Democracy depends on transparency in its public institutions. To ensure that the needs of all people are served, residents and public officials must have the right to inquire and criticize. There is no institution for which this is truer than police, among the most opaque of governmental agencies.
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham apparently disagrees. His comment that the D.C. Council “emboldened” criminals by conducting oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department is a shocking assault on democratic principles.
Newsham’s suggestion that criticism of police conduct undermines public safety is wrong. Council oversight will only strengthen the police department, increase legitimacy and help repair community trust.
There is no evidence that scrutiny of police misconduct interferes with effective police services. Recently, dozens of cities have gone through major reforms in the wake of public uprising, often following a critical incident. In those cities, the ability of police to deliver services has increased, not declined.
In New Orleans, for example, after the police department made court-ordered reforms to address its mishandling of sexual assaults, there was a 155 percent increase in reported rapes, reflecting renewed trust in the police and enabling more effective violent-crime fighting. The New Orleans Police Department has been under federal oversight since 2013. Homicides dropped in 2018 for the third year in row, resulting in a 47-year record-low homicide rate. Chicago’s police department has come under significant public scrutiny, but the city’s murder rate fell 18 percent between 2017 and 2018. Baltimore saw a 7.4 percent drop.
Violent crime in the District has decreased since 2017 and is less than half what it was in the 1990s. Although the District’s murder rate has declined dramatically since the 1990s, the rate increased in 2018 by almost 40 percent. D.C. officials must address this increase.
There are legitimate questions being raised about the Metropolitan Police Department:
• In gentrifying neighborhoods, are long-discredited “jump-out” tactics deployed?
• Do the MPD’s sweeping corners and stop-and-frisk tactics target African American men and violate constitutional norms?
• Are accountability systems to address the shooting death of Terrence Sterling and other uses of lethal force effective?
• How did command staff permit the 7th District Powershift unit to adopt a white-supremacist emblem, which one officer wore to court on a T-shirt? How was the Gun Recovery Unit allowed to adopt an emblem that glorifies police violence? What do these incidents say about the culture of the MPD?
Newsham’s criticism is consistent with a pattern of resistance to transparency about police practices. His views are outdated and undemocratic and undermine community safety. As The Post has reported, police struggle to solve murders in black communities. A primary reason is a lack of trust between police and the communities they are sworn to serve.
In D.C. communities of color, people have lost trust in the police. These neighborhoods are overpoliced and underserved. To address some concerns, in 2016 the D.C. Council passed the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, which requires the MPD to collect data regarding its stop and search practices. These data collection provisions are straightforward and common across the country. The data they require are key to understanding the true cost of police practices: How many innocent people were stopped and searched? Do certain communities disproportionately pay that cost?
Newsham should want this data to adequately supervise his officers and measure the effectiveness of his department’s tactics. But he has refused to comply with the law, expressing disdain for its requirements.
Constitutional and respectful policing is an essential element of the partnership between police and residents to create public safety, not at tension with it. Criticism of police does not “embolden” criminals, but police tactics and practices that destroy community trust do make neighborhoods less safe and the job of police officers more difficult. Justice Louis Brandeis wrote that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Policing in the District needs more sunshine, not less.
*The views presented in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of BRLDF.