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Lawsuit Asks Court to Order D.C. to Collect Mandated Data on Police Stops

dcogcadmin | May 29, 2018

 new twist on transparency: if the D.C. Council asks the executive to collect some data, but it doesn’t happen, does the public have a legal claim that it had a right to that data? Or (if the delay is several years) that agency action is unreasonably delayed? When existing data couldn’t answer questions from citizens and D.C. Council members about police stops–questions such as who is stopped, when-where-and-why, for how long, and with what result, the Council legislated data gathering that after two years remains stalled. A new lawsuit tests whether the court will step in to resolve the problem.

Police stop people in the street all the time. With 33,000 arrests in 2016, the Washington Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) likely stopped many times more for interactions that did not result in arrest. Existing data couldn’t answer questions from citizens and D.C. Council members–questions such as who is stopped, when-where-and-why, for how long, and with what result?

The Council in June 2016 directed MPD to begin rigorous documentation of all stops, 14 questions about each, and put aside money for the extra efforts, available October 1 that year.

Finding by repeated public records requests that police failed to do the work, three groups filed suit in Superior Court last week (May 4). They are Black Lives Matter D.C., Stop Police Terror Project D.C. and the ACLU of D.C. The suit named three top D.C. officials, the mayor, the deputy mayor for public safety, and the police chief.

Today (8) the groups in a new filing asked the court to hold a prompt hearing, to agree that the public is being harmed by unreasonably delayed action on the two-year-old mandate, and to order corrective action in 90 days.

The deputy mayor and chief admitted earlier this year to the D.C. Council in testimony and answers to questions in the budget process that the data gathering project had been delayed and Council Member Charles Allen told the brass he was “very frustrated.” MPD Chief Peter Newsham acknowledged the lack of action was “unacceptable.” Officials have cited time needed to develop forms for recording answers to the new questions and to write new computer procedures for handling the flood of data–though they also admit the allocated funds haven’t been spent. The mayor asked for more time and more money for the project in the 2019 budget now under review.

The advocates lost patience and now ask the court to enforce a legal requirement that agency action not be “unreasonably delayed” in carrying out a mandate from the legislature. MPD will have to explain its delay and the court will weigh those facts against its own standard of how much delay is tolerable.

Some argue that constant checking on people in the street deters crime, but critics say the practice is ineffective and may in fact be targeting only some groups, such as people of color. In New York City, for example, 685,000 were stopped in 2011. In 2013 a federal court found New York police systematically conducted stops and frisks in a racially discriminatory manner–drawing on evidence from a database of millions of forms completed by NYPD officers under requirements imposed by an earlier lawsuit. New York police stopped only 12,000 in 2016 under revised rules following the court decision.

D.C. advocates thus argue in the latest court motion not only did the 2016 D.C. law create a right to certain data on MPD stops, but also that without it, “some number of constitutional violations will go undetected and therefore irreparably unremedied.” They ask for an order directing new forms and training so that the law will be implemented by officers in the street 90 days after the court decision.

The case is Black Lives Matter DC, et al., v. Muriel Bowser, et al. No. 2018-CA-003168 B. It is being heard by Associate Judge John M. Campbell. A scheduling conference is now set for August 3. The original complaint that began the case and the new motion are available on the Superior Court website. No date for a hearing on the new motion is set.