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Coalition Urges MPD to End “Culture of Secrecy” in Testimony on Nomination of New Chief

Fritz Mulhauser | October 1, 2023 | Last modified: November 8, 2023

UPDATE 11/8/23: The D.C. Council approved unanimously the nomination of Pamela Smith as police chief Tuesday (7). Ahead of the vote, Washington City Paper reviewed the debate over the nomination including a close look at transparency and officer accountability. Columnist Alex Koma wrote “Some wonder if Smith has the stomach to take on the District’s newly emboldened police union. Chiefs and the union tend to have a complicated relationship under the best of circumstances, as they’re often sparring over how to discipline officers accused of misconduct. The union’s rightward turn in recent years has made even some moderates hesitant to align with it too closely. Yet Smith’s track record with the U.S. Park Police, and her first few months in the chief’s seat, have made some wonder if she’ll curb the union’s worst impulses.”

Pamela A. Smith, the mayor’s nominee as D.C. police chief, explained at her confirmation hearing Wednesday (27) how she has worked 25 years in law enforcement to fulfill a dream. She confided in 1977 to her childhood diary in Pine Bluff, Ark., that she wanted to be a police chief.

Following posts as a social worker, in probation and corrections, and decades in regional and national leadership in the U.S. Park Police, her last few months as interim D.C. police chief have shown her adept at public contact as she carries out a philosophy that “relationships are everything.” Her efforts were applauded by dozens of D.C. community members who turned out to support her with hours of testimony praising her personal approach in countless local meetings.

In written and oral testimony (video at 4:45:20), the D.C. Open Government Coalition addressed another side of policing: the need for the police department to end a “culture of secrecy” that undermines public trust in police. Low trust, in turn, diminishes all-important public cooperation in deterring and solving crimes.

The Coalition noted the new chief must deal with an entrenched attitude — “MPD’s concerted efforts, under the past three chiefs, to avoid accountability to District residents for bad policing practices, as well as for bad acts of individual officers.”

“[MPD sole authority for officer accountability] has led to an opaque system that can appear to the community as being too lenient. … The sanctions imposed by MPD in response to sustained community complaints suggest that the Department is reluctant to impose serious sanctions based on community complaints, and often goes outside of the Table of Penalties Guide. … [T]he majority of sustained complaints for the past two years have resulted in reprimands or education-based development. These minor disciplinary sanctions allow officers to believe that complaints from community members are unimportant and that MPD tolerates, or endorses, behaviors likely to produce complaints.”

D.C. Police Complaints Board, Policy Report #21-2, “Discipline.” (October 2022)

“Because secrecy and lack of accountability are major contributors to community distrust of the department,” the Coalition urged the Council to question Interim Chief Smith about specific steps she will take to ensure that the MPD follows D.C. transparency laws, court decisions and Office of Open Government (OOG) advice:

  • asking how she will tear down the culture of secrecy in MPD and
  • demanding a commitment that under her leadership, the department will, in fact, become more transparent.

According to the Coalition, the entrenched norm to rarely, if ever, admit error and to frustrate access to records of problematic policing requires an “effort to end MPD’s culture of secrecy and its scofflaw approach to [records requests] that must come from the top” and the Council should “demand that [Smith] direct MPD’s general counsel and FOIA officer to abandon their obstructionist practices, follow the law, and improve all aspects of public access to police records under FOIA.”

The press noted the nominee’s rapport with the community:

  • “a largely friendly reception, despite the city’s persistent struggles in driving down violence,” said “Loose Lips” columnist Alex Koma, Washington City Paper;
  •  “a relatively warm reception” as supporters “described her as compassionate and qualified and said they trusted her approach to addressing crime,” said Emily Davies and Peter Hermann in the Washington Post about the hearing (based on “a distinctive personal narrative, the arc of which begins with a traumatic childhood dominated by an alcoholic mother and ends in soaring professional success” as reported earlier by the Post’s Paul Schwartzman and Peter Hermann);
  • “majority praising Smith’s experience and temperament for the job,” said Matt Blitz at DCist;
  • “the vast majority supported Smith,” reported Mark Segraves of News4 NBC Washington, while also remarking, “We haven’t heard a lot of tough questions from the Council, and we haven’t heard a lot of new strategies from the chief.”

