The following testimony was submitted by the Metro DC DSA Steering Committee as written testimony to the DC Council's Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety 2022-2023 Metropolitan Police Department Performance Oversight Hearing held on February 23, 2023. Testimony was written by Defund organizer Elizabeth Tang, with research and editorial support provided by Metro DC DSA's Defund MPD working group and the Decrim Poverty Coalition. The testimony can be accessed digitally in its original format on archives maintained by Committee Chair Brooke Pinto (Ward 2). The testimony has been republished here for record and distribution.
The following testimony is submitted on behalf of the Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America (MDC DSA). Our chapter of over 2,000 DC members, is a proud organizational member of the DecrimPovertyDC Coalition, supporter of Police Out Of Transportation Coalition, and home to the MDC DSA Defund MPD Working Group. We write to strongly urge the Council to decriminalize personal drug possession, remove police from traffic enforcement, and reallocate funding from police to programs that would actually keep our city safe and enrich the lives of the District’s working class.
1. DC should decriminalize personal drug possession.
DC’s residents, particularly Black residents, are suffering the dual harms of both the ongoing overdose crisis and the criminalization of drug possession. In 2021, nearly 600 DC residents died from accidental overdose, with Black residents making up 86% of these deaths (despite making up only 43% of DC’s population) and Wards 5, 7, and 8 leading in fatal overdoses.1 At 107 deaths per 100,000 people, the overdose mortality rate among Black Washingtonians is the highest in the United States and nearly 10 times higher than that of their white neighbors.2 At the same time, Black Washingtonians are almost 7 times more likely than their peers to be arrested for drug possession – despite the fact that DC residents of all races use drugs at similar rates. This means Black Washingtonians are simultaneously at greatest risk of fatal drug overdose and greatest risk of being arrested, incarcerated, and punished with collateral consequences for drug possession.
Drug criminalization does not make our communities safer. Criminalization discourages people from seeking life-saving services in the event of overdose and forces them into riskier settings. It also perpetuates stigmatization by healthcare and social workers against people who use drugs, making it harder for them to receive effective treatment and assistance. In addition, incarceration significantly increases the risk of a fatal drug overdose; formerly incarcerated people are 40 times more likely than the general population to die from a drug overdose within the first two weeks of release and 10 times more likely within a year after release.3 Furthermore, arrest and incarceration can make it difficult or impossible for people to secure jobs, occupational licenses, life-stabilizing public benefits, public housing, student financial aid, and other essential services – which can, in turn, exacerbate problematic drug use.
In contrast, decriminalization of personal possession of drugs has been proven to save lives. When Oregon decriminalized the personal possession of drugs in 2020, the state saw a 60% decrease in the number of drug-related arrests, and over 16,000 people accessed harm reduction services in just one year.4 Oregon also estimated a 96% reduction in Black-white disparities in drug convictions and a 91% reduction in overall convictions for drug possession.5 Similarly, since Portugal decriminalized personal drug use in 2001, it has seen rates of drug use and drug-related deaths consistently far below the European Union average.6
Importantly, decriminalization of personal possession of drugs does not lead to increased violence. When our neighbors in Baltimore City, Maryland stopped prosecuting drug possession and other low-level offenses in March 2020 to prevent overcrowding in jails during COVID-19, Johns Hopkins University researchers found over a 14-month period that there was no increase in 911 calls regarding drugs and almost no rearrests for serious crimes, such as robbery and assault.7
DC must decriminalize personal possession of drugs to advance public health and racial justice goals. While we applaud the Council for decriminalizing drug use equipment in 2020, which has expanded access to harm reduction supplies, it has not been enough to prevent fatal overdoses. We urge you to go further by passing the DecrimPovertyDC Coalition’s Drug Policy Reform Act, which would remove criminal penalties for personal use quantities of drugs, invest in an evidence-based harm reduction infrastructure (including 24/7 harm reduction centers that have safe consumption, comprehensive drug checking services, and community-based and peer-led service providers), and address life-long consequences of drug-related convictions. It’s time to end the racist war on drugs. We urge the Council to reject carcerality and instead invest in life-saving and -stabilizing resources to end DC’s overdose crisis.
