Committee Executive Director Jonathan Smith Testifies at the Round Table on the Metropolitan Police Department

Testimony of Jonathan M. Smith, Executive Director
The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs
Before the Committee on the Judiciary of the Council of the District of Columbia
Round Table on the Metropolitan Police Department

Every major city police department in the United States, including the District’s Metropolitan Police Department, is one bad shoot away from the kind of community rebellion that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Maryland and elsewhere across the United States. While the media and the political establishment woke up to the problems in policing when Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, those problems had been long in the making and had created mistrust, anger and resentment in communities most likely to be over-policed and underserved – including, most particularly, communities of color. There are many causes for this breakdown in trust.

Police are given both extraordinary powers and extraordinary responsibilities. They are amongst the few public officials authorized by law to routinely use force in the course of their duties. The execution of stops and arrests “necessarily carries with it the right to use some degree of physical coercion or threat thereof to affect it.”[1] The right to use force, while broad, is not unlimited.The Fourth Amendment[2] established the right of “people to be secure in their persons” and to be protected from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” it has long been understood to create boundaries on the use of force by law enforcement.  Those boundaries are far too often crossed.

Moreover, police officers are the faces of a criminal justice system that has dramatic disproportionate negative effects based on race and economic status. Criminal system involvement is a major driver of inequality in the District of Columbia.  The District has a high rate of incarceration that disproportionately affects African American men, women and families. Ninety-one percent of the District’s prison population is African American, despite that the city is almost half white. The highest rates of incarceration are from Wards 7 and 8. The impact on families is significant and is a driving factor not only in income and wealth inequality, but also in limiting social mobility. Poverty has become an inheritance in many communities the same way that wealth has in others.

In addition to the structural inequities of criminal sentencing laws, police practices that prioritize the enforcement of minor offenses have increased the pressure on African American communities and increased mistrust.

The Washington Lawyers’ Committee issued a study of MPD arrest practices in 2013.[3]  After reviewing arrest data kept by MPD, we concluded:

  • More than eight out of 10 arrests in our city were of African Americans.
  • Wards with more African American residents witnessed far more arrests. The five wards where seven out of 10 arrests in the city were made are home to nine out of 10 African American residents of the city. Even in wards where fewer African Americans live, African Americans made up a disproportionately high percentage of arrestees.
  • More than 19 out of 20 arrests in Washington, D.C. were for nonviolent offenses. Four of the largest categories of offenses — arrests classified by under the drug, traffic, disorderly conduct, and “other assault” charge categories — alone accounted for about six out of 10 arrests in the District. Offenses in these categories are not considered violent crimes within the definitions used by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting system.
  • Nine out of 10 individuals arrested for drug offenses were African American. African Americans were the overwhelming majority of drug arrestees, across all major categories of narcotics, including powder cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin and other drugs.
  • Six out of 10 drug arrests were for simple possession, and nearly nine out of 10 of arrests for possession involved African American arrestees. Marijuana arrests represented the lead category of arrests.
  • While there are significant disparities between whites and African Americans in drug arrests, drug use survey data shows much less disparity in drug use among the two groups. Drug use survey data shows little disparity in drug use among wards in contrast to the large disparities in drug arrest numbers among the wards.
  • Nearly seven out of 10 traffic arrests were of African Americans. The disparity was less evident for traffic offenses that involved conduct more obvious to an observer, like Driving Under the Influence, as opposed to conduct that is less externally obvious, such as driving on a suspended license.
  • Eight out of ten individuals arrested for disorderly conduct were African American or Hispanic.
  • Most arrests did not result in confinement, probation, or diversion.

While the MPD has gotten rid of “zero tolerance,”[4] dramatic disparities continue to exist. A 2016 study, for example, found that 80% of those arrested for smoking marijuana in public were African American.[5] The Criminal Branch of the Superior Court continues to be dominated by young African American men.  The prison system has grown from 190,000 prisoners in the United States in 1970[6] to over 2.3 million today,[7] with the District of Columbia having one of the highest rates of incarceration in the Nation.[8]

At the same time, the African American community remains underserved in the District. While crime is at historic lows in the District and the Nation, predominately working and low-income African American neighborhoods continue to face significant public safety concerns.[9] In a recent study conducted by the Consortium of Legal Services Providers of 590 District residents living under 200% of poverty, 27.8% reported being stopped by the police for no reason, 15.1% reported that police did not take them seriously when they called for assistance, another 14.3% reported that police responding to a call made them feel at fault for the crime that had victimized them and more than 10% reported police asking them inappropriate questions. The majority of those surveyed felt that the police were indifferent, at best, to the issues in their community.[10] A separate study found that only 51% of African Americans in the District trust the police.[11]

A significant factor in this mistrust is that police conduct is infrequently reviewed, and as a result, police officers and police departments are not held accountable for abuses. While the MPD has policies and procedures in place for the investigation and discipline of abuse by officers, there have been significant breakdowns in that system. A recent report Commissioned by the City Auditor and performed by the Bromwich Group found that critical components of the accountability system were not functioning as designed and recommended restricting, training, monitoring and data collection to ensure that misconduct was identified and addressed.[12]

There are important measures that the District can take:

  1. The operation of a police department is inherently opaque, but that opacity is neither necessary nor healthy in a democratic society. Accountability will bring much needed trust between officers and the communities they serve, and that trust will ensure both constitutional policing and public safety.  We need to measure and report to the community much more data about officer conduct.  At a minimum, the District should join the White House’s Police Data Initiative.
  2. Implement the recommendations in the Bromwich Report and make the responsive steps available to the public. 
  3. Create a Community Police Commission.   The Commission should include diverse representation from across the City, including those most likely to be policed.  The Commission should have significant authority to influence the policies, procedures and practices of the Department.  I am happy to share models from other cities with you. 
  4. Make Community Policing Real.  Community policing needs to be more than a slogan.  Fewer than one-in-four of DC residents know a police officer.[13]  Community policing requires meaningful and positive encounters with people most likely to be policed and the development of problem-solving relationships.   This will increase trust, promote public safety and make encounters between police and residents safer. 

[1] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 22 (1968).

[2] The Fourth Amendment states, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[3] Racial Disparities in Arrests in the District of Columbia: Implications for Civil Rights and Criminal Justice in the Nation’s Capital, (July 2013);

[6] Bureau of Justice Statistics, United States Department of Justice, Prison Population 1925 – 81, December 1982 (Dec. 15, 2015), (Dec. 30, 2015).

[7] Nick Wing, America’s Horrifying Mass-Incarceration System, In 1 Chart, Huffington Post (Dec. 9, 2015), (Dec. 30, 2015).

[8]Bureau of Justice Statistics, Correctional Populations in the United States.

[13] Id.

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