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Impact of Capitol riot looms over efforts to overhaul policing in the District

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/7/2021 Peter Hermann
a man wearing glasses talking on a stage: Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III addresses reporters at a public safety briefing on Jan. 15. © Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/POOL Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III addresses reporters at a public safety briefing on Jan. 15.

Amid months of protests for social justice, the D.C. Council moved quickly last year with emergency legislation to make sweeping overhauls to the police force, including cutting its budget and making it smaller.

Then came the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, when hundreds of D.C. officers rushed to help defend the building. Now the mayor’s pick for her new police leader says any further reimagining of the force must take into account what he calls a growing and persistent threat of domestic terrorism.

The coming weeks will be a pivotal moment for the future of law enforcement in the District as the city wrestles over that balance. Acting D.C. police chief Robert J. Contee III says his department needs to grow, not shrink, to confront both rising crime and extremism.

Contee, who faces a confirmation hearing later this month from a Council that last year cut the police budget, forcing it to shed nearly 200 officers, said he must prepare for “a high probability for violent confrontations that will require a significant police response.”

Last year’s budget cuts brought the District’s police force down to about 3,650 officers, below a threshold officials once considered the bare minimum. Contee said he believes 4,000 officers — a number the mayor aspired to in 2019, when the department counted 3,850 officers — are needed “to get to where we need to be in light of the things we need to contend with now.” Similarly, the Capitol Police wants to increase its force and budget following its failure to properly mobilize ahead of the deadly riot.

But Contee could face pushback from members of the D.C. Council, a progressive group of lawmakers who want police to adapt a public health approach to combating crime that de-emphasizes arrests and redirects resources into programs that attack the root causes of criminal behavior.

[D.C. Council explores alternatives to policing as mayor chooses new chief] Charles Allen wearing a suit and tie: WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen attends one of the final D.C. Council meetings before summer break at the Wilson Building on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) © Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 18: Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen attends one of the final D.C. Council meetings before summer break at the Wilson Building on Tuesday, June 18, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post) a man standing in front of a crowd © Provided by The Washington Post

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said last year’s budget cuts — opposed at the time by the mayor — and other laws enacted to make police more transparent and accountable, could be just a start.

“That wasn’t a one-year budget, pat yourself on the back and call it a day,” said Allen, who will oversee hearings this month on the state of the police department and Contee’s confirmation. “We’re in the midst of a conversation on the nature of policing.”

Allen credited D.C. police with helping the overwhelmed Capitol police end the Jan. 6 riot, but he said, “I don’t think we need to be planning our force size based on an armed insurrection. We hope to never see such an event again.”

Contee will face Allen and other lawmakers at an oversight hearing on Thursday, where he is likely to field questions over rising homicides, the insurrection that involved 850 D.C. officers sent to the Capitol and his commitment to making further changes in the force to reflect new ideas born out of the protests that started with the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

That will be followed by the expected release of an independent audit of fatal shootings and a deadly use of force incidents by D.C. police, and then Contee’s confirmation hearing, where lawmakers will decided whether to make him the permanent chief.

And in April, the Police Reform Commission, which has been meeting for months to reshape the department, is expected to deliver its final report, which could include as many as 80 recommendations to reduce the footprint of D.C. police on neighborhoods they say are over policed.

The commission is weighing recommendations that include pulling D.C. police from schools, restricting searches of people and vehicles during stops, requiring more transparency in police discipline and pausing the work of specialized squads targeting guns and drugs in order to reassess their actions. The group will also likely recommend sending counselors instead of police to some calls involving people in distress, domestic violence and drug use.

Similar efforts are underway in Virginia and Maryland, where the Senate approved scrapping a bill of rights law that critics maintain long protected police during secretive disciplinary processes. In the District, advocates are emphasizing reducing the role of police.

“The overreaching theme is the need to build up other mechanisms from the government and the community to address problems that people face, ranging from gun violence to mental health challenges to wanting to learn in a safe environment,” said Christy Lopez, the commission’s co-chair and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law.

[District needs to ask what kind of police chief it wants]

“It’s become clear of how much we’ve asked the police to do,” said Lopez, who led the Justice Department investigations of police abuse in Ferguson, Mo., and elsewhere. “We have very much focused on suggested reforms to the D.C. police itself, but there is quite a lot of emphasis on building up some of the other structures in and out of government.”

Lopez said Jan. 6 should not impact efforts to change policing, arguing failures that day were not caused by restrictive rules governing behavior and tactics, but by lack of leadership, training and an “unconscious bias” that failed to prepare as urgently for “White terrorists” who tried to overturn an election President Donald Trump had lost, as for “Black protesters” who led demonstration about police conduct last summer.

Contee said he is open to changes, even surrendering some of the current police duties, such as responding to mental health crises, as long as there are programs established to take over those services. “As of right now, who would the community call to get that service?” he said. “Right now, it’s 911.”

a group of people riding skis on top of a building: Tear gas is fired at supporters of President Donald Trump as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. © Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post Tear gas is fired at supporters of President Donald Trump as they storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

The acting chief said that following Jan. 6, federal police forces will be examining their own security, and that inward focus could leave the District more vulnerable. “As they harden targets in the federal enclave, other buildings in the city under MPD jurisdiction may become more likely targets,” he said at a recent congressional hearing.

Contee said he wants to hold his own community meetings to hear from residents firsthand, who he says lobby him for more police in their neighborhoods. “The voices of the community have to weigh in to this conversation,” he said. “What does the community want to see? This is the community’s police department, not the Police Reform Commission’s police department.”

[Police Reform Commission looks at reimagining District police force]

In one brainstorming session, reform commission members discussed guiding principles to serve as a backbone of their upcoming report.

Noting a “collective sense of distrust” in law enforcement, members said one goal is “reducing power of police,” and to train officers to think of themselves as guardians of a community, rather than warriors.

“The overreliance on policing stems from a false narrative that the police are the only or are the primary way to achieve public safety,” members wrote down as one principle. That “perpetuates the false narrative that Black people and other marginalized groups are innately bad or criminal, instead of focusing instead on social failures to create peace and opportunities for people to thrive.”

At one recent meeting, reform commission member Robert S. Bennett, a former federal prosecutor and prominent defense attorney, said some recommendations might run contrary to existing laws, and that he is “just troubled about intruding too much on the day-to-day operations of the police.”

Naïké Savain, a supervising attorney at the Children’s Law Center, answered that she thought the goal “was to actually change the day-to-day operations of the Metropolitan Police Department, and how police impact our community.”

Read more: Acting D.C. police chief wants officers examined for extremist affiliations Community groups call on Pr. George’s to ‘clean house’ at police department Study: 1 in 7 U.S. prisoners is serving life, and two-thirds of those are people of color
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