Public Safety

Washington, DC, like many cities across the country, has witnessed an increase in crime almost certainly caused in part by the social and economic havoc resulting from the pandemic. Meanwhile, the horror of the George Floyd murder and increasing focus on the challenges faced in some communities from interaction with the police has framed an important discussion on public safety. In this context, we should not simply double down on approaches that have not brought us to safety, nor should we make a dramatic move solely to techniques that, while they may be promising, have yet to be fully proven. Instead, we should:

  • Grow our police force to bring it off current staffing lows
  • Focus on remaking the force through recruitment and training to ensure our officers see building relationships in the community as a core part of their work
  • Intentionally work to rebuild the relationship of our officers with the communities they serve –with greater trust, officers can better serve communities and communities will do more to help officers confront often well-known perpetrators in their midst
  • Part of fostering the connection between officers and the community should include strengthened supports for officers to live in the District
  • Recalibrate the responsibilities placed on officers, as much as possible, moving tasks better suited to other professionals off the shoulders of police
  • Do everything we can to get guns off our streets
  • Bolster reliance on alternative techniques such as violence interruption and restorative justice to stop crime before it happens and address its aftereffects when it does

Even as we grow our force and work to remake the culture of police work, we must also recognize that the only real, durable solution to bring down our levels of crime is to address the root causes of much of the crime that has plagued our city and country.

Attack the root causes of crime – poverty and hopelessness

In the late 1960’s the country was wracked with unrest and we faced a similar debate about how to address crime as we are today. There were two broad camps. One represented by Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and the Kerner Commission called for a concerted attack on the root causes of crime. The other stressed a forceful, deterrent, “law and order” approach based solely on strengthened policing and incarceration. If we could go back 50 years and choose our path, who among us would not choose to have emphasized the path urged by Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and the Kerner Commission?

We must ensure all our residents have access to livable housing, an excellent education, job training, economic opportunity and mental health and substance abuse support where needed. We also must directly confront, with clear eyes, the legacies of economic and racial injustice and disempowerment that drench our country and city.
We must continue to have strong deterrence and prosecution of violent crime, do all we can to get and keep guns off our streets and use all of the tools described below to address crime, but fundamentally we must deliver opportunity and respect to all our residents if we truly want to make the city sustainably safe. That is why the other planks of this platform – education, affordable housing, improved social services – are key parts of any public safety plan.

Return the force to appropriate staffing while refocusing the culture of policing

Many will read the compass point of addressing the root causes of crime above and rightly worry about a tension between long range goals and immediate need. Tragically, the root causes of crime today are pervasive and compounded by the trauma of the pandemic which is rippling through our economy and social fabric and contributing to increased crime. Meanwhile, our police force has shrunk even as crime has increased.

We need to increase the size of our police force now. There may be a day when we can have a smaller police force, but it is not today. As we build the force, we must also recognize that, while the number of officers is important, the quality of the officers we recruit, hire, train and retain is even more crucial.

We must recruit officers who will be well equipped to forge strong relationships with the communities they will serve and build a force that reflects our many communities, including across such metrics as race, gender and sexual orientation. (A special focus on recruiting women to the force could pay significant dividends). We should thoroughly vet and research applicants’ prior social media postings, and aim to attract thoughtful, kind, compassionate people with life experiences which point to a well-developed character of personal responsibility and integrity. As one example, there has been an emphasis on recruitment of officers with military experience. There may be qualified candidates coming out of the military, but there could also be qualified candidates coming from the Peace Corp and Ameri Corp.

To retain our many excellent officers while simultaneously building on their skills, MPD should provide training in de-escalation, crisis intervention, and identifying symptoms of mental illness or possible impairment, constantly search for and reward professional police work. In addition to training officers in these values and techniques, front-line supervisors should also receive training in motivating and holding officers accountable for adherence to them.

Police officers are often referred to as “law enforcement officers.” The implication is that they are outside of the community imposing enforcement. Instead, we need to train our police officers to approach their work in such a way that they will be seen as part of the community working with communities together to police the situation to allow for maximum safety and security.

