THOMAS HEDGES, TRNN: Cities across the country are still reeling from a summer of violence, with homicide rates that increase 70, 80, even 100 percent in some places. City officials and police unions are proposing harsher legislation in an effort to fight what they call the main culprits: drugs, guns, and gangs.
But here in Washington, DC where homicide rates are up more than 50 percent compared to last year, the Democratic mayor Muriel Bowser has introduced one of the most controversial bills in the country. The Public Safety and Criminal Code Act of 2015 would make it legal for law enforcement officials to conduct warrantless searches on some newly released prisoners on parole or probation.
AARON GOGGANS: Muriel Bowser's bill is very scary.
HEDGES: Goggans, a writer and Black Lives Matter DMV activist says Mayor Bowser's bill strengthens control and surveillance, but not safety.
GOGGANS: We think that this is kind of the mayor laying out the groundwork to do a predictive policing model in DC. In 2013, the city got a contract with a group out of Colorado Springs to do predictive policing, and to bring a predictive policing platform to DC. This is as scary as it sounds. Predictive policing is actually their name, but the idea that you try and reach out to offenders before they've actually offended. It's a very Big Brother, 1984 kind of way to do policing. It's very terrifying. But also is a model trying to be followed by a lot of states.
HEDGES: When Mayor Bowser introduced the law back in August, she defended her bill amid the shouts and yelling of protesters.
MURIEL BOWSER: There have been erroneous reports in the media that we want to give the police unfettered authority to basically search anyone, anytime, anywhere. That is blatantly false.
MONICA HOPKINS-MAXWELL: I think that people should be watching what's going on here, that this change in rhetoric, and especially in a place that deems itself as progressive as the District of Columbia.
HEDGES: Monica Hopkins-Maxwell is the director of the American Civil Liberties Union in the nation's capital. She's been fighting the crime bill as well as parallel legislation on the issue of body cameras, which were introduced last year in Washington, and what she fears may become a tool for surveillance rather than accountability.
HOPKINS-MAXWELL: General Provision 3900.4 borders on using body-worn cameras for surveillance by allowing recording of First Amendment assemblies. The ACLU finds this highly problematic.
The racial disparities that you see are infinite in the District of Colombia, where you have 91 percent of the people that we incarcerate are black. So the damage to black communities from this so-called public safety bill is really, really scary.
HEDGES: Goggans says that unfortunately the mayor's efforts are, in fact, precise and intentional.
GOGGANS: The police have a union that is very political and outspoken in trying to get its own PAC and trying to have political muscle to push this. There are private prisons and private corporations that profit off of the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration that are lobbying for this bill. There are also a lot of provisions in the bill that would, that came from a--that came from cooperation with the Chamber of Commerce to get security cameras at local businesses, right.
And so there's a lot of business improvement district money tied into all of this. And then there's a lot of folks who really just make money off of traumatizing the black community, right, as black people get more desperate. And a lot of aspects in our lives, it makes communities more likely to take low-paying jobs because they don't have better options. It feeds into this entire system that oppresses black people, which unfortunately is a big business in America.
HEDGES: But others say there's another incentive still for the city of DC to enact draconian measures, and that's the city's campaign to redevelop poor neighborhoods, and to transform them into areas that attract more wealth. The crime bill, for example, would disproportionately target black residents who live in places like H Street, Petworth, and Anacostia, neighborhoods the city desperately wants to develop.
EUGENE PURYEAR: DC's class polarization, which is in the top five in the country in income inequality, some measures the top three, is also almost explicitly racially based.
HEDGES: Eugene Puryear is a DC activist and politician who ran for council in 2014 on the Green Party ticket.
BOWSER: Mr. Puryear, you may not stand there, sir.
HEDGES: He says that a tradition of apparent and persistent racism in the nation's capital is punctuated by the gentrification of traditionally poor neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and H Street, among others. For example, last year at an unrecorded community meeting between residents and the police that took place close to H Street, a number of older black community members said their grandchildren were getting harassed by the police, sometimes getting stopped up to once every week.
"Newcomers to the area are misinterpreting everyday scenarios as crimes,” Chief of Police Cathy Lanier finally explained in the meeting, "like reporting drug deals when they see young black men standing on a corner [...] You have a lot of people here who haven't lived in an urban neighborhood who are calling police for a lot of new things," she said.
PURYEAR: People who are new to the area, read, white, more wealthier people, who don't have any experience living in urban environments, read, living around black people, are seeing everyday behaviors and thinking that they're criminal. So the pressures of gentrification are getting higher and higher on average everyday people, particularly poor black people, and the police are responding more and more to the biased misconceptions of businesses and new residents about what to do about crime, which frequently involves tougher penalties, and more occupation-style policing and more harassment, essentially to get people off the street.