2. DC should move enforcement of basic traffic enforcement from MPD to the Department of Transportation
For years, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) has demonstrated its inability to safely handle traffic enforcement, with tragic consequences for DC residents, particularly Black Washingtonians. For example, in 2018, Jeffrey Price, 22, was killed when MPD officers chased him for alleged speeding until his dirt bike crashed into an MPD cruiser.8 In 2020, Karon Hylton-Brown, 20, was killed when MPD officers chased him for allegedly not wearing a helmet until his moped crashed into another car.9 And in 2021, An’Twan Gilmore, 27, was killed by MPD after they approached him because he had fallen asleep in his stopped car at an intersection at 2:45 AM.10
Even in non-fatal incidents, MPD’s methods of traffic enforcement have subjected DC residents, especially Black Washingtonians, to serious physical, legal, and economic harms. Broken brake or tail lights and other minor infractions are often used as pretext to pull poorer and vulnerable residents into the criminal legal system, which often results in police violence.11 In FY 2020, Black residents made up 77% of traffic stops in DC based on equipment violations (despite making up only 43% of DC’s population), ending in approximately 200 arrests.12 In addition, traffic tickets for broken vehicle lights can be costly; DC residents who cannot afford to pay traffic debts over $100 are prohibited from renewing their driver’s licenses, which can prevent families from going to work, school, the grocery store, the doctor, etc., and carrying out other essential activities.13
Traffic enforcement does not require police. If a DC resident’s car has a broken light or exhaust system, DC should send a Department of Transportation (DDOT) worker to help fix it instead of sending a police officer who can potentially escalate the situation into sudden, potentially fatal, violence. To address traffic problems like speeding and accidents, DC should invest more in speed bumps and tables and pedestrian-only zones. Furthermore, the Council should continue to invest in bike lanes and public transit, including by fully funding the Metro For D.C. Amendment Act of 2022, which would ensure that everyone in DC has access to affordable and quality transit and would reduce reliance on cars altogether.
Traffic safety without police is not just a hypothetical; it’s already happening and has been proven to work. The neighboring state of Virginia and major cities like Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles have all banned stops for minor traffic violations,14 and Montgomery County, Maryland is also considering such a ban. In the last four years, Hoboken, New Jersey has had zero traffic deaths, all thanks to urban planning and non-police interventions.16 Other cities across the United States like Berkeley, California and Cambridge, Massachusetts are also considering moving traffic enforcement from their police departments to their departments of transportation.17
DC must remove police from traffic enforcement to protect its residents. The Traffic Safety Enforcement Act, endorsed by Police Out Of Transportation Coalition, would ban police from stopping vehicles for minor infractions like broken lights, noise, tinted windows, and exhaust; this would reduce traffic stops and prevent police from arbitrarily pulling over and harassing DC residents. The Council’s Police Reform Commission has also recommended transferring enforcement of all traffic violations that do not imminently threaten public safety from MPD to DDOT.18 It’s time to rethink traffic safety. We urge the Council to invest in care, not violence, to promote real safety in our streets.
3. DC should reallocate MPD funding to public goods and services that promote real safety.
DC has the most police per capita of any major city in the United States,19 yet our community continues to face organized abandonment regarding access to food, housing, healthcare, education, and other essential goods and services. In 2019, DC was ranked the most intensely gentrified city in the entire country.20 In majority-Black Wards 7 and 8, 85% of residents live more than one mile from one of the four full-service grocery stores in those two wards (which make up 20% of the District’s population), whereas the other six wards enjoy 72 full-service grocery stores.21 The District has more than 4,000 unhoused neighbors,22 and rental prices continue to soar, with some tenants facing rental increases of as high as 37% in a single year.23 Nearly 120 residents in the District continue to be hospitalized each day due to COVID-19,24 yet DC plans to shut down all COVID centers by the end of this month.25 Meanwhile, children in DC go to schools with more police officers than guidance counselors and three times as many security guards as psychologists, which teaches them that they are threats to be contained rather than young people deserving of care and love.26
When communities are neglected, violence is more likely. For example, it is no coincidence that 40% of all gun violence in DC takes place in one square mile (2% of the city) in Southeast DC, in one of the most neglected, policed, and criminalized places in the District.27 In fact, rates of gun violence in Southeast, where police are rampant, are more than 10 times higher than in Northwest DC, where communities have far more resources and support and far fewer cops.28 These statistics demonstrate that not only are police not a solution to the problem of violence, they actually contribute to it. On the other hand, research repeatedly shows that when all of our neighbors have their basic needs met – affordable housing, well-funded schools, youth programs, job training, trauma-informed healthcare, and other community services – gun violence is lower and we are all safer.29
