In what has been a recurring cycle, a slew of gun-related violence in D.C. and subsequent conversations about public safety have spurred calls from residents and council members alike to flood the most affected communities with police officers and confiscate as many firearms as possible.
Long before that strategy proved controversial in a June stop-and-frisk scandal involving the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) gun-recovery unit, some residents and activists have pushed against the prevailing school of thought, organizing around legislation that provides resources for residents in place of arrest and prosecution.
Years after the passage of a bill that would’ve facilitated such a process, MPD and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s responses to inquiries about implementation haven’t been to the liking of local activists, community leaders and disillusioned residents.
Lately, what’s been described as their lack of transparency has inspired more radical thoughts about police-community relations.
“It’s been very interesting to hear people talk about autonomy and self-determination, putting forward community control of the police,” said Netfa Freeman, a member of Pan-African Community Action (PACA).
PACA played a significant role in raising awareness and demanding answers about the death of Alonzo Smith during an encounter with Special Police Officers on the grounds of Marbury Plaza in Southeast in late 2015. From the start, community control over the police counted among PACA’s policy goals.
PACA members are currently conducting a citywide survey that gauges sentiments toward D.C. police and collects suggestions about the rules respondents would create for police if given the opportunity. A report outlining PACA’s findings will be released in the fall.
“The issue is not training, but the policies of the police as determined by the government that takes its cues from the ruling class,” Freeman said, adding that community control over the police would allow residents to protect their communities outside of traditional means.
On its website, PACA affirms this type of police-community relationship as the more effective alternative to the installment of a civilian review board, comprised of residents who would only weigh in on police department policy and firing of officers.
“What we are proposing would give communities the power to completely re-imagine and re-envision the very nature of policing itself,” Freeman said.
Predicting pushback and references to low voter turnout in Wards 7 and 8, communities said to have been targeted the most by MPD, during the June 19 primary, Freeman said that many people living east of the Anacostia River feel they don’t have enough say in their daily affairs. A contentious police-community relationship counts among the key causes of that worldview.
“This is the evolution of the mandate to apply a human rights framework to policing,” Freeman said, adding that the public outcry about MPD’s alleged shady dealings, and the strong community turnout at last Thursday’s public hearing at Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast about policing affirms that Ward 7 and 8 residents value civic engagement.
“Community control is a question of democracy. Low voter turnout reflects a lack of trust. If you let people set the priorities of the police, they would come out to people’s assemblies and the ballot box in droves,” he added.
Sheriff Road Becomes a Battleground
Less than a week after the D.C. primary, a group of officers from MPD’s gun-recovery unit approached a group of men in front of Nook’s Beauty and Barber Shop on Sheriff Road in Northeast during what was later determined to be an illegal search. Smartphone video that documented the encounter showed officers asking to speak with the owner of a vehicle that had tinted windows.
Minutes later, an officer asked one of the men to stand up and pulled what appeared to be a gun from his waist. When officers demanded the other men’s identification, the confrontation intensified. In a letter to MPD Chief Peter Newsham later that month, ANC Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green alleged that officers pulled a BB gun from a decoy.
During Thursday’s council hearing, Newsham defended the officers’ actions on June 22 but conceded that they should avoid tension with community members. During his testimony, D.C. council members grilled Newsham about smartphone footage showing two officers searching a Northeast backyard without a warrant or explanation.
Though those officers have been removed from the gun-recovery unit, they’ve been said to still conduct patrols in MPD’s 6th and 7th districts.
“It’s an ongoing beef,” D.R., a Ward 7 resident and one of the men in the video of the stop-and-frisk on Sheriff Road, told council members last week at Deanwood Recreation Center.
Days after the controversial video surfaced, police officers and young people clashed in the dead of the night, not far from Nook’s. That incident also made the rounds on social media, bringing to mind distrust among low-income, Black communities of law enforcement officials eager to remove guns from the D.C. streets.
During Thursday’s hearing, D.C. council member Vincent Gray (D) repeatedly denounced the June 22 stop-and-frisk but stopped short of articulating a concrete solution beyond officer training. The Ward 7 council member’s office didn’t respond to The Informer’s request for comment.
D.R., a Black man in his early 30s who asked to be referred to only by his initials during his public testimony, told council members that increasing police presence in D.C.’s most marginalized neighborhoods wouldn’t prevent violent crime, especially since fewer than one out five officers live in the District.
“Elders told me that [back in the day], police would get out of their car, walk around and talk to people in their community,” D.R. said. “Calling police shouldn’t be the first option. We don’t need police around. We police our own neighborhood.”
Members of Black Lives Matter DC and other advocacy groups say attempts to create some semblance of what D.R. described through engagement with lawmakers and other stakeholders hasn’t been without difficulty, even though a law to facilitate that process is already on the books.
The NEAR Act and Broken Promises
For the past couple of years, anti-policing efforts have shifted toward the design, passage, and implementation of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, which provides a public health approach to crime prevention.
Features include the identification and connection of potentially violent offenders to wrap-around services. During mental health crises, healthcare professionals, not officers, would intervene. MPD is also required to collect data on felony crimes, stop-and-frisks, and use-of-force incidents.
Since the D.C. Council unanimously passed the NEAR Act in 2016, portions of the bill haven’t been funded and properly implemented, particularly an IT system that would streamline MPD’s data collection. The D.C. Council recently funded a half-million-dollar plan scheduled to start next summer.
“Mayor Bowser had the opportunity to fix these problems three years ago when the NEAR Act was first introduced,” Dornethia Taylor of Black Lives Matter DC told council members during her testimony Thursday. “However, instead of embracing a progressive community-focused approach to violence. … She and Chief Newsham have fought it every step of the way.”
Last year, ACLU-DC filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for stop-and-frisk data. In May, ACLU-DC, Black Lives Matter DC and Stop Police Terror DC sued Newsham, Bowser and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue, alleging neglect to provide consistent, detailed information about whether police stops were consensual, whether police conducted a search in each instance, and whether an arrest took place.
“We can connect community members affected by violence directly to support services like those promised by the NEAR Act,” Taylor said earlier in her testimony. “Violence interrupters, community mediators, and health professionals who use a public health approach to violence all have proven track records to de-escalate situations better and to provide actual assistance to police.”
Taylor’s sentiments echoed that of ANC Commissioner Sherice Muhammad, who also testified at Deanwood Recreation Center and attended another hearing at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest earlier in the day. She counts among a contingent of D.C. residents who expressed a desire for more community engagement when it comes to matters of public safety.
“These council members aren’t going to save us. The police are allowed to do what they want,” Muhammad, representative of ANC Single Member District 7D06, told The Washington Informer as she recounted what she described as Chief Newsham’s nonchalant attitude during the first hearing.
“There’s a point where we have to work through our fear and speak out,” Muhammad said. “We can take our tax dollars and utilize the Black men in our communities. We should test-pilot that in Wards 7 and 8.”