Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
before the DC Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety
Performance Oversight Hearing for the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice
Natacia Knapper, Field Organizer
March 11, 2021

I am Natacia Knapper, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of DC as a Field Organizer.

The ACLU-DC has testified many times, as recently as a few months ago at Chairman Allen’s “Alternatives to Policing” roundtable, about the importance of centering public health and economic justice rather than traumatic carceral approaches to public safety, as well as the trauma, violence, and ineffectiveness of policing to address societal problems caused by a lack of adequate resources. I am testifying again today in support of a robust non-police crisis intervention system in the District. The ACLU-DC is committed to working to dismantle systemic racism, improve police accountability, safeguard fundamental liberties, and advocate for sensible, evidence-based solutions to public safety and criminal justice policies and I present the following testimony on behalf of our 13,500 members. That being said, I want to recognize that the ACLU-DC is not a direct-service provider nor are we the expert on what shape a non-police crisis intervention system should take. We believe that directly impacted people and communities as well as those organizations that work directly with these impacted communities should drive the solutions to achieving this goal.

However, as an organizer, I am in relationship with many community members and neighbors who have experienced the consequences of DC’s insufficient resources for crisis intervention. Just last week, I was called by a community member because an unhoused neighbor, who was visibly agitated and in clear distress, had gotten into their apartment building and was resting in the hallway. I was called because this community member and their neighbors wanted to avoid involving the police because they knew the potential consequences could result in arrest of their unhoused neighbor, physical or emotional harm or worse. This is not a unique situation; the truth is that there are no great options for examples like these, options that do not include involving the police and the escalation their presence would bring.

The fact is that none of the options in our current crisis intervention systems are disconnected from policing, which in and of itself is a significant problem. When the police get involved, despite the fact that they aren’t equipped to handle crisis intervention through a lens of public health and community care, they often escalate an otherwise manageable situation. Police are sometimes called to the scene because the expression of mental health symptoms (such as anxiety, psychosis, or trauma) are interpreted as "unsafe," but the mere presence of a police uniform or weapons can trigger panic or exacerbate a situation that creates less safety for all those involved, and especially the individual experiencing the crisis.

I’d like to share some examples of this:

  1. Someone experiencing psychosis may already feel anxious or fearful; someone who has a history of trauma may feel defensive and exhibit a fight or flight response in an effort to protect themselves. In both of these cases, responders must utilize supportive listening, "low & slow" engagement, and other de-escalation techniques to create a sense of safety and trust. However, this is rarely the first course of action when police respond, nor are police trained or skilled enough to properly take these actions.
  2. When mental health professionals determine that an individual is at imminent risk of harm to self or others and involuntary hospitalization is required, the current system includes calling 911. In these situations, multiple police officers arrive, as well as the DC Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS), and there can be confusion about who is responsible for what. Additionally, it is a part of MPD's process to handcuff the person, even if they are not acting in a way that is unsafe or if they are a minor. This creates a chaotic, anxiety-provoking environment for someone who is already in crisis.
  3. Connected to all this, there exists an intersection between immigration status, safety, and the police, even in situations where calling the police may be considered necessary (such as in domestic violence cases). Undocumented immigrants are often fearful of calling police or crisis response systems out of concern that they may be deported or ICE will be notified. This is a fear that persists, despite the passage of the Sanctuary Values Amendment Act of 2019.

Returning to my story about the community member who called me because they didn’t know what to do, the crisis response resources that do exist are not even well-publicized. It’s worth noting that DC Access Helpline, the Child and Adolescent Mobile Psychiatric Service (CHAMPS) and the Community Response Team (CRT) are a few examples of 24-hour lines that can be used for a variety of alternative interventions, but they aren’t well publicized. Also, to my knowledge and in my albeit limited experience, these options are still deeply connected to the police.

As we stated in our “alternatives to policing” roundtable testimony, it is imperative that this Council show political will to DE-CENTER police through divestment from policing and investment in communities. This includes investing in community-led crisis interventions that require greater funding. These deeper investments will not only make DC safer but could be an avenue for job creation in some of our most impacted neighborhoods.

We posed the following questions in our earlier testimony, and I’d like to reemphasize them here as the critical questions the District must answer to move forward with intention:

  • What is the purpose of these systems and what do we want them to do?
  • How do we ensure that the system does not shuffle more individuals into the carceral system if they refuse or are not ready for services?
  • How do we ensure that the system is not coercive and recognizes individuals experiencing a crisis situation still have agency and self-determination?
  • How does the system include/center/collaborate with directly impacted communities?
  • How is accountability measured?

Finally, making these investments in an intentional way requires continued robust community input, as CCE also emphasized. One vital recommendation I would like to make is having small neighborhood focused townhalls and discussions throughout the District, but also taking great care to engage with our communities East of the River. It’s also essential that this not occur during traditional working hours and that the Council and the Deputy Mayor collaborate with groups who are working on the ground in these communities. Before passing legislation, proper thought has been given to what this kind of overhaul would require and while also addressing the problems in the current crisis response infrastructure that continue to fail DC residents. This is urgent but it’s so critical that we get this right.

Also, all of this must be connected to accessible health services, opportunities for gainful and sustainable employment, and safe and affordable housing I know that Councilmember Allen and others in the Council have spoken at length about re-envisioning public safety and this is the moment where the Council can show DC residents what it means to lead with political courage. As always, we are here to support those efforts. Thank you.