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The Top Stories of 2023

Fritz Mulhauser | December 23, 2023 | Last modified: January 3, 2024

We’ve compiled our choice of the top five developments in D.C. open government news in 2023. Keep up with transparency developments and Open Government Coalition activities by checking back often. And come out to our Open Government Summit during Sunshine Week, March 13.

#1: Mayor turns her back on police transparency in 2023 in budget and legislative proposals.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ended the year submitting legislation that included novel crime-fighting ideas along with multiple reversals of police openness and accountability measures in existing law. The police union and executive officials justified the rollback with an unproven theory it’s needed to restore officers’ privacy and thereby improve police morale and stem recruitment and retention problems.

Proposals in the mayor’s latest bill (titled “Addressing Crime Trends (ACT) Now”) that weaken transparency include:

  • less public access to police discipline files (only future incidents, not past; only sustained complaints; and no names)
  • reduced access by the Office of Police Complaints to MPD files for complaint review
  • more opaque discipline by allowing public notices of hearings that don’t name the officer charged
  • fewer incidents where body-worn camera video must be released and reinstating the redaction of police faces in released video.

Police unions have brought lawsuits nationwide to stop the trend of increased public access to misconduct investigations and discipline. The suits are generally dismissed when courts find unions lack evidence to support guesses that police officers’ reputations, career paths, or safety could be hurt when the public knows more about their performance.

And research shows D.C. police woes are commonplace, as departments everywhere have faced identical workforce issues for some years and addressed them with better management rather than changing expectations.   

Big jumps in homicide, carjacking, and gun crimes have raised public concern and fueled a search for ready targets rather than addressing the complex public safety system in D.C., with its mix of local and federal agencies that have been described as “resource rich and coordination poor.” The latest nostrum is even a recall petition just announced to unseat Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who championed criminal code modernization and police reform during his term as chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

The Washington Post editors in October acknowledged some parts of recent years of Council legislation may need review. But they warned explicitly that meant no backsliding on strengthened discipline: “The trick will be avoiding overcorrection, holding police officers to fair standards, not low ones.”

“D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) might be one of the national leaders trying to strike the right balance, but she is not quite succeeding. Fortunately, there is time to fix her proposals — and to serve as a model for promoting effective and accountable policing at a time of change.”

Washington Post Editorial Board, October 27, 2023

In a 2,500-word Metro front story on the last day of the year, Post writers Peter Hermann, Emily Davies, Meagan Flynn and John D. Harden reported their recent interview with the mayor, where she “made no apologies” for efforts to “rebalance” criminal justice policy, calling Council reform legislation, according to the reporters, “unnecessary and reactionary” and—with her trademark exaggeration—having caused the “complete destruction” of the criminal justice ecosystem.

The new D.C. police chief, Pamela Smith, also downplays accountability as a factor in building community trust that experts say is the foundation of successful community safety work, telling the Council at her confirmation roundtable all is well: “I am not concerned for how we investigate or penalize” officer misconduct while enforcing the law. 

Public access to police misconduct investigation files and discipline records was recommended by the Police Reform Commission and unanimously voted by the Council in 2022. The District’s enhanced police transparency plans, in line with laws in California, New York, Maryland, and over a dozen other states, have been opposed by police unions here as elsewhere, joined now by the mayor. Jenny Gathright’s end-of-year crime story for WAMU/DCist put it this way: “Bowser has heeded the union’s calls, and is pushing the D.C. Council to roll back some police reforms they passed in recent years.”      

D.C. police union agitation spiked this year as leaders welcomed congressional Republican members’ “D.C. crime crisis” rhetoric and testified at any opportunity against “anti-police” Council legislation. The union went beyond harsh rhetoric in other actions, including:

  • a lawsuit against the D.C. Auditor for naming officers in an October 2022 report on ineffective police discipline when terminations were overturned and back pay awarded, and also
  • a challenge to the Auditor’s plan to interview officers for a staffing study requested by the Council., described by Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5) in a concerned  letter to the chief.

