On Thursday, June 10th, the District Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety held budget hearings on the Metropolitan Police Department’s budget. For Defund MPD — an alliance of DC-based activist organizations born out of last summer’s uprisings against the police state — the hearings were one of the last remaining public opportunities to formally lobby the District Council to change their approach to public safety and policing in the city. Activists demanded that the city move funds away from the construction of a nebulous police state and towards an expansion of public services and social support.
The hearings were held just two weeks after Mayor Muriel Bowser released her long-awaited budget draft. If the budget is adopted as is, activists will be able to claim a marginal victory. Bowser’s initial budget proposal reduces police spending by about $32 million, about a 6% decrease in the budget from FY2021 which totaled over $ 545 million.
Although the proposed budget includes funding for an additional 135 additional officers, other parts of Bowser’s proposed budget suggest that the District government is coming around to the outlook shared by Defund MPD (and given MPD's staffing difficulties, those positions are unlikely to be filled). The budget includes $8 million to hire on-site mental health clinicians for schools, $26 million to purchase laptops and smartphones for poor and elderly residents, an expansion of Capital Bikeshare stations, funding allocated to create a detox center for drug users, $5 million to expand hiring through the Department of Public Works, $2 million for housing for victims of gun violence and $7 million for behavioral health and Department of Transportation workers who can respond to 911 calls for mental illness and traffic issues in lieu of police officers. The budget would also triple funding allocated to people released from prisons (including direct cash assistance) and hire 52 violence interrupters.
Still, many demands from the Defund MPD coalition remain unmet. Though Defund MPD’s Roadmap outlines a full list of demands, there are three larger budget priorities which Bowser’s budget doesn’t satisfy: a hiring freeze (a temporary one was implemented last year by the Council); hard caps on overtime to prevent police officers from collecting big payouts; and the removal of cops and surveillance technology from schools. There are also additional regulatory demands — regarding use of force and the FOP’s contract — which go unaddressed in the budget proposal.
Councilmembers on the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee have the opportunity to configure the budget — providing an opportunity for cuts or expansions. So activists showed up in force at the digital hearings to remind the Council that District residents are watching how they navigate this. The Judiciary Committee is expected to vote for the budget on June 29.
The hearing was chaired by Councilmember Charles Allen of Ward 6. Allen has been a reliable progressive on crucial issues and has generally been receptive to the concerns raised by the Defund MPD Coalition. Though not on the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, the meeting was also joined by Councilmember Janeese Lewis George of Ward 4 — a democratic socialist who ousted a right-wing Councilmember last year while voicing unwavering support for defunding the police and expanding violence interruption services.
Over 50 public testimonies were provided during the course of the hearings — a clear majority of which came from individuals and representatives of organizations that support the demands laid out by the Defund MPD Coalition.
With the exception of testimony provided by representatives from the DC Police Foundation, the DC Police Union and a handful of District residents, there were few registered testimonies in support of expanding or “refunding” the MPD.
In fact, police reps were mostly defensive — stressing the need to maintain funding for new officers over the next fiscal year. Police reps warned that without the time and ability to hire and train new officers, a reduction in the size of police staffing might disrupt MPD’s ability to retain a pipeline of recruits to adequately staff the agency in the future.
Though police reps quietly agreed with the idea of expanding the range of social services that might replace police. "If you push [certain police calls] out to mental health professionals,” Patrick Burke of the DC Police Foundation noted in an exchange with Councilmember Allen, “and take those calls away from police departments … I don't think you'll have a problem with that [from the police department]."
Burke was skeptical that the programs being developed to replace police activity would be in place before funding would be pulled away from MPD. Police reps warned that inhibiting growth of the police force might create an increased reliance on overtime — a costly expense to taxpayers. These comments invited pushback from Councilmember Allen who pointed out that with the new 911 alternative, different mental and behavioral health services and traffic enforcement rerouting to DDOT, police shouldn’t have to maintain the same level of work. Allen also raised concern about building an excess reserve of police officers. “You can't just have a whole force sitting around waiting for something to happen,” he noted in an exchange with a DC police rep, “cause what's going to happen is those forces being pulled in to other things, and then we've just backed our way into a really big increase in the force.”
In their testimonies, activists pushed back against budgetary fearmongering by highlighting the sheer scale of MPD’s massive budget. A testimony provided by Makia, an organizer for Working Families Party, emphasized the size and scope of overtime pay enjoyed by officers. “Mayor Bowser makes more than any governor in the 50 states. Our councilmembers out-earn state legislators across the country. Our chairman outearns every congressperson except for Nancy Pelosi. And despite that, I have a list of 25 officers that still make more money than y'all. Twenty-five of them made over $3.7 million dollars in overtime together. One of them is a dog handler."
Testimonies routinely emphasized the inability of police to seriously address the needs of residents in distress.
Elisabeth Olds, testifying as independent consultant for the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Act (SAVRA) Task Force active in DC, emphasized how dependence on police in addressing sexual abuse and assault crimes inefficiently addresses the needs of victims. "Having [taken part in] ride-alongs with MPD's sexual assault unit,” Olds testified, “the cases I observed perfectly illustrate the need for specialized services in tandem with or in lieu of police response. Even as police responded to calls in a professional, appropriate and empathetic manner … they are standing in for other resources that could provide additional or even alternative or more appropriate support from some of the calls they are responding to.” Olds outlined how a force of trained SAVRA advocates will be better equipped to respond to those calls. Though Olds emphasized the need to continue specialized training and budget allotments that train MPD officers on interacting and navigating cases of sexual assault, she stressed the need for city leaders to focus on the material issues that compound cases of sexual assault: “Advocacy response can only go so far when you're looking at the need for acute mental health services, affordable housing and childcare, just to name a few."
