D.C. Has a Police Abuse Problem

M.B. Cottingham has lived in Southeast D.C. his entire life. For the last decade, he has worked as an ice-cream vendor, selling frozen treats out of a truck. He has three children.

Late on a September afternoon in 2017, Mr. Cottingham gave Officer Sean Lojacono permission to frisk him. Instead of a limited pat-down for weapons, Officer Lojacono aggressively probed Mr. Cottingham’s sensitive body parts. Mr. Cottingham physically flinched and verbally protested, making clear that this highly intrusive search was not the frisk to which he had consented. Officer Lojacono responded by handcuffing Mr. Cottingham and violating his body two more times.

Mr. Cottingham partnered with the ACLU-D.C. to sue over this abuse. The police department eventually paid Mr. Cottingham a substantial sum to settle his case. They also fired Lojacono, but he recently got his job back with back pay because of a system that values the interests of officers over the safety and well-being of those they harm. Mr. Cottingham should never have experienced this abuse. It should not have taken a lawsuit to get some semblance of accountability. And Mr. Cottingham is not alone.

Police abuse in the District causes significant harm, costs millions of dollars, and undermines the whole justice system. It’s clearly time for District leaders to invest in police accountability solutions.

D.C. has spent $91 million over the last decade to settle cases involving police misconduct, including ones by repeat-offending officers. A recent D.C. Auditor report revealed that D.C. taxpayers footed a $14.3 million bill to re-hire police officers who have been found guilty of serious offenses, including drunk driving and sexual abuse. The Auditor classified three of these rehired officers as a “Threat to Safety.” Six of the officers who are back on the force have had misconduct reports filed against them since being rehired.

In addition to putting people at risk of serious harm and costing the District tens of millions of dollars, police misconduct erodes community trust in law enforcement and damages public safety efforts. When police officers are allowed to abuse their power without facing consequences, the public can understandably grow reluctant to interact with the criminal justice system at all. Last year, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson emphasized that one of the biggest issues with fighting crime in D.C. is the police department’s low closure rates. The Chairman also noted that one of the barriers to closing cases has been community members not coming forward to speak with the police.

A lack of accountability has also contributed to a hostile work environment for officers who are trying to follow laws and policies. Since 2020, more than 20 former police officers have filed lawsuits that allege a toxic work culture at the Metropolitan Police Department. In 2020, a sergeant sued over retaliation for reporting improper arrest tactics. One year later, 10 Black women officers sued over racial discrimination, sexual harassment, bullying, and retaliation for expressing concerns. Without accountability, it’s no wonder that the department has struggled to hire and retain officers.

Because the police department has shown time and again that they are unable or unwilling to hold themselves accountable, the D.C. Council and the mayor have to act. Strict limitations and real accountability can start to fix the police abuse problem, but our leaders need to find the will to invest in these solutions.

The D.C. Council recently passed a comprehensive police accountability bill that takes popular and effective steps to address abuse. For example, the law established a public police misconduct database, a solution that an overwhelming 90% of Americans polled in 2020 by the Pew Research Center support. But the D.C. Council and the mayor have yet to fully fund this database and to make sure it includes the total number of allegations against officers. This database is just one example of a great solution that is sitting on the shelf instead of being implemented right away.

Each one of us has a role to play in fixing the police abuse problem in D.C. — from contacting legislators, to asserting our rights, keeping each other safe, and supporting ongoing work. Together, we can move the District closer to ensuring public safety for all.