The following testimony was submitted to the DC Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on March 30, 2022.
To the Members of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety:
Over the last two years, the District has made strides to replace police with non-law enforcement public servants and non-carceral programs in a host of programming, including traffic and parking enforcement to piloting alternatives for responding to behavioral health crises. District leaders have endorsed important efforts like decriminalizing non-harmful activities and reforming the criminal code. But so much work remains to be done.
Our message to DC Council is simple: keep going. The progress we have made already is meaningful, and the District should continue to build out these alternatives on every front. Transition more types of 911 calls away from the police towards other agencies. Move routine enforcement out of the MPD’s jurisdiction or decriminalize it entirely. And expand social services and violence interrupters to help cure the underlying trauma in our communities rather than just police it.
There are so many opportunities to move beyond police and prisons. At the December 2020 Alternatives to Policing hearing, we presented the enclosed report (access here) on the harm the MPD does to our communities and the proven, evidence-based alternatives to policing that the District can and should employ. We are providing it here again as we urge the Council to continue its important work transitioning away from the police.
Further, the concerns we raised about the MPD’s lack of transparency remain just as critical today as before — it is still extraordinarily difficult to understand how the MPD spends public money, how MPD officer overtime is accrued, and why the MPD has such a spending problem: it routinely overspends its already over-generous budget. And as with so much of the District government, some of these pilot programs are also difficult to understand or track and must be administered and evaluated transparently.
The District is not alone in confronting these problems. Following the mass uprisings against police violence beginning in the summer of 2020, people across the US have encouraged their city and state governments to defund police departments and refund non-law enforcement public health and safety policies. As a result, police budgets nationwide divested nearly $1 billion from police to reinvest in non-police community services. These policies provide a roadmap for how DC can divest from the MPD and invest in policies and infrastructure that truly keep us safe.
In 2020, Seattle, WA, defunded the police budget by $69 million and reallocated that money into government services outside the police department. This resulted in the Seattle Emergency Communications Center, which allows 911 calls to be diverted to personnel best equipped to respond, such as civilian mental health specialists, rather than exclusively the police, as is the case with more than 98% of calls in DC. That reinvestment also led to the creation of the Safe and Thriving Communities division, a victims’ advocates center that responds to community requests for the city, particularly those of BIPOC citizens. A further $12 million defunded from the police budget was used to fund a participatory budgeting process that includes $3 million to support Black-led research on how to equitably implement this process. Additionally, the city moved parking enforcement outside of law enforcement and made it the remit of the Department of Transportation. In 2021, the state of Washington committed to a new three-digit phone number dedicated exclusively to mental health crises.
In 2020, Austin, TX, voted to defund $153 million (of $434 million) from the police budget. $31.5 million from a one-year freeze of all hiring and training of new officers and reduced overtime spending was marked for reinvestment in “permanent supportive housing and services, EMS for COVID-19 response, family violence shelter and protection, violence prevention, workforce development, and a range of other programs.” $76.6 million was marked to transfer operating functions out of the police department and into new or existing departments, including the forensics lab, 911 calls, alarm administration, human resources, facility maintenance, public information and finances. $45.1 million was marked to create a “Reimagine Safety Fund” to allow citizens to pursue “alternative forms of public safety and community support,” which was initially used to analyze and evaluate police practices (e.g., training academy curriculum, use of force policies, racial disparity data and sexual assault investigations). Unfortunately, in 2021 the Texas legislature passed a bill to make these defunding measures illegal.
In our neighboring Virginia, councils and school boards have implemented programs that center evidence-based public safety at the will of and to the advantage of their communities. In 2020, Alexandria passed the Marcus-David Peters Act, a statewide legislative framework for non-law enforcement responses to behavioral health crises. The Act requires development of a mental health awareness response service (Marcus Alert) – which includes a mobile crisis response infrastructure of mental health service providers and peer recovery specialists – under the direction of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. The same year, the city council voted to remove the five school resource officers (SROs) posted in high schools and middle schools and reallocated the money to hiring a mentoring partnership coordinator, public health nurse, therapist supervisor, three senior therapists and a human services specialist. (The law is named after Marcus-David Peters, a 24-year-old Black biology teacher who was fatally shot in May 2018 by a Richmond Police officer during a behavioral health crisis.)
Also in 2020, Arlington created “Heart of Safety,” a restorative justice program to establish alternatives to criminal prosecution of juveniles and young adults. And the school board voted unanimously to remove SROs from schools.
In 2020-2021, a number of other school districts ended their contracts with police departments for SROs and reallocated funding to non-law enforcement hires to support students’ health and safety. In Oakland, CA, schools reinvested $6 million – previously used to fund SROs – to a new safety plan focused on evidence-based support for students. In Phoenix, AZ, the Union High School district defunded SROs and gave $500,000 to school staff, $500,000 to students and $200,000 to teachers to reallocate towards student and faculty health and safety services. In Denver, CO, all SROs were removed by the start of the 2021 school year.
These defund/refund initiatives demonstrate what can be done when our money is used to fund programs that support community development rather than community policing.
We therefore call on DC Council to keep going: develop more pilot programs, perform oversight for and expand the funding and scope of the ones that exist, decriminalize poverty and economic activity, and transition more functions away from the police. District residents deserve a government that works for us, with strong, non-carceral and anti-racist public services. DC Council can make that vision a reality.