DC Commission Gears Up for Positive Criminal Justice Reform

On April 1, 2021, the D.C. Police Reform Commission released its report on the Metropolitan Police Force, which included more than 90 recommendations. Their report is the culmination of a seven-month-long intensive dive into the history of policing in the District of Columbia. Through extensive research, the report identifies specific aspects of policing that can be reformed in order to promote the safety and well-being of the District’s residents.

History

The report begins by grounding its recommendations in the historic trends of policing in D.C. and how the nature of policing has succeeded or failed. As with the rest of the country, the war on drugs resulted in a substantial increase in the resources given to MPD. At the same time, the number of complaints against MPD skyrocketed, yet the civilian complaint review board was dissolved in 1995.

Since then, the failures of MPD have been well-documented. A series of reports by the Washington Post highlighted the inadequacies of MPD, their corruption, and their overt willingness to use force, often excessively. The media coverage of the realities of policing in the nation’s capital exposed MPD to probes by the U.S. Department of Justice. Just a month before this report was released, a DOJ auditor found that MPD had failed in addressing these concerns, and they had actually grown worse in many regards.

It is with that context of historical failures of the MPD and an unwillingness to adequately address those failures that this report was released. Inherent in these failures of policing is the reality that concerns surrounding policing have always been met with more resources being thrown at the department. This report is a departure from that trend, which has unequivocally failed.

Recommendations

The report has 90 detailed recommendations, some of which are quite progressive and promise concrete, positive changes to policing in the District. One of the key recommendations centers on the over-bloated nature of policing. MPD officers are always seen as the go-to first responders, even for crises that they are not necessarily equipped to deal with properly, such as mental health crises. As such, the report recommends investing in mental health crisis specialists who can be called instead of MPD.

This is a response to the rise of “suicides by cop” which occur when a police officer is called to respond to someone in mental health crisis. That officer is often not properly trained to deal with someone in crisis, and unjustifiably responds with deadly force, whereas a mental health professional is trained in de-escalation. From 2015-2018 approximately 10-29% of officer involved shootings were suicide by cop.

Another promising recommendation includes a Department ban on no-knock warrants. This comes, in part, as a response to the no-knock warrant that was served by police in Louisville, KY, in 2020 that resulted in the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor. Her death has sparked similar reforms nationwide, which are frequently aimed at demilitarizing the police and making police tactics less aggressive and dangerous.

The report also recommends a suspension of MPD’s Gun Recovery Units and Crime Suppression Teams, which have been known for utilizing “jump-outs,” which involve incredibly aggressive, often illegal, searches and seizures. Bruckheim & Patel is currently engaged in a class-action lawsuit to ban the Gun Recovery Units on the grounds that it disproportionately and illegally stops and searches African American males. The recommendation and the lawsuit seek to increase the physical safety of residents while guaranteeing their constitutional protections.

While many other recommendations focus specifically on decreasing the responsibilities of MPD while improving their functionality and the safety of their actions, the report also includes ways to increase accountability and transparency. Such recommendations include mandating technology that automatically turns on body cameras when an officer draws their weapon. Similarly, the report suggests expanding the powers of the Police Complaint Board and making officer’s disciplinary records public.

Perhaps most significantly, the report recommends ending qualified immunity for MPD officers, which would open the individual officer up for civil liability if they act illegally. If implemented, D.C. would become the second city in the U.S. to end qualified immunity for police, following New York City’s lead.

Path to Adoption

While the report has received widespread commendation and support, it has also been subject to harsh criticism, mainly coming from the police themselves. Gregg Pemberton, the head of the D.C. police union, has expressed his belief that this report is an attempt to defund the police. This is a common criticism towards police reform, and the report adeptly emphasizes that policing is just one aspect of first responders. As such, this report should be seen as a way to improve the functionality of the police by ensuring they are properly trained for the calls they are receiving.

It is nearly impossible that all of the recommendations will be implemented. Each recommendation has a differing degree of support publicly, as well as in the City Council, where its fate will ultimately be decided. While it is unrealistic to expect all of these changes to be implemented, this report will likely see many of its recommendations adopted into law. In any case, though, this report offers one of the most in-depth analyses of MPD’s history as a department and provides many concrete ways to alleviate trends that have been plaguing the residents of D.C. for decades.

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