HEDGES: One of the more frustrating misconceptions for Puryear is that DC is relaxed when it comes to criminal pursuit and prosecution, due in part to the fact that it votes overwhelmingly Democrat.
PURYEAR: What we have to recognize is that on the national level you have the DNC and endorsing Black Lives Matter, Elizabeth Warren giving speeches, Bernie Sanders talking about it, Hillary Clinton, Martin O'Malley. But on the local level, whether it's Muriel Bowser here in DC, whether it's Rahm Emanuel, whether it's Jean Quan in Oakland, whether it's even backsliding by Bill de Blasio in New York, it's in these major municipalities that are run by Democrats--certainly St. Louis, Ferguson, governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, run by Democrats, implementing these mass incarceration, militarized policing policies.
And I think it's important that we recognize that it's not, you know, just some right-wing bogeyman or the quote-unquote Republicans. But that really front line, a lot of times it's Democrats who are doing the most harmful policies to these communities, and it's not based on any sort of scientific reality. A lot of it is just based on the same racially based hysteric politics that got us to mass incarceration in 1994. And I think it's key to recognize that when you get new populations moving into cities who feel a certain amount of fear about the old, young, poor black population, their response is always going to be more police, because it makes them feel safer. But it's not based on anything, and certainly it only is going to lead to more of the problems we've seen from militarized policing and mass incarceration so far.
HEDGES: On December 1, the DC Council voted to roll back Muriel Bowser's proposal for limiting access to body camera footage from the public. A small victory for activists and residents who hope for a similar outcome when the looming crime bill comes for a vote in the coming weeks.
It is better to be safe than to feel safe. The spike in violent crime in the District this summer was disturbing, and we should look to the city’s policymakers to bring the community together, listen and seek solutions that make us safer.
Sadly, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) proposed fix, the Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act of 2015, amounts to little more than window dressing — or worse.
The evidence is clear. Building a safer city requires that we invest in our communities: job creation and job training that removes barriers to employment; after-school programs, particularly for youth of color; permanent access to quality, affordable housing; and resources for citizens returning from prison.
The conditions that produce violence were not created overnight and cannot be dissolved overnight. But this approach has a crucial advantage over Bowser’s plan: It would lower crime rates. Instead of using the people’s treasury to create opportunity in our city, the mayor’s approach would make the District a more punitive, unjust and draconian place to live.
Her bill would force some newly released people on probation or parole to agree to random searches of their homes at any time for any reason or no reason. It would allow police to obtain GPS tracking data on these people at any time for any reason or no reason. It would encourage property owners to install surveillance cameras to record footage that the police could review at any time for any reason or no reason.
This expansion of police power is paired with an authorization of lengthier sentences for people convicted of aggravated assault on a police officer. The definition of assault on a police officer is broad and can include resisting arrest and impeding or interfering with a police officer. Studies show the statute has been used to prosecute people whose only crime was being frustrated for being unjustifiably stopped by police. Nearly two-thirds of those arrested for assaulting a police officer were not charged with any other crime; 90 percent of them were black. The bill doesn’t address any of these concerns.
The bill threatens to flood the D.C. jail with potentially innocent people. For a laundry list of crimes, judges would have to presume that detention pretrial is necessary, instead of examining an individual’s particular circumstances. Judges already have the power to hold dangerous people. We don’t need an additional excuse to lock up even more young people of color.
None of these measures would have prevented a single homicide this summer. But they would disproportionately land on people of color. In the District, 94 percent of citizens under court supervision are black. The mayor’s bill would only deepen the racial inequity built into our justice system.
It’s time to learn the lessons of the failed “tough on crime” experiments of the 1980s and 1990s. The longer sentences and shrinking privacy protections that have been the hallmark of the war on drugs didn’t make us any safer. But those laws and policies did produce a prison system bursting at the seams with young black and brown men (and, increasingly, women), the vast majority of whom were pressured to plead guilty to nonviolent drug offenses in an effort to avoid lengthy jail time. Those laws and policies produced an effective war between police departments and the communities they were sworn to protect. Those laws and policies produced millions of black and brown citizens with felony convictions incapable of finding decent jobs, housing or economic independence.
These are the results we get when politicians exploit a community’s fear to justify shortsighted, feel-good remedies that over police and under serve the community. Politicians are rejecting the ineffective “tough on crime” approaches that gave the United States the highest rate of incarceration in the world.
Bowser and the D.C. Council should scrap the Public Safety and Criminal Code Revisions Amendment Act of 2015. Then, we can get to work on more challenging and rewarding measures to end the poverty-to-prison pipeline and create a safer city.