Council Member Matthew Frumin (D-Ward 3) asked twice about the accountability of officers, to which the chief answered without hesitation that all is well: ” We hold our officers accountable probably quite significantly,” and again, “I am not concerned for how we investigate or penalize.”  (See hearing video Q&A beginning at timestamp 6:22:10.)

Interim D.C. Chief of Police Pamela A. Smith on officer accountability: ”We hold our officers accountable probably quite significantly.”  And “I am not concerned for how we investigate or penalize.” 

Oral remarks, confirmation hearing, September 27, 2023.

When Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) asked about “reforms for improved trust,” Smith recounted various community meetings officers attend, advisory groups at many levels, and her walks through grocery stores since “establishing relationships is the key.”

The Interim Chief’s strategic plan update for the department, A Vision for Safe Communities, includes many plans and projects without addressing officers’ accountability. The Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing sworn officers, endorsed the nominee after opposing most police accountability and transparency reforms in recent months and encouraging Members of Congress to reverse Council-passed laws as harmful to police work and officer morale.

The Coalition hopes the Interim Chief Smith if confirmed, can work closely with Office of Police Complaints Executive Director Michael Tobin to understand their differences on the proper response to police errors. The public will know the result, as the new police reform law

  • gives OPC responsibility for the first time to recommend discipline for sustained complaints (though the chief makes the final decision); and
  • creates a new public database (effective in 2025) that will allow tracking of all sustained complaints and the penalties the department imposes.

In the pithy aphorism of management scholar Peter Drucker, summarizing years of research on organizations, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

That phrase suggests what the Coalition presented in testimony, that good ideas for police strategy against crime may be defeated by a resistant culture of concealment that has permeated MPD in recent years. These practices include:

  • delaying and denying a significant fraction of records requests, leaving hundreds incomplete at the end of each year, as well as accumulating the most appeals and lawsuits of any agency;
  • blurring details in released body-worn camera videos based on a mistaken reading of the law of information privacy, resulting in delays and unnecessary costs, according to a legal opinion of the Office of Open Government;
  • assessing sky-high fees for processing records and denying public interest fee waivers (now under court challenge); and
  • as charged in another pending lawsuit, deliberately mishandling requests to frustrate critics (for example, to hinder independent analysis of data on stops and frisks, data mandated by the Council and not collected or released by the department until advocates sued in court).

Successful policing has two essential aspects:

  • fighting crime
  • while obeying the law in doing so. 

Under pressure, officers cut corners and disobey laws such the Constitution’s requirements for justifiable stops, searches, and use of force.  A culture of secrecy means misconduct is covered up or, when revealed, is treated with indifference and, at most, mild consequences. And the public concludes police are not policing according to a shared sense of right and wrong.

Crime fighting suffers when community members lose trust in police fairness and hesitate to share information. A culture protecting errors can fuel the kind of arrests so flawed that prosecutors can’t put them before a court (67% of arrests were not prosecuted in 2022, up from 31% in 2016, according to the U.S. Attorney, the chief D.C. prosecutor, a fact Council Chairman Phil Mendelson points out repeatedly when some call simply for stricter laws).

Analysts of policing still refer to the principles put forward by Sir Robert Peel and his staff as they created the first modern police force in London two hundred years ago, that respect and cooperation of the public are essential so that voluntary observance of the law is the norm and the public trusts the police because they see them only when necessary taking impartial action against lawbreakers.

The Coalition looks forward to working with the Council and Interim Chief Smith, if confirmed, on further transparency improvements. If you have a problem of access to police records, contact us at