During a hearing last month, D.C. Superior Court Judge John M. Campbell indicated that he will side with American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC), Black Lives Matter DC and Stop Police Terror Project DC in mandating that city police officers collect specific data about stops made while on duty, as outlined in the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act.
While Campbell’s statement signals victory for the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Peter Newsham and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue, it ultimately raises the question of whether officers will have to use a system in the midst of a revamp or a detail-rich form presented by ACLU-DC lawyers.
“One of the reasons we proposed the form is because it breaks down the data in each required category and requires the officer to complete a response of some kind, whether it’s to record data or mark that something is unknown or doesn’t apply,” Scott Michelman, ACLU-DC’s lead attorney, said of a document inquiring about race and ethnicity, and reason for and duration of the stop — the details of which would also be captured by body cameras in audio recordings.
In May, ACLU-DC, Black Lives Matter DC and Stop Police Terror Project DC filed its lawsuit against Bowser, Newsham and Donahue shortly after a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request revealed that the stop-and-frisk data MPD possessed didn’t have the level of detail required by the NEAR Act.
The Bowser administration’s assertion that the NEAR Act had been fully implemented in a January report prompted questions of whether D.C. governments used the $150,000 allocated toward that endeavor. Months later, during a budget oversight hearing, D.C. Council members learned that had not been the case.
Newsham said MPD’s data collection system needed an overhaul in order to comply with the NEAR Act, a process that would be completed by next summer.
Michelman said that timeline would further impede attempts to hold police officers accountable.
“MPD wants to collect lots of pieces of information in a narrative the officer will produce,” he said. “You have a blank page of paper and tell the officer to put it all in this box. It’s easier for them to not remember certain categories and it’s easy for supervisors to miss that data is missing.”
The NEAR Act, unanimously passed by the D.C. Council in 2016, culminated in a series of conversations about resident safety and officer abuse of power. It aims to stem punitive responses to crime through the establishment of community-led violence prevention efforts.
The provision at the center of the lawsuit requires the collection and aggregation of data on every police stop that proponents said will maintain transparency about racial bias in stop-and-frisk.
In a statement immediately following the Nov. 16 hearing, Donahue cited the availability of online demographic information about police stops going back to 2010. He reiterated plans to upgrade MPD’s data collection system, saying that body camera footage at the interim would suffices in meeting the purposes outlined in the NEAR Act.
But activists on the front line, including ANC Commissioner and Black Lives Matter DC affiliate Anthony Lorenzo Green, said that even as some officers take necessary steps, MPD’s attitude about the stop-and-frisk data reflects larger issues about poor police-community relations and an unwillingness to acquiesce to residents’ demands.
“A police captain told us that his officers will collect more information when they make stops, implying that this would make their job harder,” said Green, representative of ANC single-member district 7C04, the neighborhood of Deanwood in Northeast, as he recounted the details of a recent ANC meeting.
Deanwood, designated by Black Lives Matter DC as a Liberation Zone, became the epicenter of a heated debate about policing tactics this summer after an online video showed a controversial jump-out by MPD’s gun seizure unit in front of Nook’s Barbershop on Sheriff Road. Green and several others stood out as prominent voices in the discussion about why residents distrust MPD.
Green said he plans to ask D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chair of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, to investigate allegations into MPD’s fudging of crime statistics.
“These stops are illegal and they’re violating our rights,” he said. “MPD’s avoiding answering questions about these arrests and how many guns are actually found, and you fall back on technology concerns even though the council said this wouldn’t be an issue.”