- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

Lawmakers and residents of cities across the country are increasingly calling for deeper scrutiny of the tactics employed by their police departments, including officials in the District who are trying to take a proactive approach to policing their own police.

The D.C. Council has embarked on a series of hearings to unearth details about residents’ everyday interactions with members of the Metropolitan Police Department in the hope that lawmakers can identify problems within the agency and suggest legislative fixes.

“It is a proactive approach. It is what a good police department should be doing,” said David Harris, a police accountability expert with the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “What I hear over and over is ‘We don’t want to be the next Ferguson. Could we be the next Ferguson?’ I think there is a realization that any police department, if it doesn’t pay attention, if it doesn’t listen to the people it’s supposed to serve, can end up on the wrong end of that quickly.”

The fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, triggered weeks of unrest and has shined a spotlight on community-police relations across the country.

In addition to conducting its own probe of the Ferguson shooting, the Justice Department has also moved to address rifts between police and residents in other communities.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. called for a large-scale review of police tactics, training and technology, with the goal to produce a set of national recommendations for best practices. Last month the Justice Department announced another program, supported by a $4.75 million grant, that would direct researchers to study racial bias in five communities and work to build trust between police and their communities.

But even as federal entities weigh in, Mr. Harris said change will have to be driven at the independent agency level.

“American policing is very decentralized,” he said. “This has to be an effort that is led nationally perhaps, but locally as well.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, who convened Wednesday the first of two hearings to focus on MPD’s stop-and-frisk, traffic stop, and vice unit practices, said he planned the hearing even before the events in Ferguson because he had heard complaints about unfair treatment of black residents and had witnessed such an encounter himself.

“Every jurisdiction has an obligation to look in it’s own back yard. How are we doing? How has policing changed and has it changed without public scrutiny?” said the Ward 6 Democrat. “The whole idea of militarization of police, which has happened right in front of our eyes, started with the war on drugs and is something that has continued.”

Wednesday’s hearing, held at Howard University, elicited testimony from dozens of residents who told anecdotes of their own personal encounters with police.

Experts say that gauging community sentiment is an important first step in coming to terms with problematic police relations.

“Only once we know the concerns can we look deeper and gather data and look at how to address the concerns in a productive way,” said Christian Klossner, director of the District’s Office of Police Complaints.

But representatives from the D.C. chapters of the NAACP and ACLU said a lack of records is part of the problem, and advocated for better record keeping by police about their interactions with residents, such as both the number of and reasons for stop-and-frisk interactions.

“Lack of documentation leads to lack of accountability,” said Seema Sadanandan of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.

Collecting data on the frequency of stop-and-frisks, demographic data on who is stopped, and the reasons why they are stopped is nothing groundbreaking, said Mr. Harris. But when it comes to promoting greater trust of a police agency, transparency and the ability to share such information is key.

“Having that data and then putting it out to the public I think would be a good start because otherwise it’s the police department simply saying ‘We’re doing a good job. We know what we’re doing,’” Mr. Harris said.

MPD officials have declined to comment on the substance of Wednesday’s hearing, with Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier expected to testify at a second hearing scheduled for Oct. 27.

But the city’s police union said relations aren’t as bad as residents claimed them to be.

“A lot of this is being driven by what is going on in Ferguson,” said Delroy Burton, D.C. police union’s chairman. “But what is going on in Ferguson is not what is going on here.”

Mr. Burton noted that MPD regularly investigates and fires officers who do not live up to the department’s standards.

“I know there are police officers out there doing bad things but this police agency disciplines with a heavier hand than most police agencies around the country,” said Mr. Burton, noting that MPD fires approximately 40 officers a year.

Even if police are skeptical of what residents are saying, they should still use the hearings as a chance to evaluate their own policies and police their own members, said Lorie Fridell, a professor of criminology at the University of South Florida and a former research director at the Police Executive Research Forum.

“You’re going to have complaints and concerns in any community,” Ms. Fridell said. “What the department and officers should be listening for are whether there are systematic issues that are being identified.”

Mr. Klossner said his office has tried to identify systematic problems within MPD based on the complaints they receive, noting a report done by the office that found a disparate number of black drivers complaining that they had stopped because their vehicles have tinted windows.

“The department needs to always listen carefully to what the public is saying,” Mr. Klossner said. “[Complaints] wouldn’t be raised if something wasn’t happening.”

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