The Coalition has spoken repeatedly on the issues and will do so in 2024 as crime legislation moves forward. Public views are needed on the policing culture residents want, as police and crime topics may well play a role in D.C. Council elections for five members (four ward members and one at large) — including the all-important chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), who faces her first reelection. On the pending crime proposals from the mayor with flawed transparency cutbacks, see Coalition analysis and testimony here.  

On the separate need for leadership by the chief, see here.  At the chief’s confirmation hearing, the Coalition discussed how ending the entrenched police department 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.” In the Coalition’s view, 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.”

If you have ideas for Coalition advocacy to maintain police transparency, write us at  

#2: Metro missed opportunity to improve transparency: incomplete policy on public access to video from new transit police body cams.

Transit Police gained body-worn cameras this year after decades of complaints and lawsuits about excessive force and other misconduct, especially toward young people, and about the weakness of a new complaint review process. (D.C. Council Transportation and the Environment Committee Chairman Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) described it as “meant to give the appearance of oversight rather than be a body that would help the public trust their claims against Metro Transit Police were taken seriously.”)

As D.C. police adopted body-worn video in 2015, the video access issue led to a bruising year-long battle between executive and legislature ending in extensive public engagement and defeat for the mayor’s secrecy proposals (that she bolstered by typically sky-high — and imaginary — estimates of the cost of legal review and redaction).  Advocates were poised to argue that WMATA should heed the D.C. policy-making experience and adopt an open process and consider strong access rules. The Coalition and partners hoped to be able to argue WMATA should adopt not just FOIA-like access (via the traditional records request) but also a policy providing in serious cases for mandatory prompt release of involved officers’ names and unredacted video of all participants.

Instead, without public notice, comment, or WMATA board vote that we know of, the Metro police chief issued the policy. It does allow public requests for police video as for any other record — that is, subject to all the usual delays, exemptions, and redactions that make the resulting video late and typically uninterpretable.

What else did they miss?

  • No mandatory release in the most serious incidents,
  • No expedited access for legislatures in the three states making up Metro,
  • No required release of data on handling of public video requests,
  • No evaluation of the effectiveness of the body-worn camera program,
  • No easy access for those captured on video,
  • No details how WMATA assures officers’ proper use or discipline for failure to activate that has proven troublesome in D.C. and elsewhere.

Read more about this missed opportunity to build community trust here.

But stay tuned: Charles Allen’s committee, in its budget report for the current FY24 period, expressed “grave concern about the lack of transparency” and promised follow-up.

#3: Coalition files novel lawsuit to get data on FOIA backlogs and to assure databases are accessible.

After three rejections of FOIA requests and a successful appeal that went ignored, the D.C. Open Government Coalition filed suit against the District in November, seeking a court order that District officials turn over simple figures from a database. The case allegations illustrate familiar themes — how hard it is to get effective review of individual agencies’ incorrect FOIA denials and the broader lack of attention to FOIA system performance and any meaningful accountability.

The Coalition’s court papers allege that the D.C. tech office that tracks Freedom of Information Act requests unlawfully denied three years of Coalition requests for basic backlog counts. The agency denials claimed, incorrectly according to the Coalition,

  • that the requested records didn’t exist, or
  • the figures might be incomplete so better data should be requested from individual departments, or
  • database extraction requests are out of bounds as they require work not mandated in law.

The Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel affirmed the Coalition’s appeal of these improper responses and ordered the agency to release the requested data; the agency never answered.

Databases are hardly novel and access to their data under open records law has been upheld in many other courts but not in D.C. As one opinion in a federal appeals court put it, “typing a query into a database is the modern day equivalent of physically searching through and locating data within documents in a filing cabinet” – thus not requiring any research or other burden such as creating new records or redacting exempt details.

The Coalition sought records showing the backlog of D.C. FOIA requests as part of its work to advocate for agency compliance with the open records law. Public concerns reported to the Coalition showed backlogs remained long after the D.C. Council in 2021 restored processing deadlines (suspended as the pandemic hit the workforce and offices closed a year before).

Read more about the case here. The first court appearance is in March.

#4: D.C. archives building project achieves funding and planning milestones after years of uncertainty.

