaches that have guided the District’s policies for too long. D.C. should strive to be an example to other jurisdictions of what public and community safety in the 21st century can look like. It can only do this by investing in communities and decentering police in the District’s public safety response.
As always, we thank you for this opportunity to come before you, and stand ready to work with the Council in creating a D.C. that keeps us all safe.