Violence interrupters, too, can significantly reduce violence. Because they have connections to and credibility within their communities, former gang members and formerly incarcerated people can be 5 times more effective than police in stopping shootings before they occur and responding to shootings to prevent retaliation.30 As the Council’s Police Reform Commission has stated, “the District must strategically scale up community-based violence interruption initiatives as a crucial first line of intervention.”31 Yet, violence interrupters remain severely underfunded. In 2022, DC employed only 8 full-time violence interrupters across its 22 priority communities, with eight communities served by a single part-time interrupter, four communities by a single full-time interrupter, and zero full-time violence interrupters in all of Ward 8.32
In contrast, MPD receives more than half a billion dollars every year – $546 million in FY 2023,33 including $20,000 hiring bonuses per officer, $5,000 bonuses per cadet, $500,000 total in rental assistance, and $1.2 million total in student loan repayment assistance.34 This is more than 54 times the amount allocated to violence interrupters (despite MPD being up to 5 times less effective).35 It is also many times more than the funding allocated to other agencies that provide job training, education, recreation, and community-building activities, like the Department of Parks and Recreation and the DC Public Libraries, which residents from all over the District cited as their favorites at the February 9th, 2023 Mayor’s Budget Engagement Forum. In fact, in FY 2023, the District government allocated more in local funds to MPD’s operating budget than to the Department of Parks and Recreation, DC Public Library, Department of Employment Services, Teachers’ Retirement System, Unemployment Compensation Fund, Office of the Tenant Advocate, Office of Human Rights, and Department of Energy & Environment combined.36 Yet, an overwhelming majority of attendees at the recent Mayor’s Budget Engagement Forum named MPD as their least favorite agency. Residents went on to vigorously support increased funding for health and human services, affordable housing, and infrastructure. Serious investments in these agencies is what the residents of the District want – not more policing.
The MPD budget ignores the stark reality that MPD is a major contributor to the problem of violence in DC. Since 2016, MPD officers have fatally shot 24 of our community members37 and killed and injured many more using other methods. These are not anomalies.
Violence, harassment, and abuse are core tenets of MPD, as shown by thousands of confidential documents revealed by hackers and Freedom of Information Act responses in 2021:
For all of the above reasons, DC should divest from MPD, an institution that has so systematically and egregiously abused our community — especially our Black neighbors — and instead invest in public goods and services to ensure every DC resident has their basic needs met. As the Council’s Police Reform Commission has recognized:
“Violence is most pervasive and takes its greatest toll in areas of the District where predominantly Black and Brown residents have the least access to wealth. Not surprisingly, these same communities lack the resources and opportunities that flow from wealth and that enhance safety: high-performing schools that open doors and minds, quality hospitals, preventative healthcare, housing that’s secure and feels like home, healthy food, clean air and water, reliable public transportation, and good-paying jobs that help create and sustain wealth locally.”50
A budget is a moral document. Where we allocate our tax revenue is a reflection of who we are and what we prioritize. If we want the District to be a truly safe place to live, work and thrive, we must spend our tax dollars enriching and empowering the lives of the people who live here. The safest places have the most resources, not the most police. Accordingly, we urge the Council to invest in care, not cops.
Finally, as a part of turning away from a carceral framework, we also urge you to pass the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act of 2023, which would decriminalize vending without a license, create more equitable regulations regarding street vending, and reduce opportunities for MPD to harass and abuse vendors. [Editor's note: the DC Council passed the Street Vendor Advancement Amendment Act in early April]
Thank you for your time and consideration of our requests.
1 Government of the District of Columbia, Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Drug-related Fatal Overdoses: January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021 (Apr. 20, 2022).
2 Kaiser Family Foundation, Drug Overdose Death Rate (per 100,000 population) by Race/Ethnicity: 2020 (last visited Mar. 4, 2023).
3 Prison Policy Initiative, Visuals: Recently Incarcerated People are Over 40 Times More Likely to Die from an Opioid Overdose (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).
5 Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, IP 44 Racial and Ethnic Impact Statement 3-5 (July 16, 2020).
6 Transform Drug Policy Foundation, Decriminalisation in Portugal: Setting the Record Straight (May 13, 2021).
7 Saba Rouhani et al., Evaluation of Prosecutorial Policy Reforms Eliminating Criminal Penalties for Drug Possession and Sex Work in Baltimore, Maryland, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Department of Health, Behavior and Society 3 (2021).
8 Natalie Delgadillo, Family Of Man Killed In Crash With D.C. Police Sues City, DCist (Mar. 4, 2020).
9 Paul Wagner & Gina Cook, DC Police Officers Found Guilty in Karon Hylton-Brown's Death, NBC (Dec. 21, 2022).
10 Editorial Board, The D.C. police shooting of Antwan Gilmore raises troubling questions, Washington Post (Aug. 28, 2021).
11 District of Columbia Police Reform Commission, Decentering Police to Improve Public Safety: A Report of the DC Police Reform Commission 102 (Apr. 1, 2021) [hereinafter Police Reform Commission Report].