Carole Bernard, speaking on behalf of the Amara Legal Center, voiced concerns about MPD funding by echoing the experiences of the Center’s clients — many of whom are sex workers or survivors of sex trafficking and assault. Bernard noted how decentering the police would help to prevent exacerbating the trauma and abuse experienced by many survivors of trafficking and assault. Because many of survivors of sex trafficking and assault have had negative experiences with police in the past and are afraid of exposing themselves to legal risk, many avoid seeking out support altogether. Reallocating funds to services that address the causes of crime — including criminalized poverty, unaddressed emotional trauma and community underinvestment — would truly help support victims and reduce incidence of sexual abuse in the District.
Additional testimonies raised concern over police engagement in schools. In nine testimonies provided by Black Swan Academy, students provided insight into what policing and public safety means for them. Testimony ranged from students’ experiences dealing with adjacency or direct experience to crime and gun violence in their schools, to feeling stressed over constant surveillance. The students’ testimonies provided clear youth perspective on what it means to be vulnerable to over-policing, poverty and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Testimony from professionals echoed concern about overexposing children to guns, surveillance and police. A rep from the Children’s Law Center advocated for divesting dollars from MPD’s school safety division into programs that instead reinforce safety. A powerful testimony from a worker with the National Women’s Law Center reiterated the need to rethink what it means to staff police in schools and meet the needs of students. “The term ‘school resource officer’ is a dangerous misnomer. School police are not resources, they deprive students of resources. In DC public schools, there are more cops than guidance counselors, and three times as many security guards as psychologists.”
Tia, a Ward 7 resident and founder of The TRIGGER Project — a gun violence prevention group aimed at educating youths at risk of gun violence — provided one of the few torn testimonies of the day. Tia expressed that while she believes police have an important role to play in designing public safety — adding that she doesn’t completely agree with defunding the police — she urged the need to look at incidences of gun violence as a public health issue, and the need to continue funding community support and outreach programs. In a thoughtful exchange, Tia emphasized the need for the District to come together and build a new meaning of public safety — one that decenters guns and violence and recenters safety, support and belonging. "Consider the person behind the gun,” Tia urged, “to seek help, you first need rest, sleep, water, you need love and belonging, self-esteem and support, those things don't just happen."
The hearings came at a time when crime — both in DC and across the country — is believed to be on an uptick. In testimony, Makia urged the need for Councilmembers and residents to not to give in to headlines: "I just want to name that there is a cycle of trauma that is happening. We've just gone through a pandemic, people are living in poverty, we have an eviction crisis, and I believe that is the cause for rises of violence in our community. In order to right the wrong, we can't go and increase the police force."
Though Charles Allen dutifully chaired the Committee — taking opportunities to clarify the demands of activists and push back against police reps when necessary — the other Councilmembers on the Committee (Councilmembers Grey of Ward 7, Pinto of Ward 2 and Cheh of Ward 3) were seemingly absent from the MPD hearings. The reticence of these Councilmembers to seriously contend, listen to, or even debate the testimonies provided demonstrates just how fearful and ill-equipped some on the Council are to tackle over-policing (and, thus, the heart of systemic racism) in the District.
The Defund MPD Coalition is actively working to make sure these demands are not ignored. In a push spearheaded by Metro DC DSA’s Defund MPD working group, activists have been taking these demands directly to the hyper-local Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) across the District. At time of publication, ANCs 2A01, 2A03, 2B03 and 2B09 all passed resolutions urging the Council to tailor the police budget to activist demands from Defund MPD. Resolutions have also been raised in other ANCs in Wards 2, 3 and 6 at time of writing and are expected to be voted on within the next month. Consistent phone-banking sessions — to Councilmembers offices and DC residents — have been ongoing to spread the word about the Coalition’s demands. Street art has been raised by supporters across the District. Coalitions and buy-in from community groups - including labor unions - has created a wide base of support for the proposals. And protests across the city — even those organized outside of the Defund MPD coalition on wildly separate issues — have consistently emphasized the need for solidarity and reimagining how we think about public safety.
Imara, testifying on behalf of MDC DSA, made it clear that the Council’s own failures to listen to activist and community demands in the past helped exacerbate the economic strains which prompt incidences of violence and crime in the first place. Citing the Council’s run-around on rent control, overturning of Initiative 77 and complicity in destroying DC’s taxi industry, Imara conveyed a broader feeling of frustration with a District Council which consistently fails to address the needs of its residents. "For years, the District Council has refused to listen to activists and organizers who have recommended non-carceral policies that would make this city safer. Instead, the Council has routinely opted to build a police state over [working for] a city that actually meets the needs of its residents.”
“Time and time again we're told that the Council and the Mayor are concerned about police brutality. Time and time again your actions prove otherwise. … We do not need cops in schools to treat kids like runaway slaves. We do not need fake soldiers modeled after occupying forces to conduct traffic enforcement. What we need is a Council who listens when the public speaks.”