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Coalition Sunshine Week Summit Centers on Police Issues With the Chief and Community Observers

Fritz Mulhauser | March 18, 2022 | Last modified: March 30, 2022

According to D.C. police chief Robert Contee III, in a remarks in a March 16 webinar, the Metropolitan Police Department

  • is already transparent with data, for example releasing details on discipline and use of force
  • shouldn’t be judged by misconduct cases settled; decisions by government attorneys to settle even winning cases just to avoid costs of litigation are “out of our hands” and the result therefore proves nothing about officers’ fault
  • hesitates to release full police misconduct investigation files until the same is required of all government employees since others (such as teachers) can also pose risks to the public
  • must redact body-worn camera video extensively before release to protect the safety of officers and civilians,
  • won’t blacklist any requesters of records on his watch, and
  • fears misuse if more police records are required to be proactively released.

Check the video available here for full details of the chief’s lively exchange with Tom Susman, president of the D.C. Open Government Coalition.

The discussion took place at the Coalition’s annual summit, held virtually for the second year. Mid-March is the birthday of James Madison, considered the founding father of government transparency and one of the designers of the U.S. Constitution. He once wrote, “a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives” and perhaps most famously, “popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both.”

Following the session with the chief, Coalition board member Ginger McCall moderated a further dive into police transparency with Naïké Savain, attorney with D.C. Justice Lab; Michael Perloff, attorney with ACLU of DC; James Berry, member of MPD’s Citizen Advisory Council; and Steven Rich, data editor of The Washington Post.

The panel offered contrasting views from diverse perspectives:

  • Savain, a member of the D.C. Police Reform Commission, told of data MPD wouldn’t provide the Commission, data gathered but not used, and data never gathered that she believed are essential, as well as missing mandated reports, lack of answers to Council oversight questions, and opposition to legislative mandates on open data.
  • Perloff described a “lack of commitment, even intransigency” he’s seen in D.C. police response to transparency pressure. He detailed, as one example, the long fight to get stop-and-frisk data originally required by the Council in 2016. MPD gathered and released the data only after multiple court orders. He noted recently filed litigation alleging this delay was among others ordered from the senior agency leadership as a deliberate tactic to discourage requesters who might prove critical. The data had potential of revealing unlawful and unproductive action, just as stop-and-frisk data did in New York City.
  • Berry, with a long career in criminal justice in the District as well as citizen advisor to police, noted improvement over the years in police community outreach. Even so, he supported the Reform Commission’s agenda of recommendations for further transparency.
  • Rich, from a journalist’s viewpoint, explained the Post’s efforts to gather data nationwide on police operations to shed light on systems underlying vivid anecdotes of policing problems that make headlines. He and a team reviewed, for example, 23,000 court settlements for the recent story the chief mentioned on the $1.5 billion spent by governments to end misconduct lawsuits. He echoed from his own nationwide data-collection experience the surprise of other panelists at the lack of interest in solid data: “most departments won’t seek data until mandated, or even then.”

Panelists addressed audience questions with practical tips on negotiating high fees proposed by agencies for releasing records under DC FOIA, ideas for greater enforcement of FOIA law, even proposing a new separate entity for gathering and analyzing police data since police leaders appear to lack incentive to amass details across thousands of officers interacting day and night with the public in situations of stress and conflict.

Niquelle Allen, director of the D.C. Office of Open Government closed the summit, reporting on her testimony this year to the Council calling for a FOIA Task Force to rewrite the aging statute long overdue for updating.

The Coalition’s program was cosponsored with the DC Office of Open Government, the NAACP Washington, DC Branch, the Society of Professional Journalists DC Pro Chapter, and EmpowerEd and was arranged by Coalition board members Liz Hempowicz and Sandra Moscoso, with technical assistance by Molly Moore of Ropes & Gray LLP.