12 Calculated by MDC DSA based on FY 2020 data. See Metropolitan Police Department, Stop Data, https://mpdc.dc.gov/stopdata.
13 Police Reform Commission Report, supra note 11, at 102.
14 David D. Kirkpatrick, Steve Eder & Kim Barker, Cities Try to Turn the Tide on Police Traffic Stops, New York Times (Apr. 15, 2022).
15 Morgan Baskin, Montgomery County Councilmember Seeks To Ban Traffic Stops For Minor Offenses, DCist (Mar. 1, 2023).
16 Christopher Robbins, Hoboken Hasn’t Had a Traffic Death in Four Years. What’s It Doing Right?, Curbed (June 17, 2020).
17 Brett Simpson, Why Cars Don’t Deserve the Right of Way, The Atlantic (Oct. 15, 2021); Arianna MacNeill, Cambridge is considering shifting ‘routine traffic enforcement’ away from police. Here’s what to know., Boston.com (July 30, 2020).
18 Police Reform Commission Report, supra note 11, at 21, 93.
19 Eliana Block, VERIFY: Does DC have more police per capita than any other US city? WUSA9 (July 15, 2020).
20 Cordilia James, D.C. Has Had the Most Gentrifying Neighborhoods In The Country, Study Finds, DCist (Mar. 19, 2019).
21 Vanessa G. Sánchez, Black-owned stores work to end D.C.’s food deserts, Washington Post (July 7, 2022).
22 Justin Wm. Moyer, Number of homeless residents in D.C. lowest in 17 years, mayor says, Washington Post (Apr. 21, 2022).
23 Ally Schweitzer, ‘It’s Not Good To Be A Renter These Days’: Rents Are Climbing In The D.C. Area, With No Relief In Sight, DCist (July 18, 2022).
24 Tracking Coronavirus in Washington, D.C.: Latest Map and Case Count, New York Times (last updated Mar. 4, 2023).
25 Executive Office of the Mayor, DC Health Announces COVID Centers Will Close on March 31 (Mar.3, 2023).
26 Police Reform Commission Report, supra note 11, at 18.
27 Peter Hermann & John D. Harden, Thousands of bullets have been fired in this D.C. neighborhood. Fear is part of everyday life., Washington Post (July 23, 2021).
28 Police Reform Commission Report, supra note 11, at 76.
29 Community Gun Violence, The Educational Fund To Stop Gun Violence (Feb. 2021).
30 Christopher Robbins, The Plight of the Violence Interruptors, Intelligencer (July 13, 2021).
31 Police Reform Commission Report, supra note 11, at 19.
32 Lauren Hamilton, DC’s violence interrupters may not be helping to curb rising crime, audit says, WTOP News (June 12, 2022).
33 Office of Chief Financial Officer, 2023 FA0 Metropolitan Police Department, Chapter, 1 (Aug. 1, 2022).
34 Michael Johnson Jr., Police Budget Remains Flat Despite Big Investments in Officer Recruitment and Retention, DC Fiscal Policy Institute (Aug. 29, 2022).
35 Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, AG Racine Announces Renewal of Grants for Cure the Streets Violence Interruption Community-Based Organizations (Oct. 21, 2022), (allocating $10 million to violence interrupters).
36 In FY 2023, DC allocated $381 million in combined “Local funds” to these agencies, compared with MPD’s $516 million. See Office of Chief Financial Officer, Approved Fiscal Year 2023 Budget by Agency Cluster (last visited Mar. 6, 2023).
37 1,104 people have been shot and killed by police in the past 12 months, Washington Post (updated Mar. 1, 2023), (excluding Ashli Babbitt, a J6 insurgent).
38 Dhruv Mehrotra, Jenny Gathright & Martin Austermuhle, D.C. Police Tried To Fire 24 Current Officers For ‘Criminal Offenses.’ A Powerful Panel Blocked Nearly Every One, Documents Show, DCist (Dec. 18, 2021).
41 Creede Newton, D.C. Police Closely Watched Anti-Racist Groups For Years, Southern Poverty Law Center (Dec. 23, 2021).
42 Peter Hermann & Devlin Barrett, D.C. police lieutenant suspended over alleged ties to right-wing group, Washington Post (Feb. 16, 2022).
45 Chris Gelardi, More Kids and Overwhelmingly Black: New Records Show Concerning Trends in D.C. Gang Database, Intercept (Jan. 9, 2022).
47 Chris Gelardi, ‘Rage Induced Policing’: Hacked Documents Reveal D.C. Police’s Aggressive Robbery Crackdowns, The Appeal (Dec. 6, 2021).