Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
DC Council Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety
Budget Oversight Hearing on
the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement
by Natacia Knapper
April 11, 2019
My name is Natacia Knapper and I am the Police Accountability Organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 17,000 members in the District.
The ACLU-DC is committed to advocating for decarceration, the elimination of racial disparities, and the development and expansion of resources that will make DC communities truly safe by addressing the root causes of community violence. I will focus my testimony today on our budget and policy recommendations to strengthen the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE).
The core mission of the ONSE as stated in the NEAR Act is to identify those at greatest risk of committing or being victims of violent crime and engaging them in a stipend-based intervention program that includes trauma-informed counseling, life-planning, and mentoring – what ONSE has named its “Pathways Program.” The ACLU-DC firmly believes that a well-resourced ONSE is critical to reducing violent crime and to increasing the District’s capacity to prevent violence through an evidence-based and comprehensive public-health approach. D.C.’s investment in ONSE is necessary to the very survival of the communities most impacted by violent crime and over-policing– particularly Black and Brown youths, femmes and women, people experiencing homelessness, immigrants, our trans community, and District residents facing poverty.
I think I speak in solidarity with others in this room who, like myself, are emotionally drained from showing up to homicide scenes and vigils. With over 40 homicides in the District so far just this year alone, entire communities are being trapped in a cycle of trauma and hopelessness. Prioritizing how we spend District resources to combat community violence effectively is more urgent than ever. A true commitment requires more resources poured into violence interruption, mentorship, victims’ services, and job placement – not to mention investments in basic resources like housing, access to mental healthcare and food access. Something must be done now and I urge the DC Council to treat this as the emergency it is.
At the recent performance oversight hearing for ONSE, I was pleased to hear from people who have been positively impacted by the work of this office and its staff. However, there remain significant questions and concerns that continue to linger about the budget and operations of this office.
The Mayor’s proposed budget for FY20 includes an additional $3.3 million dollars (a 61% increase) to the ONSE, increasing its budget to a total of $8.7 million. This sounds significant at first blush, but it’s a fraction of how much the District spends on policing and incarceration, approaches that not only fail to address the root causes of crime, but which destabilize, disenfranchise, and further traumatize the same communities suffering from intra-community violence. To properly acknowledge the gravity of the public health crisis we are in means shifting this balance.
Last year, the DC Council passed a bill to legalize sports betting. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) ensured the public and other Councilmembers ahead of its passage that most of the tax revenue taken in by the District from sports-betting would be evenly split between early childhood education and violence prevention programs. However, Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget has the additional tax revenue going directly into the District’s general fund. This is very concerning, and we urge the Council to redirect this revenue in its FY20 Budget Support Act.
Aside from budget, we have questions and concerns about the performance metrics in place at the ONSE, specifically how the ONSE defines “success” and how is it monitoring the progress and effectiveness of its programs in a consistent way. How are individuals identified and chosen to participate in ONSE’s Pathways Program and what internal auditing procedures are in place to ensure that ONSE staff meet individuals where they are and coordinate closely with other agencies to help them access the services they need? And finally, how does the office identify additional needs and resources that will help it achieve its mission? When asked these questions by community members, I always find myself unsure of what metrics the ONSE is using to measure the success of its outcomes. It’s important that the ONSE not only have these metrics in place, but share them and their outcomes with the public they serve. ONSE should follow the example of the DC OAG’s “Cure the Streets” program, which set up clear metrics and has been transparent about them from the start. Transparency and details are key. Knowing more of these specifics would help us all to understand what may be lacking and improved upon, and what additional resources could help ONSE and its staff get to where they need to be.
As an organizer regularly engaging with communities that are suffering from recent incidents of violence – and even when I am on the scene where violence has taken place – ONSE’s presence is often noticeably missing. I have heard similar criticisms from people who live in these impacted communities. Violence interrupters and mentors are needed throughout the District desperately but without metrics and transparency as to both operations and outcomes, it’s difficult to accurately determine how much additional funding and capacity is needed.
Finally, we urge the Council and the Mayor to turn the ONSE into a proper community-based independent office, as intended by the NEAR Act, by removing it from under the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice. Violence interruption cannot and will not ever be effective operating directly alongside law enforcement. Trust will never be built with the community that way, and the program that this was modeled after in Richmond, CA, was never intended to operate as another leg of the criminal legal system, which, with ONSE’s current position under the Deputy Mayor’s office, it effectively is and feels like to many in the community.
To reiterate, I am here today because I was heartened to hear the good work that is coming from the ONSE and I desperately want this agency to succeed so that all residents of DC have the chance to thrive. The questions and recommendations I’ve made above are intended to strengthen ONSE’s important role in the District’s public health approach to reducing crime.
Many things need to happen to achieve true public safety, including adequately funded programs that address housing security, economic justice, food access, and healthcare. The ACLU-DC is a proud member of the Fair Budget Coalition and we strongly support the Fair Budget Coalition’s budget platform. Lack of meaningful access to housing, to health care, to education, and to living-wage jobs compound the failed criminal justice policies that have for years crippled community members and failed to address their very real needs. The ONSE is an important piece among these solutions and we urge the Council to fund these critical needs in the FY20 budget.
 Mayor Bowser’s proposed FY20 also includes a $3 million dollar increase to the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) budget, which the ACLU-DC strongly opposes, and $77 million to address conditions at the DC Jail. MPD has a budget of over $550 million and has been failed to address significant performance issues that continue to harm DC communities.