One thing is for certain about Wednesday’s House Oversight hearing examining D.C. affairs: It’s just the beginning.
House committee to vote on blocking D.C. policing bill
But the hearing is also taking place against the backdrop of heightened GOP momentum to not just examine D.C. policies, but also block them — as Republicans did to D.C.’s revised criminal code with broad Democratic help. And after Wednesday’s hearing concludes, the GOP-led Oversight Committee plans to take aim at its next target: D.C.’s major police accountability legislation.
The committee plans to debate and then vote on a resolution disapproving of the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act of 2022. Should the resolution pass the committee, as it probably will, that could queue it up for a vote on the House floor — potentially making it the third local D.C. bill to command the attention of hundreds of federal lawmakers since February. Congress voted to block the city’s criminal code overhaul this month; a second disapproval resolution, targeting a D.C. law allowing noncitizens to vote in local elections, passed the House with bipartisan support but died in a Senate committee.
D.C. leaders begin lobbying Congress against effort to block policing bill
The disapproval resolutions, especially when not subject to the Senate filibuster, “are giving us a run for our money,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).
“What I think you’re seeing is the beginning of a Republican campaign to go at the District any way it can,” she said.
The flurry of disapprovals has created an unusual atmosphere among those who champion D.C. statehood: hopeful that the city remains closer to it than ever, as the statehood bill has twice passed the House of Representatives in recent years, yet also anxiety about home rule after the historic bipartisan interference. Before this month, only three disapproval resolutions had ever succeeded in the 50-year history of D.C.’s limited self-government. Two back to back in a matter of months would be unprecedented.
Gearing up for Wednesday’s hearing and vote, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he plans to balance a message of defending D.C. home rule with more vigorously defending the merits of the policing legislation.
“For D.C. residents, home rule is possibly the strongest argument. But for members of Congress, many of whom could care less, it’s not the strongest argument,” Mendelson said. “The strongest argument is, this is about accountability, and if we want good police, then this bill is best practices for police accountability.”
On Wednesday, the city’s chief financial officer, Glen Lee, a pair of D.C. Council members — Mendelson and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who shepherded the policing bill last year — and the D.C. Police Union president are expected to appear before the committee for questions.
In a statement previewing the hearing, House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) blamed “radical left-wing policies” for a “crime crisis and rampant homelessness” in the District, noting the hearing will also cover general city management. The congressional interest in crime in D.C. has sometimes been informed by the personal experiences of those who work in the Capitol: A staffer for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) was stabbed by a random attacker over the weekend, according to police documents, while Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) was assaulted in the elevator of her apartment building the morning the House voted to disapprove of the District’s revised criminal code.
“Congress has sent a clear message to the D.C. Council: It’s time to make our nation’s capital safe again,” Comer said.
A recent Washington Post-Schar School poll found that while most residents consider crime a “serious” problem in D.C., three-fourths feel “very” or “somewhat” safe in their neighborhood.
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Notably not invited to testify was Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who quipped in comments to reporters on Monday that “I think there are a lot of reasons why they don’t want to talk to me. I’ll leave it at that.”
Asked why Bowser was not invited — as she has been in past GOP-led committee hearings — a spokeswoman for the committee noted that the March 29 hearing was just “the first of several” focused on oversight of Washington.
“We look forward to having others appear before the committee in the future,” the spokeswoman, Jessica Collins, said.
Bowser said Friday in testimony to the D.C. Council about her 2024 budget proposal that she hoped Mendelson could deliver a message to Congress: “D.C. is doing just fine.”
“In the past several weeks, we have heard from some members of Congress a narrative about Washington, D.C., that is simply not true,” Bowser said. “The truth is what I’ve just laid out: that Washington D.C., is a world-class city, with amazing people, a responsible local government, and a better ability to balance budgets than the Congress of the United States.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), the top Democrat on the committee, said he viewed Wednesday’s hearing as an opportunity for Republicans to “pick on” the District “because they view it as a vulnerable target and an easy whipping post for their political agenda.”
“If they really cared about the problem of bloodshed in Washington and in other major cities,” he said, “they would embrace a universal, violent criminal background check. And they would favor a ban on military-style assault weapons.”
