As the Black Lives Matter and Police Reform protests across the nation continue into their third week, the DC City Council has taken the first step towards actual police reform in our city. While the City Council is not really able to address the serious abuses of power used by federal law enforcement against protesters in our city, the City Council is able to address these prevalent problems in the DC Metropolitan Police Department. These problems have long existed in our local police department and were forced into the national spotlight last week as thousands and thousands of citizens descended on the White House in an inspiring show of solidarity, patriotism, and use of our First Amendment right to freedom of assembly.
While the DC City Council will continue to draft and debate further legislative changes in the coming weeks, the City Council approved an emergency amendment bill on the night of June 8. Named the “Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Temporary Amendment Act of 2020,” the bill introduces a number of reforms to how the police will be allowed to behave; as well as modifying and created boards of police oversight. As it is emergency legislation, the bill would remain in effect for 90 days. If no further changes are made in those 90 days, the bill will become permanent law.
Right off the bat, the bill bans the use of neck restraints by MPD officers, the same type of restraint that was recently used by a Minneapolis Police Officer to kill George Floyd and famously by a New York City Police Officer to kill Eric Garner in 2014. The bill goes farther, implicating any other officer who observes this type of restraint being used and does nothing to stop it. Any officer caught using this restraint or failing to stop/report this type of restraint could be subject to a $25,000 fine and up to 10 years in prison. Along with the ban on neck restraints, the MPD will also be banned from purchasing and using numerous types of military grade weaponry. Some of the banned weaponry will include firearms and ammunition of .50 caliber or higher, armored vehicles or aircraft, explosives and pyrotechnics (including the weapons used to shoot these items), and unmanned drones.
In addition to banning certain police tactics, the emergency bill also calls for more aggressive training of police officers. This new training will stress the employment of de-escalation tactics and limiting use of force. Further, police will be required to explain consent laws in regards to searches of citizens when the police do not have a search warrant. The police will be required to tell detained citizens that they have a right to deny consent; and, if there is no evidence of this discussion either verbally or in writing, it will be assumed that the officer’s search was non-consensual. Here’s a legal freebee for you readers: if you’re not under arrest and the police don’t have a warrant, don’t let them search you. Even if “you have nothing to hide.” Finally, MPD officers will now be required to report any misconduct or excessive use of force they observe by other officers.
One of the most notable inclusions in this emergency bill is the right for a defendant in a simple assault case to ask for a jury trial if the complainant in the case is a police officer. Prior to now, the DC United States Attorney’s Office had been able to successfully thwart this from happening, circumventing the NEAR Act passed unanimously by the DC City Council in 2016. Basically, if you are accused of assaulting a police officer, you have a right to a have jury judge the officer’s credibility.
In order to try and further combat excessive uses of force, the emergency bill will require the MPD to release un-redacted copies of police body camera footage for cases of officer-involved death or serious use of force. Release of this footage will be required within 72 hours of request. This bill will allow requests for footage retroactively to October 1st, 2014.
In addition to its bans and new training requirements, the emergency bill will modify the Police Complaints Board and create a Use of Force Review Board. The Police Complaints Board will increase its board from five members to nine, including one representative from each of the eight districts in DC and one “at-large” member. Moreover, the new Police Complaints Board will no longer allow any of the board to be affiliated with a law enforcement agency. Further, while the old board could only punish officers who committed use of force infractions, the newly modified board will also be allowed to investigate and punish officers that failed to intervene or subsequently failed to report excessive uses of force by another officer. The new Use of Force Review Board will consist of thirteen voting members. The thirteen members will include: one official from MPD, Homeland Security, the Investigative Services Bureau, the Police Academy, and the DC Courts, among other law enforcement entities. The board will also include two civilian experts: an expert in criminal justice policy and an expert in law enforcement oversight; and three normal civilians: one person who has personally experienced use of force by the police, one member of the DC Bar, and one more regular civilian.
Finally, the emergency bill will be repealing DC’s controversial “Anti-Mask” law which outlawed adults from wearing hoods, masks, or other face coverings in public areas. The bill will also amend a 1955 voting law and require that, in preparation for the November presidential election, the Department of Corrections provide every eligible person in the Department’s care with a voter registration form and a voter guide.
This emergency bill is hopefully just the tip of the police reform iceberg in DC. While it is a good start, a further dive into our laws and regulations will be needed to root out the decay in the MPD and our legal system as a whole. The MPD should be working for and protecting the people. It should not be allowed to run rampant and disregard the rights of DC citizens. This bill is already being criticized by the MPD Union who claim it will erode the rights of police officers, so it must be doing its job: police reform now.