D.C. Council members opened a budget hearing Monday to repeated calls for defunding the Metropolitan Police Department amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The Justice and Public Safety Committee received more than 15,000 submissions of written, phone and video budget testimonies for its hearing on the police department’s $540 million budget for fiscal 2021. More than 500 people signed up to testify Monday, compared to 22 last year, but only the first 90 who signed up were allowed to testify.
In six hours of testimony, most of the witnesses called for defunding the police, a refrain echoing in protests across the country over Floyd, a black man who died Memorial Day after a white police officer had kneeled on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
“The truth is D.C. city government is responsible for the same racist police terror that has sparked nationwide protests, the same terror that killed George Floyd,” Sean Blackmon, a spokesman for the Stop Police Terror Project D.C., said in his testimony.
The majority of witnesses called on lawmakers to reject Mayor Muriel Bowser’s revised fiscal 2021 budget, which includes a 3.3% increase for the Metropolitan Police Department (MDP).
They called for redistributing funds allocated for police to city agencies such as the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of Victims Services and Justice Grants, both of whose budgets have been cut.
And most witnesses called for terminating MPD’s $23 million contract with D.C. Public Schools and removing police officers from schools, as well as ending the training exchange between the police force and the Israeli Defense Force.
Some even called for the abolition of the police department and the resignation of police Chief Peter Newsham. They rejected the notion that police officers make the city safe, arguing that they often make people feel less safe.
The District has the most police officers per capita among U.S. cities — 55 officers per every 10,000 residents. But Ward 6 resident Morgan Monroe noted that crime has increased and the clearance rate of those crimes has decreased over the last several years.
According to the MPD website, the District had 108 homicides in 2011 and 166 in 2019, and is on course to surpass that figure this year. The closure rate for homicide cases was 95% in 2011 but only 66% in 2018.
Ward 1 resident William Liebner was one of few people who testified in opposition to defunding the police.
“The idea of removing funding from MPD is akin to taking hydroxychloroquine for COVID-19,” Mr. Leibner said, referring to an anti-malaria drug touted by President Trump. “It sounds like an easy fix, but it doesn’t solve the core issue.”
Last week, the council enacted emergency legislation that:
• Requires the mayor to release body-worn camera footage and the name of the police officer within 72 hours after an officer-involved death or serious use of force incident.
• Excludes members of law enforcement from the Police Complaints Board.
• Restricts MPD’s purchase of military equipment.
• Prohibits the police department from hiring officers with a history of police misconduct in other jurisdictions, among other provisions.
Shortly after the council passed the bill, Chief Newsham told his officers, in a video obtained by Fox 5, that the council “insulted” the department by insinuating it was in need of “emergency reform.”
“The most disheartening thing for me, and maybe for some of you, is that the city council forgot our history, in this critical moment in our history they completely abandoned us,” Chief Newsham said, noting the last 18 years of reforms the department has made.
Asked about his comments Monday at a press conference, Miss Bowser said she heard the chief say he was concerned about emergency legislation and he didn’t get the chance to fully weigh in on it.
“I recognize that the chief is a 30-year police officer who has given all his career to the D.C. government and I can understand his frustration,” the Democratic mayor said.
In a passionate opening statement, council member Robert White said he was saddened to hear the chief’s comments, calling them divisive.
“To so thoroughly miss the importance and necessity of this moment, that you use it to divide and get defensive is frightening and sad,” said Mr. White, at-large Democrat. “And when I say sad, I don’t mean sad in a dramatic or hyperbolic way, I mean sad in my soul sad.”
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