With police-community relations at a fever pitch in D.C. and nationwide, District residents and council members spoke out during a recent hearing in an attempt to thwart police brutality and mend fences as the selection process of the new police chief gets underway.
The Nov. 3 hearing, headed by Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie, focused on hot-button issues such as excessive use of force by police, body cameras, racism, training, regulating special police and community policing.
Among the most heated topics was the September death of Terrence Sterling, an unarmed black motorcyclist killed by police in Mount Vernon Square.
“What I am hearing are concerns about policing in general, the quality of policing, how officers are responding when there are quality of life crimes, burglaries and thefts from automobiles,” McDuffie said in a statement. “But there is also that national, intense scrutiny on police community relations that are often driven by high-profile incidents of officer-involved shootings. And in the District, we have had similar incidents as well. The Sterling incident comes to mind and I imagine there will be residents who want to speak to that.”
More than 60 residents showing up to testify, including numerous ANC commissioners, individuals from the Black Lives Matter Movement and Stephen Bigelow, the vice chairperson for the D.C. police department who called for added police to the current 3,800-member roster.
Though several concerns such as decriminalizing low-level offenses and mental-health assistance for the homeless were addressed, the death of Sterling and overall violence in the city was the main issue of contention.
Although there has been an overall fall in crime in D.C. over the past 20 years, there was an increase in homicides in 2015.
“There is clear evidence that the behaviors and practices of the police are less desirable, let’s say, in majority black areas,” said Eugene Puryear, a member of the Stop Police Terror Project. “If we want to actually start to move this conversation forward, we have to stop hiding behind neutral words like implicit bias, or disparity, or whatever, it’s racism, plain and simple.”
Also under scrutiny were special police officers working in the city, who are currently allowed to make arrests and carry guns, but often work for private contractors and are not subject to the same transparency rules as city police. Such officers are permitted to work with as little as 40 hours of training, compared to the 28 weeks required for D.C. Metropolitan police.
Steven Douglass, pastor of Cathedral of Praise in Capitol Heights, Maryland, and a close friend of Sterling, said he hopes to bring about peace and change from his testimony and the overall hearing.
“We still have no form of accountability or transparency for the crime of Terrence Sterling and once again, the police have let the ball drop on this,” Douglass said. “We have eyewitnesses to what transpired and officers who broke protocol, are still sitting at home, getting paid on administrative leave, showing us that they can do whatever they want and it’s OK.
“I want to see more community policing, but I also want the police here in D.C., to actually be from D.C. and know the neighborhoods and understand the people in the community,” Douglass said. “This meeting is about getting people to step up, who are tired of the same old, same old and who want to make an actual difference.”