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Washington DC’s Police Reforms Fail to Address Structural Problems

City Council, Mayor Need to Invest in Communities, Rethink Role of Police

A police car is pictured during a protest against the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in front of the White House, in Washington, United States, June 4, 2020. © 2020 Mikhail Turgiev/Sputnik via AP

The slate of policing reforms unanimously passed by the Washington DC City Council this week is a notable first step but falls short of the fundamental change that is needed.

The reform package, which DC council members have promised is the first of many, makes the use of neck restraints by officers a felony, forbids hiring officers previously fired for police misconduct, prohibits the purchase of military equipment from the federal government, and restores the right to vote to people incarcerated for felonies in DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser has indicated she will sign the bill. Even if she does, because the reform package was passed as an emergency measure, it will only last for 90 days and will need to be voted on again following public hearings to become permanent law.

DC authorities should get at the root causes of police violence and racial disparities, which have plagued the city’s police department. Reforms should include a drastic reduction in unnecessary arrests, including arrests for conduct that should not be criminalized to begin with, including drug possession for personal use – which Human Rights Watch has documented is the single most arrested offense in the country – and sex work. DC should also move away from using police to address problems related to homelessness and poverty, such as loitering and trespassing. Instead, authorities should invest in programs that actively improve access to health, education, housing, and job opportunities, and focus on addressing longstanding racial disparities in all these systems.

The legislative reforms passed this week come on the heels of a weeks-long showdown between US President Donald Trump and Mayor Bowser over Trump’s deployment of federal officers, often lacking identification and dressed in riot gear, who teargassed peaceful protesters in front of the White House on June 1 to make way for a presidential photo op in front of a church.

While the mayor has taken the symbolic act of commissioning a Black Lives Matter mural on the street leading up to the White House, the organization’s DC chapter called it a “performative distraction from real policy changes” Earlier this week, Bowser urged council members to delay the vote on the council’s police reform bill and requested an increase in the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget this year.

The DC City Council is the only representative legislative body for residents of Washington, DC, who have been deprived of equal voting rights in the halls of the US Congress. The residents of DC have spent the last two weeks protesting to demand real, structural reforms – reforms that activists have been calling for in DC for decades. The council and mayor would do well to meet their demands.

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