A crowd gathered in front of the Wilson building on Monday, Feb. 6 to voice their outrage in response to emergency legislation that had been introduced by Ward 7 Councilmember and former mayor Vincent C. Gray. His proposed Police Officer Recruitment and Retention Act, introduced Jan. 10, aimed to retain and increase the ranks of the Metropolitan Police Department
The demonstrators rallied against the increase of police presence in D.C.’s Black communities. They held signs stating “D.C. Spends More Money on Policing and Prisons than we do on Public Schools,” “#FundBlackFutures” and “Police are Supposed to Serve and Protect not Judge and Kill.”
Gray’s legislation proposed a salary doubling program whereby officers eligible for retirement could stay on the force for an additional five years and their salary would be doubled in the final year. This incentive would remain in effect until the size of the department reached 4,200 officers. As of December, it stood at 3,786. The program was budgeted at $63.8 million and left room for raises throughout MPD.
Following the introduction of Gray’s public safety bill, several advocacy groups spoke out against it, claiming funds would be sent to the wrong people.
Bread for the City, a nonprofit that provides food, clothing, medical, legal and social services to vulnerable D.C. residents expressed concern that the city government spends approximately three times more on policing than it spends on housing, even though the District is in a housing, homelessness and displacement crisis. “The true public safety emergency is the housing crisis,” Bread for the City said in a press release responding to Gray’s proposal.
According to fiscal year 2017 documents, D.C. government is spending $459,018,810 more on policing than it is on housing. However, out of the $13 billion budget for the current fiscal year, the District allotted $235 million to go towards affordable housing, consistently higher than previous administrations.
“Ultimately, we must begin to consider the government’s investments not on the basis of what has been done in the past, but rather, we must demand investments that move us closer to meeting the actual need — a number closer to $5 billion,” according to Bread for the City’s statement. “Homelessness is killing people.”
Movement for Black Lives D.C. also opposed the bill and participated in the Feb. 6 protest. “The Act suggests that increasing the number of police officers is critical to public safety,” Movement for Black Lives said in a press release. “In fact, no such evidence, other than anecdotal statements by the police, actually provides support for this assertion … [The proposed legislation] also suggests poor prioritization on the part of District leaders.”
Instead of investing more funding in law enforcement, protestors demanded that D.C. Council fully fund the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, which went into effect June 2016 but was not fully funded in the mayor’s budget. The NEAR Act was championed by Councilmember McDuffie to approach crime as a public health concern and invest in communities to prevent violence through mentorships and other supports.
Outside of the Wilson Building that Monday, demonstrators expressed their fear of excessive use of force and a sense that there is already an overwhelming police presence in their communities. “I am not anti-police, but I am anti-police brutality,” Beverly Smith said at the protest. Her son, Alonzo, died in 2015 at the age of 27. He was found unconscious after a confrontation with special police at a Southeast apartment building. The D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide. Ms. Smith told the crowd that she represents mothers whose sons and daughters have been unjustifiably murdered by law enforcement. She believes funding for the NEAR Act should be increased.
Comments made during a community conference call on public safety, hosted last month by Mayor Bowser, also illustrated this perception. Much of that discussion focused on the police force. According to one caller, MPD needs to acknowledge its past as an abusive power and the damage this has had on the relationship between the public and the force. “I believe that that damage still has an effect on our ability to solve crimes today, but also in terms of how people respond to the police,” said resident Terri Quinn. “It is not a good thing for citizens or the police when people react in a way that demonstrates they are afraid of the police.”
However, McDuffie joined Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Jack Evans, and Trayon White in co-introducing Gray’s Police Officer Recruitment and Retention Act.
“Councilmember Anita Bonds … wants to work with Councilmember Vincent Gray to alter the bill to appropriate up to $2 million of the surplus funds to assist police officers, firefighters, and first responders with down payment assistance of up to $100,000 for them to purchase a home in the District of Columbia,” the councilmember’s chief of staff, David Meadows, said in an e-mail to Street Sense. Bonds formerly chaired D.C. Council’s committee on housing and community development.
Similarly, one of the reasons McDuffie co-introduced and ultimately voted in favor of Gray’s bill was to highlight the “significant concerns” people were bringing to his office. Community members want a higher level of engagement and officers who have a certain level of cultural competency, according to McDuffie. “The NEAR Act is still my top priority,” he said, adding that many officers feel like they are being spread thin, so there is a real need for more people on the force. He does not see the support of the two bills as mutually exclusive.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7– Gray’s bill failed, with four members in support of the legislation and nine opposed. However, D.C. Council unanimously agreed that there needs to be an effort for improving MPD retention rates. During the council meeting, many members voiced that they are committed to finding a solution for reducing crime.
The advocacy organization Stop Police Terror Project D.C. is hosting a community meeting Thursday, Feb. 9, to discuss their campaign to fully fund the NEAR Act. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m., 617 Florida Ave. NW.
Leah DiBianco contributed reporting.