D.C. Council Hearing Sparks Thousands of Calls to Defund Local Police Department

June 16, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
Activists prepare posters during a sit-in to protest a proposed budget increase for D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department outside of the Wilson Building in Washington, D.C. on June 15, 2020. (Photo by Gaspard Le Dem)

WASHINGTON – Thousands of people called on the D.C. Council to defund the Metropolitan Police Department on Monday during a six-hour virtual hearing that drew an unprecedented response from local activists and community leaders.

In an impressive show of unity, nearly 100 witnesses provided testimony to demand that councilmembers overturn a proposed budget increase for D.C. police in the upcoming fiscal year.

Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the council’s Committee On The Judiciary And Public Safety, said that 16,000 people submitted written, audio, and video testimony ahead of the hearing, a huge increase from the 24 witnesses who testified at the hearing in 2019.

“It speaks to the urgency, the opportunity and the obligation of this moment,” Allen said. “Anyone who doesn’t see that change is needed and the possibility to help rethink what public safety means — they simply aren’t paying attention.”

Over the last two weeks, calls to defund police departments have swept the country in the wake of nationwide protests against the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a White police officer in Minnesota.

Despite outwardly opposing police violence, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has been at odds with activists over her proposed budget for fiscal year 2021, which increases funding for D.C. law enforcement by roughly 3% to $578 million.

Many advocates have urged Bowser to reallocate the funding towards other city departments and programs, but the mayor has held her ground, saying she was “not at all” interested in revising her budget proposal.

“[W]e wouldn’t want the people on our forces not to have the proper training or equipment that makes for better policing,” she said in a recent interview with National Public Radio.

At the hearing, Tamika Spellman, an advocate for a D.C. nonprofit called HIPS, said that the Metropolitan Police Department is not a “true value asset” to the community. Spellman called on councilmembers to shift police funding towards health services and other city programs that keep people safe.

“It’s past time to not give [MPD] a raise, but to cut their budget severely due to poor performance and repeated bad behaviors that continue to go unpunished,” Spellman said. “Now is the time to divest from the money pit and put funding towards vital services programs, employment opportunities and resources that will ultimately improve the health and safety of the city while providing opportunities to the most vulnerable among us.”

Another recurring criticism of MPD was that the agency has failed to rein in gun violence in D.C. despite a large budget and a steady increase of the agency’s personnel throughout Bowser’s tenure. In 2019, the District logged a total of 166 homicides, the highest number in more than a decade. D.C. is now on track to surpass that record with 76 homicides in 2020, a 12% uptick from the same point last year.

Moreover, federal data shows D.C. has the largest police presence of any U.S. city with around 57 officers for every 10,000 residents. For comparison, Boston has just 32 officers per 10,000 residents.

Councilmember Mary Cheh questioned calls by MPD officials to increase D.C.’s police force to 4,000 officers. “We really have to grapple with this idea that we need this number of police officers,” Cheh said. “I think we surely do not. And that will give us an opportunity to reinvest money in areas where we can tamp down violence, we can protect the community better.”

Other witnesses demanded that school resource officers be removed from D.C. public schools and charters, a measure that cities like Denver, Colo., and Portland, Ore. have recently adopted after huge public pressure. 

Some went even further, calling for D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham to step down, and for the police department to be disbanded entirely. Newsham has been under fire for comments he made last week after councilmembers unanimously passed a sweeping police reform bill.

“They forgot about our 20 years of reform and they insulted us by insinuating that we are in need of reform,” Newsham said in a video address to his police force.

Central to the bill is a ban on neck restraints and on the use of tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful protesters. The bill also requires that D.C. police release body camera footage and the names of officers within three days of a serious use of force incident.

While residents were testifying online, some activists were stocking up on food and painting protest signs outside the Wilson Building in preparation for an all night sit-in to protest the mayor’s budget proposal.

“We’re setting up tents because we’re going to be here for a while,” said Jacqueline LaBayne, a co-founder of Freedom Fighters D.C., a recently formed group that advocates for defunding police departments.

LaBayne said the council’s recent police reform bill was a positive step, but would not have any meaningful impact if law enforcement agencies don’t see repercussions for their actions.

“I know defunding the police seems a little scary,” LaBayne said. “But we’re not just going to wake up one morning and all the police officers are going to be gone and crime is going to be crazy. It’s a very slow process in redistributing the funds that are being allocated to law enforcement, and putting those funds towards education, mental health services, food and housing insecurities.”

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