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Jamaal Byrd’s Death Raises Questions About Jail Conditions, Marijuana Policy

Like others who lost loved ones this year, the late Jamaal Byrd’s family spent Thanksgiving without their son, brother, and father. Two months after his death while under police custody, their attempts to gather information from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and others haven’t proved successful.

In their quest to hold public officials accountable, Byrd’s family enlisted the help of the D.C. chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM DC) and other local organizers. All parties recently converged on the front steps of MPD headquarters as a show of solidarity with the decadent, who spent the last hours of his life detained for alleged marijuana possession.

“My son loved people, especially family. He had a quiet spirit but often had profound thoughts on many subjects,” Roxane Johnson, the late Byrd’s mother, said in a press statement released hours before November 26 gathering at MPD headquarters, located at Judiciary Square in Northwest,

“He enjoyed laughing and joking around. He was a good cook (especially pancakes); and [had] an eye for photography,” the press statement continued.

“He said ‘being a father is the best thing that ever happened to me.’ He was a loyal friend, loving and protective son, brother, uncle and cousin. He was the type of person that would go the extra mile to help those in need. From a young child as a family we participated in serving others through feeding the homeless.”

On that brisk Tuesday morning, Johnson along with Byrd’s sister Kiana, members of BLM DC and Black Youth Project 100, and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Anthony Lorenzo Green (7C04) had been scheduled to comment on what has been described as authorities’ inconsistent depiction of what transpired between Byrd’s detainment on September 30 and his death in D.C. Central Cell Block on the morning of October 1.

Family members allege that Jonathan Shell, the MPD homicide detective who initially informed Johnson of her son’s death, aggressively and condescendingly addressed her concerns in the weeks following his initial phone call.

According to their accounts, Shell told Johnson that authorities arrested Byrd, 33, on September 30 at a restaurant on the 1500 block of North Capitol Street. He also alleged that Byrd digested three bags of drugs, one of which ruptured and caused an accidental overdose. Shell later characterized his conjecture as unofficial, emphasizing that the coroner’s report would determine Byrd’s cause of death.

Shell and Johnson’s November 15 phone conversation took place after BLM DC’s second email to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), MPD Chief Newsham, D.C. Department of Corrections Director Quincy Booth, and D.C. council members demanding clarity around Byrd ‘s death. BLM DC”s initial email went out on October 31, shortly after news of Byrd’s death surfaced.

D.C. Department of Corrections policy stipulates that guards check on inmates in 15-minute intervals. Officials told Byrd’s family that they found him unresponsive during one of those checks.

D.C. Central Cell Block, where arrestees are held before their arraignment at D.C. Superior Court, has been the center of controversy since before the Washington Lawyers Committee released a scathing 2015 report about jail conditions, including a crumbling infrastructure and lack of preventative measures for suicides.

Last year, a group of clergy led by The Rev. Graylan Hagler staged a protest on the front steps of MPD headquarters. During that event, they recounted instances of mistreatment during their arrests for civil disobedience and criticized what they called MPD’s penchant for detaining people for minor offenses.

Some District voters who approved Initiative 71 in 2014 shared similar concerns about MPD.

Under Initiative 71, people possessing less than two ounces of marijuana wouldn’t be arrested unless they’re caught doing so on federal land or federally owned property. Instead, they would receive a ticket with no obligation to present proper identification to the arresting officer.

Marijuana decriminalization advocates heralded Initiative 71 as a means of curbing stringent policing of Black and Brown communities. However, as shown in an analysis released last year, marijuana-related arrests in the District — including that for possession, public consumption, and distribution — steadily increased since 2015, particularly among African Americans.

Experts say that most of those arrests occur at marijuana “pop-up” events where vendors often attempt to circumvent the District’s rules forbidding the exchange of marijuana for money, goods, and services.

Earlier this year, D.C. Mayor Bowser introduced legislation allowing the recreational sale of marijuana and marijuana products. Even if that law passes, changes would have to be made at the federal level so that state and local governments can spend money to regulate marijuana without penalty.

If approved and signed into law, a federal bill by the name of the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act would facilitate that process. In September, the SAFE Banking Act passed through the U.S. House of Representatives, inching closer to preventing situations like what Kaitlyn Boecker, then-policy manager of the Drug Policy Alliance, described to online magazine Marijuana Moment last year.

“Thanks to Congressional interference prohibiting the District from regulating marijuana, rather than collecting tax revenue and ensuring product safety, we are wasting resources and wreaking havoc on young people’s lives with continued arrests for marijuana use,” Boecker said. “It’s absurd that despite legalization in the District, MPD continues to make such arrests. As former MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said years ago, ‘All those arrests do is make people hate us.'”

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