DC Council passes sweeping bill to ban chokeholds, mandate 'racism and white supremacy' training for cops

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The Washington, D.C. City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved legislation on sweeping police and criminal justice reforms over the objection of Mayor Muriel Bowser as the nation continues to reel from the death of George Floyd and the nationwide protests and riots that followed.

Bowser said she supported the ideas behind the legislation but asked the council to wait on passing such sweeping reforms to allow public comment and debate. The council passed the bill anyway, which will only be in effect temporarily as the body works to make the reforms permanent.

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City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson began the meeting by saying the council is "confronting the vestiges of slavery" and said that white people do not understand "the African-American experience."

(Note: the below version of the D.C. police and justice reform legislation was released ahead of the city council's meeting Tuesday and was amended before being passed.)

"Somehow we have to change deeply-rooted attitudes, often unconscious attitudes" of racism within ourselves, he said before asking that the council take a moment of silence to reflect.

The changes include a ban on the use of tear gas against protesters in the District, a move to allow home confinement of city inmates and a provision allowing felons to vote from D.C. prisons -- a position that was only supported by Bernie Sanders among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates -- among several other things.

Multiple council members heaped praise on protesters who spurred the change and emphasized that the bill would be a first step and other changes could follow.

"We have to recognize that this moment is not the one where we pat ourselves on the back and say we're all done," Councilmember Charles Allen said before the bill was passed.

But the police union for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) panned the bill in a Monday tweet.

"The proposed language in this Bill erodes many of the rights that police officers in this city are currently afforded and creates a dangerous path to unchecked violence in the District," the union said in a statement. "We understand that there are voices in this community that are asking for continued reform to police policy. The Union is, and always has been, willing to have serious discussions about this kind of reform."

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The union pointed out two specific objections to the legislation -- that it was put forth on an expedited, emergency basis "to capitalize on the momentum of public sentiment, which will prevent a thoughtful and technical approach to various aspects of its impact on community policing. And two, the outcome of the current language of the Bill (as proposed) will undoubtedly result in an exponential increase in crime and a mass exodus in personnel."

At-large council member David Grosso also vowed at the next meeting to introduce legislation banning "stop-and-frisk" policing tactics in D.C. There were several provisions left out of the bill that the council members said they would consider at future meetings.

The bill would:

  • Ban D.C. law enforcement from using "neck restraints," including chokeholds.
  • Make it easier for the public to get access to the body cameras worn by officers in the District.
  • Make changes to how police complaints are handled.
  • Expand the panel that reviews officer use of force.
  • Increase the timeframe in which action can be taken against officers accused of improper use of force.
  • Repeal the city's anti-mask law.
  • Force officers to be more clear when attempting a consent search.
  • Mandate further training for officers, specifically on "racism and white supremacy," and rebuild the board that oversees officer training. 
  • Make clear officers policing protests are with local law enforcement. 
  • Make it so crime victims do not need to pursue a police report to get compensation.
  • Allow felons to vote from prison.
  • Force the city's corrections facilities to take action to move people to "home confinement."

An amendment added to the legislation during the meeting also banned the use of things like tear gas against protesters in the District, and a separate one was accepted setting up a commission on police reform. But the council also rejected several other amendments, including one that would have banned training for MPD officers in military tactics and another that would have capped the number of MPD officers at 3,500.

According to The Washington Post, the MPD had more than 3,855 officers at the end of 2018 and was set to increase to 4,000 by 2023. The council is set to hold a separate budget hearing with the MPD Tuesday afternoon at which staffing levels are likely to be a subject.

After hours of debate on several amendments, the council -- under a declaration of emergency that allowed it to approve the legislation in the first meeting in which it was considered -- passed the legislation.

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Bowser submitted a comment to the council that was read at the beginning of the meeting indicating that she wanted the council to take its time on police reforms.

"Thank you for your commitment and work regarding policing in the district. The murder of George Floyd and the subsequent peaceful protests that have occurred in the district and across the nation have demonstrated the need for discussion, review and in some cases reform in policing," Bowser said in a statement that touted some of the reforms the MPD has already undertaken.

The statement continued: "As we move to consider policing and potential reforms, I urge the council to allow a process where these issues can receive robust public discourse, which I believe will only help to increase community buy-in on any proposed reforms. I am especially concerned that the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Emergency Amendment Act of 2020 and the proposed amendments that I have been made aware of, amend laws related to issues like body-worn cameras, laws which received significant consideration and public input when they were crafted, and now would be significantly changed by emergency legislation."