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D.C. residents weigh in on Bowser’s bill to address crime trends

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Dozens of D.C. residents, business owners and activists on Wednesday sounded off at a hearing on a crime and policing bill introduced last month by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), offering mixed opinions on its wide-ranging provisions as public safety concerns have reached a fever pitch.

The well-attended hearing comes as city officials are feeling increased pressure to mitigate trends around crime. While some of the 80 or so people who signed up to testify at the hearing led by D.C. Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) criticized aspects of the mayor’s bill, including a rollback of some provisions of major police reform legislation created after George Floyd’s murder and an anti-loitering statute that has raised constitutional questions, many spoke with a sense of desperation for anything but the status quo.

“If we go on the path we are now, with the momentum of violence and crime, we’re in trouble,” said Council member Matthew Frumin (D-Ward 3). “We need to figure out what’s the path that can, frankly, save the city.”

The proposal is among a flurry of recent bills aimed at reducing crime that are now being considered by the council (since last November, Pinto noted, D.C. has seen a 40 percent increase in violent crime and a 25 percent increase in property crime). Among its provisions, Bowser’s Addressing Crime Trends Now Amendment Act aims to crack down on open-air drug markets by reviving a decades-old policy that allows police to set up temporary “drug-free zones,” make organized retail theft a felony, and make it illegal to wear a mask for the purpose of committing crimes or causing fear.

Some who testified in support of the bill shared stories about friends and family members who have been recent victims of crime or anecdotes about suspected drug activity they say has gone on unabated. Kenyattah Robinson, president of the Mount Vernon Triangle Community Improvement District, said these fears have been exacerbated by inaction on “quality of life” issues that he felt Bowser’s bill could help remedy.

“Issues such as being unable to buy basic necessities because organized retail theft has rendered stores shelves bare, to having to navigate open-air drug markets while walking a child from school, to fears of being robbed or carjacked or robbed by masked criminals while enjoying a night out on the town,” Robinson said. “[They] all contribute to a heightened perception that things are out of control.”

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D.C. mayor resurrects old policy to target open-air drug markets

Longtime resident Keith Hasan-Towery called some aspects of Bowser’s bill “good” but said other components needed more thought. He questioned, for example, whether establishing a five-day, drug-free zone would simply allow illegal activity to proliferate elsewhere.

Some others who opposed the drug-free-zone proposal questioned its constitutionality, noting the D.C. Council in 2014, which included Bowser, voted unanimously to repeal a near-identical statute because of due process concerns that had been raised by the American Civil Liberties Union and the office of D.C.’s attorney general. Last month, however, the office of Attorney General Brian Schwalb said the bill was “legally sufficient.”

Rondell Jordan, a community defender with the organization Open City Advocates, which provides legal defense for youths after they are sentenced in juvenile court, argued the zones would not make the city safer. “What it will do, is permit officers to target most of the young Black men and boys who are lingering in public spaces which will further erode an officer’s most valuable resource, the trust of a community,” he said.

In her testimony Wednesday, Police Chief Pamela A. Smith sought to assuage some concerns about the bill. She noted that officers would need to have “reasonable, articulable suspicion” before conducting a stop in a drug-free zone — such as observing the exchange of money for a small package — and consider whether people have legal justification to be there, such as waiting for the bus. Smith said she was open to codifying other reasons that people might be in the restricted zones, such as residents “coming and going from drug treatment centers.”

The proposed adjustments to D.C.’s police accountability legislation was another hotly debated topic Wednesday.

As written, the bill would loosen restrictions on vehicular pursuits, narrow the definition of prohibited neck restraints and allow officers to review their body-camera footage before writing a police report (except in cases of officer-involved shootings or serious uses of force). It would eliminate a provision of the policing law requiring the release of officers’ names in disciplinary cases, and it would limit public access to an officer’s disciplinary records if the alleged infraction is not sustained.

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Smith has said that allowing officers to review body-cam footage ahead of writing a report would help prevent discrepancies in an officer’s accounts that can complicate prosecutions. Smith said other changes were needed to make the department, which has struggled with staffing, more attractive to prospective officers.

“I support holding officers accountable for misconduct up to and including termination,” Smith said. “However, we must strive to balance enhanced accountability for officers while acknowledging that they have privacy and safety interests as well.”

In D.C. bill, Bowser aims to curb retail theft, drug dealing, police reform

Katerina Semyonova, special counsel for policy and legislation for the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia, challenged Smith’s characterization of the changes, calling the bill a “remarkable and cynical departure from where we were less than three years ago when the mayor painted Black Lives Matter on 16th Street.”

“Residents want real strategies to reduce violent crime,” she said. “Decreasing police accountability, allowing police to use more neck restraints, displacing and harassing residents who police believe may be engaged in a drug offense from one block to another will do nothing to make the District safer.”

That sentiment was shared by Michael Tobin, executive director of D.C.’s Office of Police Complaints, the city’s independent, civilian-led arm for law enforcement oversight. He argued that restricting the release of disciplinary information targeted his office’s authority and would erode public trust in the department.

“It’s really shortsighted and imprudent to believe that reducing the authority of my office and eliminating the ability of the public to participate and understand, and see the workings of its own police force will somehow reduce crime and make us safer,” Tobin said. “It’s just a wrong assumption.”

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Before it is considered by the full council, Bowser’s bill must pass through the council’s judiciary committee, headed by Pinto. At-large Council members Christina Henderson (I) and Anita Bonds (D) noted that crime trends such as increased carjackings have been fueled by juveniles, whom they said have not been a focus of recent legislative proposals. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5), emphasized the need for a clearer citywide strategy and determining what changes are necessary to boost case closures by D.C. police and prosecutions by the U.S. attorney for the District.

But for some who testified, including Ollie Figueroa, an executive with the Chinatown hotel Motto by Hilton, the best path forward is less complicated.

“We highly encourage and support any initiative — except inaction,” he said.

Source: Washington Post

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