The Center for Racial Equity and Justice held a “Hear the Cry Rally” on May 6, days before Mother’s Day, at Freedom Plaza, asking mothers to gather in support of passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.
“No justice, no peace, no racist police. That’s why we’re here today,” said Reverend George C. Gilbert, Jr. at the rally, referencing a Black Lives Matter protest chant.
The rally was held amid a resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, and marchers were heard chanting nearby, “We need systematic change.” The federal legislation was passed by the House on March 3 but has not been taken up by the Senate. It authorizes Congress to hold law enforcement more accountable for misconduct, improves transparency, and reforms police training and policies.
As advocacy groups are trying to build momentum at a national scale for police reform, they’re finding a common cause with other groups pushing for change at the local level.
Several Black mothers spoke at the rally whose sons were killed in acts of police brutality. One of them, Marion Gray-Hopkins, is the president of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers, a group advocating against police brutality. She shared how her son, Gary Hopkins, was shot and killed by Prince George’s County police on Nov. 27, 1999.
“My journey for justice, my journey for transparency, my journey for accountability started on that day,” Gray-Hopkins said. “Here I stand 21 years later still crying out for justice.”
Another mother, Greta Carter-Willis detailed how her 14-year-old son, Kevin Cooper, was killed by Baltimore police officers who were initially called to help settle a mental health-related dispute in 2006. She spoke about how in privileged neighborhoods, people going through mental breakdowns can ask for and receive help.
“But unfortunately for me, because of my son being an African American young man, his life was taken, unjustly. In my home,” Carter-Willis said.
The George Floyd Act was first introduced on June 8, 2020 within the first two weeks of the George Floyd-related protests that year. It was approved by the House on June 25, but was not voted on by the Senate within that Congress period. It was reintroduced to Congress on Feb. 24. In a speech from the White House, President Joe Biden called for the Senate to pass the bill by the anniversary of Floyd’s death, May 25.
“We’re coming up on the year that George Floyd has been murdered,” Rev. Gilbert told Street Sense Media. “We’re not seeing the urgency in this matter from the federal government and from the local government.”
With a lack of federal action some local governments — including the District — have been pursuing their own reforms.
Through emergency legislation, the D.C. Council established a Police Reform Commission in June 2020 to rethink the District’s policing practices following George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and subsequent civil rights protests across the country.
Last month, following an extension passed in February, the commission published 90 recommendations for the D.C. Council to change the culture of policing in the District in their final report, “Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety.”
The recommendations include alternatives to policing such as sending behavioral health specialists in applicable situations, moving towards community-based services, reforming the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) policing practices, and requiring the department to improve data transparency.
The 20-person commission also recommended removing police and immigration officials from schools. Research has shown that police presence in schools increases the likelihood of students being reported to law enforcement for low-level offenses and can be a gateway into the justice system. The commission wants to provide more mental health resources and invest in support by adding more guidance counselors and school psychologists.
“When it comes to young people especially, we found that we rely more on police to address normal childhood or adolescent behavior or responses to trauma instead of care-based professionals,” said Samantha Davis, founder and director of the Black Swan Academy and one of the 20 commissioners.
Another recommended policy would eliminate the statutory requirement for at least 3,000 officers in the District’s police department. The commission says the mandate is outdated and needs to be reconsidered as the population in the District has decreased since the provision was enacted. Instead, the department needs to assess what the number of officers actually needed is, whether that is higher or lower.
Some of the commission’s recommendations are already being implemented. MPD will start a pilot program in June in which behavioral health experts will be sent to the scene for 911 calls relating to mental health instead of armed police officers — an idea the commission’s report suggested.
Both the George Floyd Act and the D.C. recommendations are similar in their intent to increase accountability for the police force. As a national bill, the George Floyd Act calls to create a National Police Misconduct Registry, where federal, state and local police agencies would be required to submit all complaints and discipline and termination records filed against police officers to the attorney general every 6 months.
Similarly, D.C. reform recommendations suggest the mayor create a deputy auditor for public safety, who would survey MPD’s and Office of Police Complaints’s handling of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary processes. The deputy auditor would have the right to subpoena records if necessary.
In 2016, the D.C. Council passed the NEAR Act, which shared many goals with the Police Reform Commission’s report. Like the report, the NEAR Act aimed to promote police transparency, provide additional training for law enforcement, and use a public health strategy. This strategy includes using risk assessment tools, counseling, and service coordination to prevent violence.
The mayor’s administration says the 20 provisions listed in the NEAR Act have been fully implemented and funded. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie countered the Mayor’s office in a statement responding to the report, claiming that the NEAR Act has not been fully implemented and that “only $10 million dollars were allocated to the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE) in FY21 – a small amount compared to the $500 million allocated to MPD.”
Despite the intent of the NEAR Act, MPD was sued by ACLU-DC last year for their annual stop data and was criticized by the ACLU and other organizations for being slow to respond and using an inadequate data collection system. The department has also yet to form a behavioral health co-response model that would be used in mental health situations. The commission said its recommendations, taken as a whole, are more comprehensive and detailed than the NEAR Act.
“There are things in there that the D.C. Council could do immediately, there are recommendations that the mayor could take action on without delay, there are many things the police chief could do without needing anyone else’s permission to do so,” said Patrice Sulton, the executive director of D.C. Justice Lab and a member of the commission.
In a statement, the D.C. Police Union objected to the commission’s report. “The commission is clearly on a mission to defund police in the District, the dozens and dozens of extreme reforms they suggest are in line with all of the policies that many other cities have adopted this year to their own detriment,” it said.
As of now, D.C. Council is holding a public hearing on May 20, inviting the public to testify for or against the Police Reform Commission report.
A budget oversight hearing for the MPD is scheduled for June 10 and the D.C. Council is holding public hearings to discuss some of the recommendations proposed later this month.