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D.C. Open Government Coalition Recommends Transparency Improvements As Council Considers Broad Police Reform Bill

Fritz Mulhauser | June 8, 2020 | Last modified: June 10, 2020

The Coalition has asked Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) to add to his draft emergency police and justice reform legislation

  • better access to video from police body-worn cameras (faster, less costly releases under FOIA, more by-right access);
  • open records of investigation of serious uses of force by D.C. Office of Police Complaints;
  • open meetings of Use of Force Review and Police Training panels.

The recommendations were in a letter sent Saturday (6) by Coalition president Thomas Susman to Charles Allen, Chairman of the D.C. Council Judiciary Committee.

Chairman Allen released a draft bill late last week that included over a dozen provisions about police and justice work of District agencies, including mandatory release of body worn camera video (and the officer’s name) within three days of officer-involved death or serious use of force, expanded authority for the Office of Police Complaints, and citizen members added to key police review boards on use of force and training.

A revised version is expected to be submitted Monday evening (8) for consideration as an emergency measure Tuesday (9). Ideas not included in the emergency bill, to be considered on a single reading and good for only 90 days, can be added if it is submitted again as a temporary act, good for 225 days. See Mitch Ryals’s full rundown on the bill for Washington City Paper here.

D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham at a press conference with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, also on Monday (8), reviewed reforms in two decades since dramatic Washington Post research uncovered off-the-charts rates of police shootings and led to Department of Justice intervention in 2001. (The eight-year reform effort was relatively transparent, as DOJ mandated an outside monitor who issued quarterly reviews of progress on dozens of specific goals. And the D.C. Auditor asked the original monitor to review the durability of reforms from that era in a 2016 report.)

As to future suggestions for improvement, Newsham concluded “Our ears are wide open when it comes to accountability.”  He raised no specific questions about the pending bill. The Mayor said she has not fully reviewed the bill but was “largely supportive.”

Family members of one person killed in a police-involved shooting testified at a D.C. Council roundtable in fall 2019 about long MPD delays in allowing access to video. But to a press question today the chief said all family requests have been honored.

Rachel Chason and Peter Hermann reported Tuesday (9) in the Post on continued demonstrations for access to body camera video. They write: “D.C. police say officers fired at Marqueese Alston after he shot at them. His mother, who was allowed to view the body-camera video last year, said what she saw does not back up that account. She has long wanted the footage out in the open so people can make up their own minds.” Alston’s mother, Kenithia Alston, was allowed to view the video of the June 2018 events privately only much later after D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine met her. Chief Newsham told reporters all officers involved have been cleared. The names have not been released. In front of Superior Court Monday, Ms. Alston said “If my son did what the chief said, why won’t they just release the footage?”

And even the greater video access proposed in the Allen bill is ambiguous. It does not say whether redaction is allowed in the video of incidents of serious of force required to be released within three days with the names of officers involved.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also on Monday published his own suggestions for police reforms, citing exemplary statutes from other states. His amendments include making police discipline nonnegotiable in union collective bargaining, prohibiting hiring anyone with a prior history of misconduct as a police officer, and limiting use of deadly force. Other proposals include strengthening Office of Police Complaints access to MPD information to investigate complaints.

Police reforms are widely discussed these days, with advocacy generally of greater transparency in many aspects of policing as well as citizen oversight of policy, training, and discipline to assure community values are respected and police are accountable for following through. At the end of last week (5), columnist Ginia Bellafante in the New York Times summarized, saying “For several years, there has been no work more vital to ending police brutality than abolishing laws and policies that weaken transparency and soften repercussion.”

Also discussed are dismantling police departments (as embraced in concept by the Minneapolis city council) or diverting police spending to support services that can reduce the need for police (advocated by the mayor of New York, the Black Lives Matter D.C. group, and others). Many linked such proposals to the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 Stanford speech that “social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

The Washington Post Monday (8) editorialized with strong language on needed police reforms in Minneapolis, including greater transparency and civilian involvement in complaint review and discipline.

At the same time, the paper showcased reporters Kimberly Kindy and Michael Brice-Saddler above the fold on the front page of the Monday print edition. They offered a 2300-word cautionary review, “Protesters hope this is a moment of reckoning for American policing. Experts say not so fast.”

The authors chronicle slow progress on reforms over the years, despite episodic periods of public pressure, such as after deaths of Trayvon Martin in Florida (2012) or Eric Garner in New York (2014).

The authors tracked down former D.C police chief Charles Ramsey, chair of President Barack Obama’s 21st Century policing commission established after the Michael Brown 2014 shooting death in Ferguson, Mo. Ramsey told them the group’s “playbook for reform” went nowhere and their 2015 report “sat on a shelf, unused, for five years.”

On leadership needed to achieve results reaching into the 16,000 police departments nationwide, each one subject to local political forces, the Post quotes Vanita Gupta, a former head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She told the Post, “With so many police departments, it is important that there is federal action.”

And so also on Monday, House and Senate members introduced the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Transparency improvements stood out among provisions of the 135-page bill including new requirements for nationwide data-collection on police actions and a registry of complaints of misconduct and their outcomes. Similar improvements were called for in the 2015 Obama commission report but never implemented, as Chief Ramsey noted.

The Coalition’s new letter to Charles Allen is here. Previous Coalition testimony to the D.C. Council in October 2019 on improvements needed in access to videos from MPD body worn cameras is here. The Coalition believes long delays and high costs in accessing BWC video rests on incorrect MPD readings of privacy exemptions in D.C. public records law. The Coalition’s request for a legal review by the Office of Open Government has been pending since October 2019.