Policing in DC: Saturday’s Virtual Town Hall Meeting Starts the Conversation
by Larry Janezich
July 19, 2020
A Saturday morning virtual town hall style meeting “Reimagining Policing in the District of Columbia” began a conversation on policing in DC. It was hosted by some 50 ANC Commissioners representing districts in Wards across the city.
Moderators Sharita Thompson, professor of African and African American Studies at Gettysburg College, and Dr. Bernard Demczuk, of George Washington University, introduced panelists MPD Assistant Chief Robert Contee; Douglas Sloan, VP NAACP; Council Members Charles Allen and Robert White; Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue, and Marcus Strider Dent, Commander of the Baltimore Chapter of the Guardian Angels.
Moderators posed the following questions to the panel.
How do you see this moment in relation to history?
All panelists agreed that the moment created by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police has provided us with a rare opportunity to have a sustained conversation about public safety and law enforcement, focusing on social and economic justice.
What do you want to see MPD do in terms of transparency and accountability?
CM Allen cited the need create a civilian led office to consider policing complaints and to restructure MPD as necessary to ensure public confidence that MPD will take disciplinary recommendations and act on them.
Most panelists provided less direct answers.
Some chose to tie accountability to better communication and engagement between MPD and the communities they police, not so much, apparently, as a way to hold police accountable as to avoid the necessity for accountability.
Another approach offered as an answer was redefining what police are expected to do. Allen noted that in recent years, it had been the practice in community meetings on crime to push everything to 911. Donahue characterized the calls for service to 911 as “fire, medical and everything else.” Now panelests say, the conversation needs to include consideration of what should be the response be to a 911 call, i.e., what is the best response not involving police.
Assistant Chief Contee’s response to this direction in the conversation was to ask panelists and ANC Commissioners to consider what happens if the response of police is curtailed.
What changes need to be made to police culture?
There were a lot of responses to this question, but few directed to issues that might be raised by the most outspoken critics of police culture.
Contee said there needs to be more women on the force.
Donahue indicated a remedy was needed for the lack of a policy which permits bad cop to stay on the force.
Allen cited the ability to have discipline work and work well, as well as increasing assistance to police to help them purchase homes in DC. (Currently, only 22% live in the District.)
Sloan advocated expanded training.
White urged reducing the size of MPD by directing calls for serve to other agencies.
Dent advocated training officers for de-escalation and mediation; “Take away the fear of officers that exists in the Black community by developing communications and engagement. People need the police but are afraid – especially in the Black community.”
What alternate methods are at our disposal?
Allen said it is hard to separate crime from the chronically divestment from housing, education and jobs and that we have to reassess how and where we invest and reallocate funding where necessary. We also need to do a better job with gun violence. Starting a conversation about policing will lead to bigger issues.
Conte said that violent crime affects investment – he have to tackle violent crime and get it right.
White responded that unless you address the underlying problems of violent crime, you’ll be chasing violent crime the rest of your life – there’s no way to police your way out of that. We have to rethink how we address crime.
Contee ageed that it’s necessary to find a way to address crime and the underlying problems simultaneously.
ANC6B Commissioner Chander Jayaraman, closed the discussion by noting that this was the beginning of the effort to reimagine policing in the city, adding, “This is not the end of this discussion. Later, he told CHC that he thought there was a consensus to look at the functions of the police, to enhance the Cadet Program, and to bring more local officers onto the force as a bridge to the community. He lauded the panel as being the right people – the right group – to move the conversation forward. He said the success of the meeting was a tribute to the nonpartisan role of the ANCs. Some 120 commissioners and members of the public participated.
Earlier this year, Jayaraman – a candidate for an at-large seat on the city council – began hosting a series of virtual weekly meetings of ANC commissioners across the city to discuss community response to COV-19. In early June, the conversation shifted to how policing differs in the city’s wards, leading to Saturday’s town hall.