Shortly after the D.C. Council voted unanimously to confirm Robert J. Contee III as Chief of the Metropolitan Police Department, the Office of the D.C. Auditor and the Council for Court Excellence held a public forum on May 4, concerning “The Future of Policing in the District: A Roundtable Discussion on Reform.”
Georgetown University Law professor, Christy Lopez, co-author of the recently released D.C. Police Reform Commission report, entitled “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety,” shared her knowledge of police reform issues while acknowledging the variety of perspectives in the discussion.
She was joined on the panel by Robert C. Bobb, co-chair of the D.C. Police Reform Commission and former D.C. City Administrator, Patrick Burke, head of the Metropolitan Police Foundation, Monica Hopkins, executive director of ACLU-DC, Channel Autry, former D.C. Council Committee Director, and Kenethia Alston, a representative of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers whose son, Marqueese Alston, was “killed by DC MPD on June 12, 2018,” according to event literature. The virtual event was moderated by D.C. Auditor Kathleen Patterson.
As Deputy Chief in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Lopez had investigated the “patterns and practices” of multiple police departments’ around the country and served as one of the primary authors of the Ferguson Report, in the wake of the protests over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. She also serves as the co-director for the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown University.
Following the release of the Police Reform Commission report on April 1, Lopez has garnered media attention as a specialist in community-based reforms to stem police violence. Before the roundtable discussion, Lopez had been interviewed on CNN. Emphasizing the pressing need for reform, she cited the unprecedented mobilization of Americans in response to police shootings in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests last year.
“It was literally the largest protest movement — the biggest protest movement in the history of the United States,” she said, “that really strongly indicated that ‘We the People’ don’t find the use of force reasonable,” she told interviewer Peter Nickeas.
As a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, Lopez also wrote a featured opinion piece published the same day as the roundtable discussion and CNN interview calling for limiting police officers’ qualified immunity protections. According to Lopez, Congress should “ensure that officers who violate the law are held accountable, that victims of police abuse are fully compensated, and that local governments are properly incentivized to do everything they can to prevent police misconduct from happening in the first place.”
Following the nationwide protests last year, the District approved emergency police reform legislation which could become permanent if Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council accept the Police Reform Commission’s recommendations. According to the Washington Post’s Robert McCartney, the 20-member commission “urged ending the use of police for tasks such as routine traffic enforcement, school safety or mental health cases,” allowing for “shrinking the size” of the MPD’s force, something Mayor Bowser has thus far opposed.
The commission “united around the goal of pushing for fundamental change… Almost everyone on that commission was far beyond moving the deck chairs around on the Titanic on police reform,” Lopez told McCartney, “Basically, it’s an approach that is trying to solve problems of violence with less reliance on police, courts, and prosecutors.”
The 259-page Police Reform Commission report — available online at: dcpolicereform.com — addresses such areas as “police in the schools,” “alternatives to policing,” “police discipline,” “justice in policing,” and the viability of the “emergency policing and justice reform measures” adopted by the Council last year.
In the May 4th roundtable discussion, Lopez argued in favor of a more “holistic” approach to reforming policing in the District, calling for changing D.C.’s first-responder model. Instead of simply sending out MPD officers on every call, she suggested, the department should dispatch specialists trained in mental health counseling, medical services, or other areas designed to help citizens in need while stemming the volume of violent confrontations with police. Advocating a data-driven and empirical approach, Lopez cited Eugene, Oregon’s successful CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets) model as one the District should consider.
Such an approach, Lopez said, “would reduce a lot of human harm and pain that happens when we get the wrong response — we get a police response.” Additionally, police officers would welcome such crisis-intervention support. “I think it would get buy-in from police officers. They understand that a lot of these changes would take care of calls they know they don’t want to respond to and they know they’re not particularly good at. And I think it would allow all communities to see that there are ways of getting help that don’t require a police officer with a gun and a badge.”
If specialized responders “need a police backup, they can call for a police backup,” Lopez said, “but, they hardly ever do. By everyone’s account — police and communities alike — [the CAHOOTS model] has been a success and it’s been emulated in other places across the country.”
Many victims of domestic abuse, Lopez argued, will not call the police if it means their abuser will have to confront an armed intervention by law enforcement. So, domestic abuse in the city and police altercations associated with them would be reduced if victims could summon crisis-intervention counselors rather than armed MPD officers.
Based on discussions with all of the various community stakeholders, Lopez said, addressing police violence in the District should involve addressing the communities’ fundamental needs as well as police practices. For example, improved housing initiatives in the city can ensure domestic safety while preventing mental health crises and reducing police incidents against unsheltered residents. “We know that living on the streets is a stressor that can push people with mental illness into crisis. And, if people do have a crisis, if they have a home to be in, you don’t need to get the public involved,” Lopez said.
In the schools, Lopez said, police presence should be scaled back and many troublesome adolescent behaviors can be addressed through counseling measures rather than automatic criminal sanctions. Raising the legal “age of majority” from 18 to 21-years-old might also help keep many young citizens out of the criminal justice system.
Lopez asked the panelists to consider whether race is a fundamental determinant of the over-policing of D.C.’s schools. “If you really have to ask yourself if these schools were full of middle-class or even poor White kids, would you really think the best way to create a safe educational atmosphere would be to have fewer social and mental health workers and teacher aides than the national standards require and instead put those dollars into police?”