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Budget Hearing Sparks Debate on ‘Defund the Police’ Movement

A recent D.C. Council committee oversight hearing became a battleground in the ongoing debate about the level of funding the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) receives, and whether defunding the department would serve as a viable means of significantly curbing aggressive policing in majority-Black communities.

The five-hour hearing, hosted online by the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, attracted 90 public witnesses, each of whom expressed arguments either in support of defunding MPD, abolishing it, or advancing Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed $14 million increase to the department budget.

Charity Bryant, a Ward 3 resident of nearly a decade, took on what public safety stalwarts have written off as the most radical path, and for reasons she said affect her to this day.

“I was sexually assaulted on D.C. streets and MPD made the situation worse by saying within earshot of me that it wasn’t bad,” Bryant told Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) on Monday as more than 200 people listened and commented on a Facebook live feed. “They paraded [around me] the person who assaulted me. The reporting officer later called me to follow up and sexually harass me. This is one of several incidents I see perpetuated by MPD.

“Imagine if there were trauma-informed professionals dispatched in my time of crisis,” Bryant continued. “My experience would’ve been significantly better. I demand that you abolish MPD and allocate the funds where they would be needed the most.”

Whether that will happen has yet to be seen. Bowser recently doubled down in her opposition to MPD’s defunding, what has become a battle cry of sorts in the aftermath of George Floyd’s officer-related death and that of other Black women and men.

This has especially been the case in the District, where activists have coalesced around the families of Ralphael Briscoe, Marqueese Alston, Jeffrey Price and others who have been killed by MPD officers. The “Defund MPD” movement, organized by Black Lives Matter DC and other grassroots groups, intensified after Bowser’s critics decried — and later altered — the large “Black Lives Matter” mural along 16th Street in Northwest that garnered the mayor national attention as a supporter of protesters and racial justice.

Throughout much of the June 15 hearing, however, activists argued that the mayor’s attempt to significantly increase MPD funding — while cutting that of the Office of Neighborhood Engagement (ONSE) by more than $800,000— affirms her allegiance to the police, not the Black residents in the eastern, less affluent parts of the District.

Early in the discussion, Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) also inquired about the need for 4,000 uniformed officers, revealing to her colleagues and public witnesses that MPD Chief Peter Newsham never explained the rationale when she asked. Though Council member Robert White (D- At large) touted the need for reform, he didn’t explicitly express support for defunding MPD, much to the chagrin of some viewers.

For longtime D.C. resident and public witness William Leibner, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to the need to directly combat violence.

As he recounted his living experiences in different parts of the District, Leibner stood firm in his belief that the judiciary and public safety committee’s budgetary recommendations to Bowser should be based on crime data, not emotions and popular trends.

“Violence prevention programs might help in the long term, but daylight shootings on 14th Street and Alabama Avenue won’t stop tomorrow,” Leibner said. “We need high quality police to do that. Any program that receives taxpayer investment requires scrutiny. We need hard data for the merits of violence interruption. Now is the time for more funding for MPD. We need police to be our visible partners. [Defunding MPD] will be a knee-jerk to national events.”

In Minneapolis, lawmakers unanimously pledged to dismantle the city’s police department and create a new system of public safety. In New York City, officials eliminated its plainclothes anti-crime units, while the Baltimore City Council approved $22 million in budget cuts to the Baltimore Police Department.

Monday’s hearing came days after “Defund MPD” proponents partied outside of Bowser’s house. Recent conversations have revealed some questions about what that concept would entail. While skeptics liken it to completely eliminating MPD, supporters argue that defunding means diverting funds often given to local police departments to mental health providers, educational institutions and other wraparound services.

In his support for defunding police, Sean Blackmon of Stop Police Terror Project DC explored what he described as connections between MPD and American imperialism — but not before admonishing Bowser for her recent budget recommendation.

“More police in the community makes us less safe, so we want a serious reduction in police on patrol,” Blackmon said. “We want them out of schools. We also want to see an end to the relationship between D.C. police and Israeli security forces.

“It’s important that we see an intentional reinvestment of the money and resources in D.C. communities,” he continued. “If the D.C. government wants to say ‘Black Lives Matter,’ they have to put their money where their mouth is.”

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