Indeed, to ensure these values are at the heart of police work, MPD should develop (ideally through collaboration with the FOP union) early warning tracking systems to identify officers who are potential troublesome, develop a corresponding tracking and reward system to identify the many officers who clearly demonstrate a commitment to their communities, create incentives for officers to work within their communities, require offices of all ranks to attend community meetings, encourage residents to participate in police ride-alongs, create a policy that requires immediate intervention from officers when they observe troublesome behavior among fellow officers, provide a clear and emphatic policy on when officers can pursue subjects in vehicles or on foot, and strengthen internal programs for officer development.

Recalibrate police responsibilities

We should also move, as much as possible, to lift responsibilities that can better be handled by other professionals such as social workers – resolving domestic disputes, addressing mental health issues – and Department of Transportation workers – routine traffic enforcement – off the shoulders of police. That will free up officers to address and resolve crimes and build relationships in the communities they serve.
We should incorporate the recommendations of the District’s Police Reform Commission by investing in a citywide network of behavioral healthcare professionals and specialized first responders who can respond independently to individuals in crisis, or in conjunction with police in the presence of weapons or an active threat to the public.

Rebuild the relationship between the police and the most impacted communities

Historically, relationship-building has been an important function of the police. There were sports leagues and camps sponsored by the police through which youth who may have been at risk to be drawn into illegal activities forged relationships with officers that could help get them on a more promising path. Rebuilding that police force muscle of community building should be a natural priority growing out of the other cultural changes urged above.

Do everything we can to get guns off our streets

The present composition of the Supreme Court clearly is a barrier to passing significant legislation that would restrict the availability of guns, which would be the most significant step towards reducing gun violence we could take. Without any dramatic change to the Court’s composition, we need to be endlessly creative to do what we can to keep guns out of our city, targeting illegal gun traffickers and work with neighboring jurisdictions including, and especially, to stem the flow of ghost guns.

Use Non-Police assets in targeted efforts to stop crime before it happens

Nearly 80% of violence is caused by less than 2% of the population and we often know who is in that 2%. We need to focus resources on the people most at risk to engage in violence to get and keep them on a positive path.

We need to increase support for programs through the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and Cure the Streets, expanding the number of trained violence interrupters with the capacity to reach and impact at-risk youths and building meaningful relationships that can defuse the kinds of conflicts which often result in violence. We should assess arrest diversion efforts like the Community Crime Prevention Team and expand them if effective.

One tragic source of crime is recidivism. That problem can be particularly acute in the District since many returning citizens have been in federal facilities far from their families and communities leaving them dangerously disconnected upon their return. We need to help returning citizens get on their feet and over the longer term we need to house persons convicted of a crime closer to home. When a person commits a crime, they should be punished. But that punishment should not inadvertently increase the likelihood that they will commit another crime upon their release and once they have done their time they should have a real second chance.

Meanwhile, we cannot emphasize enough the need to strengthen our response to what has become a mental health crisis through fully-funding the Department of Behavioral Health, expanding community-based mental health services to identify and work with those most vulnerable to experience a crisis or commit crime.

As we implement these new techniques, we should always test their efficacy (and that of various approaches to policing) to ensure we are investing our public safety dollars wisely. We should develop a research center in the District of Columbia, in conjunction with partner organizations and/or educational institutions, to constantly collect and analyze data on the causes and effects of policing as well as alternative interventions, evaluate the efficacy of programs like the ones described above, and generate best practices ideas based on work done in other jurisdictions.

Support survivors and victims of violent crime

It is essential that we center survivors and victims of crime in our pursuit of justice. We need to expand on the success of the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity, fully funding social workers to connect trauma victims to services at every emergency room in every hospital in the District of Columbia.

We also should be investing in the small, community-based organizations employing restorative justice approaches and creating dedicated spaces to bring together victims, perpetrators, and the communities that are impacted by crime together to try to find alternative approaches to incarceration that are centered around healing for the victims, perpetrators and community. The goal at every turn should be de-escalation. There is a reason the term “cycle of violence” has currency. One act of violence can lead to another and then another. Every effort, whether it be violence interruption or restorative justice or some other technique to break a cycle and escalation of violence should be pursued.

* * * * *

In the public safety debate, we need to recognize there has been an increase in crime at a time of a shrunken police force and we need to address that. But while valuing our many excellent officers, we also must move aggressively to change the culture of policing, mend relations between the police and the community, use new innovative techniques to preempt and address crime and at long last really attack the root causes of crime. It is not one or the other. It is both.

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