This year the mayor’s office, with leadership of Senior Advisor Beverly Perry, Secretary Kimberly Bassett, and Archivist Lopez Matthews, proposed (and the Council approved) a $30 million addition to the badly outdated $70 million cost estimate for a new D.C. archives building. Proper planning for the new facility ramped up in 2023 for a site on the UDC main campus, ending years of wrangling. All decision-making is complex because multiple agencies are involved, and challenges remain, such as bringing together scattered records, building up a tiny staff, and integrating with the university host.

This year the mayor’s office, with leadership of Senior Advisor Beverly Perry, Secretary Kimberly Bassett, and Archivist Lopez Matthews, proposed (and the Council approved) a $30 million addition to the badly outdated $70 million cost estimate for a new D.C. archives building whose planning dates back decades. With appointment of a new state archivist, a site selected on the UDC main campus, and construction costs more assured, years of uncertainty ended and led to robust planning for the new facility in 2023.

Decision-making remained complex because the District’s Department of General Services contracts for architects and construction, the Secretary’s Office is the client, while the university has to cope with imminent disruption, demolition and construction decried by some student, faculty and community voices.

The Coalition supports public access to historical records as well as today’s, and has repeatedly testified in support of the plans in solidarity with long-standing community groups and a special Archives Advisory Group appointed by the D.C. Council Chairman in 2019. The design gained basic Zoning Commission approval this fall, but there’s still a need to confront concerns from dozens who spoke at a year-end Council review session calling for a technical refresh of the plans some of whose details may date back years when project planning began. (Coalition testimony is here, at timestamp 1:05:50.) Critics charged the building plans rely on fossil-fuel energy sources that look outdated by today’s energy conservation and climate standards — some that are even in D.C. law — and that are included in mayoral promises on the climate-conference circuit that D.C. will build only climate-friendly government buildings.

So the year was one of great progress though upcoming work, construction aside, remains challenging, such as evaluating the mountain of scattered government records, augmenting a small staff to move in and then plan the new programming the community hopes for, and integrating the university records and Felix Grant jazz music archive that will be housed with the D.C. collections. The Open Government Coalition and others developed a finding guide to the hundreds of sources dispersed around the city until at least some come home when the new building is ready in 2026.

#5: Is digitization ahead for D.C. government records?

The D.C. Council has signaled that the 21st century has arrived in District government records management. The significant step came in the April 2023 budget report from the Committee on Executive Administration and Labor with spending and policy directions for the fiscal year that began October 1, 2023.

The committee directed the Office of the Secretary, the D.C. agency that sets government-wide records policy and manages the D.C. Archives, to “initiate and commence the digitization of all Agency records across the District government.” The office wields real incentives, as it can eventually decline to accept for storage any more paper records. The committee also asked the Office of Open Government to “study and make recommendations to the District government regarding best practices for developing record digitalization procedures.” (The D.C. technology office seems out of the loop, and has lacked a permanent chief since March.)

The scale of the effort necessary is suggested by the lengthy process now under way at the federal level. The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and Office of Management and Budget capped 10 years of planning with a 2019 directive. It gave federal agencies three years to go paperless (and when the archives would begin turning away paper records). The COVID pandemic and related work disruptions intervened and a new directive in 2022 re-set the federal agency deadline as June 2024. Over $1B in federal funds for agencies’ IT improvements were included in the American Rescue Plan and a Technology Modernization Fund.

The Coalition has proposed a Government Information and Technology Commission to review related D.C. laws and budgeting and looks forward to working with the D.C. Government—executive and legislative together–to advance digital progress in the District. 

Records access would leap forward with digital records. Huge delays of records requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are common — in 2021-22, the last year with complete data, 4,800 agency responses to records requests (almost 40 percent of the 12,200 processed) were late, beyond the 15-day deadline, with more than half beyond 26 days. The 1,800 still unanswered as FY22 ended that September had waited an average of 50 days and some over 300. Finding and releasing records to the public should leap forward with D.C. digitization.

As the 2022 federal order said, it’s “critical that [ ] agencies move beyond paper-based processes and embrace the opportunities afforded to improve government by transitioning fully to an electronic environment,” especially to “increase the ability of the public to engage with Government in new and more efficient and effective ways.”

Keep up with D.C. open government news and Coalition actions by checking back often at You can support the work with a donation here.