As the committee’s ranking Democrat, Raskin, a D.C. native who lives in neighboring Takoma Park, led the floor debate against the last D.C. disapproval resolutions and is now preparing to defend the policing bill. He compared it to the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which House Democrats nearly universally supported in 2021. Raskin noted that D.C.’s policing accountability legislation doesn’t include some of the more contentious federal provisions, such as gutting qualified immunity for police, which shields officers from lawsuits.
D.C.’s policing bill would make permanent certain changes the city enacted on a temporary basis after the Minneapolis police killing of Floyd in 2020, many of which are currently in place, such as prohibiting the use of neck restraints. The bill also would expand public access to police disciplinary records and access to police body-camera footage in excessive force incidents. Police would also be required to issue Miranda-like warnings before conducting a search with a person’s consent under the legislation, which would also prevent hiring officers who have committed past misconduct. The bill would also not allow the police union to negotiate police discipline, which the union strongly opposes.
The union and the bill’s most fervent Republican critics in Congress, chiefly Reps. Andrew S. Clyde (Ga.) and Andrew Garbarino (N.Y.), who are sponsoring the disapproval resolution, have cast the legislation as “anti-police.” D.C. Police Union President Greggory Pemberton has frequently raised concerns about losing officers in comments opposing the legislation, which is likely to come up in the hearing as well.
“We’re losing police officers at a time when the demand is going up. So the number of 911 calls is going up, and the reports that need to be taken are going up. And the number of police officers we have to staff those demands is going down,” Pemberton said during a Thursday panel about crime in D.C. hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “And at the same time, we have a criminal justice system that’s eroding through legislative actions on how we can hold criminals accountable.”
Supporters of the policing legislation have rejected the idea that strengthening transparency and accountability has led to more crime or worsened the retention of officers. Arthur Ago, a former D.C. public defender who now heads a criminal justice project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, argued that calling a police accountability bill “anti-police” suggests that “police should be less accountable and less transparent in order for police to successfully fight crime, and that is simply wrong.”
“This bill has nothing to do with criminal activity in the District of Columbia. It has everything to do with how police should operate fairly and justly,” he said.
Though crime is not nearly what it was during the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, the city is still confronting challenges. Homicides are up 19 percent over the same time in 2022, when D.C. for the second year in a row surpassed 200 killings, something it had not done since the early 2000s. Overall crime is up 23 percent, driven in large part by a spike in auto thefts, though violent crime is even with 2022, a year that saw decreases.
Other distinct challenges specific to D.C. have also emerged: Federal prosecutors — who function as D.C.’s local prosecutors in the federally funded D.C. Superior Court — recently reported they are declining to prosecute roughly two-thirds of arrests, raising questions about prosecutors’ standards for accepting cases and the evidence in the cases police bring. With the D.C. crime lab shut down, prosecutors are also having to outsource processing of evidence to other labs, also potentially affecting decisions about which cases to pursue, as the office has noted.
Fallout grows from internal probe of D.C. police violent crime squad
Bowser suggested in her Friday testimony to the D.C. Council that Congress turn its attention inward and consider boosting funding for the U.S. attorney’s office. A spokeswoman for the committee didn’t immediately respond to a question about whether challenges in the federal prosecutors’ office would be included in the hearing examining crime.
“If they want to zero in on public safety, which we of course are perfectly focused on, then the Congress should fund more District prosecutors at the United States Attorney Office, and not just to deal with the January 6th cases,” Bowser said.
Bowser and Mendelson also recently wrote a letter to House and Senate leaders imploring them to leave the city’s policing legislation alone — the most unified stand the city leaders have taken since Republicans began pushing a slate of disapproval resolutions this year.
“The political leadership has presented a much stronger, united position against congressional interference in this case,” Raskin said of the lobbying effort. “But the Republicans understand that they have a unique opportunity here,” he added, noting the “unusual” special privileges allowing certain D.C. disapproval resolutions to escape the Senate filibuster and normal order. “It’s easy for them to unify Republicans around attacking liberal Democrats in Washington, D.C.”
Source: Washington Post
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