The D.C. Council took its first vote on a public safety bill Tuesday. The final vote will take place in several weeks.

The D.C. Council took its first vote on a public safety bill Tuesday. The final vote will take place in several weeks. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

The D.C. Council advanced a massive public safety bill Tuesday after hours of debate, a collection of dozens of changes to criminal punishment and policing laws that a weary D.C. is turning to as an answer to its violent crime spike. Twelve members voted in favor of the bill, with council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) voting present.

The nearly united front illustrates the urgency council members have felt to respond to the outcry from residents and businesses about how rising crime has affected their lives, from ride-share and delivery drivers fearing carjackings to stores beset by theft. Public demands to turn the tide on crime reached a fever pitch as the District finished last year with the most homicides since 1997, and recent high-profile tragedies such as the fatal carjacking of a former D.C. elections official downtown have only cranked up the heat on the council and mayor to act.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has several proposals in the package, had urged the council to pass the legislation without additional amendments “so we can rebalance the District’s public safety and justice ecosystem in an actionable way.”

Several council members, however, pushed significant amendments, such as on pretrial detention and a proposed expansion of DNA collection from felony suspects, which was stripped from the bill. Still, the overarching framework of the legislation remains intact.

White, the lone present vote, said he thought the bill “could have been stronger” and will continue working with Pinto to push amendments ahead of the final vote.

The bill, dubbed “Secure D.C.,” seeks to crack down on illegal gun possession, retail theft and drug-related loitering, namely by enhancing sentencing and reviving a 1990s-era policing tool creating temporary drug-free zones. It would change the definition of carjacking to account for broader circumstances, such as if someone is robbed of their keys slightly farther from the car. And it would adjust various police accountability laws, provisions that drew the most pushback among council members and that were somewhat watered down after a string of amendments. The legislation is likely to get a final vote in the coming weeks.

“Residents are in fear of carjackings, theft and falling victim to crime across our city. This is unacceptable,” council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) said on the dais. “Today, by approving my Secure D.C. omnibus, the council has the opportunity to take decisive and comprehensive action to making D.C. safer and more secure. Our residents deserve to be and feel safe in all of our communities.”

But whether Secure D.C. will produce the desired results is an open question — one that has driven weeks of debate between those who see harsher sentencing and targeted enforcement as one solution, and others who caution against using more incarceration to try to reduce crime.

That push-and-pull dominated Tuesday’s council meeting, with some dramatic moments in the chamber and points of frustration for Pinto, who steadfastly defended the bill.

The council’s breakfast ahead of the vote set the tenor for the debate. Council members spoke frankly about their doubts on whether various provisions — such as creating drug-free zones and expanding pretrial detention for those charged with violent crimes — would make D.C. safer vs. just make people feel safer.

One exchange about drug-free zones was particularly telling, offering a window into the politics surrounding crime in D.C. at a critical moment for city officials.

Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) said he was “perplexed” as to why police need to create special zones to crack down on drug-related loitering when dealing drugs is already illegal. Under the proposal, police would be able to establish them for up to 15 days a month in a 1,000-square-foot area with high rates of crime. Noting that while the community may think this is a solution, White asked: Wouldn’t the problem simply move to a new location?

“This seems to me like a messaging thing, not a real thing,” White said. “We have to make sure the city ends up safer, not that we have the right messaging.” But, he said, “if anybody moves to strike it, the mayor will point to problems in neighborhoods and say, ‘It’s because of that member that we still can’t do anything,’ so I think we’re in a really tough spot politically.”

Pinto argued that the goal is not to make many arrests but to “disrupt” locations known for congregating and where drug-dealing or shootings are frequent; it would be an additional tool for police to squelch that activity, she said, given that prosecution of drug arrests by the U.S. attorney — who is in charge of prosecuting adults in the city — is not guaranteed. Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) added that, while he agreed it might be “messaging,” he did not recall drug-free zones driving up arrests in the late 1990s and 2000s, when they were last on the books — “so we can harbor our own doubts,” he said, “but I don’t see the harm.”

“That is the harm, that we are leading people to believe we are now going to do something about loitering, which is a real issue,” White responded.

Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), however, summed up the reality for the council: The community needed to see action, and the council had to deliver — even if the proposed solutions were not perfect.

“This bill is monumental in its attempt to make us all feel safer in the city, so I commend you for that,” she told Pinto. “Is it perfect? No, we know it’s not perfect. Will it achieve all our goals? We know it probably will not. But it does put everyone on notice, and it draws everyone’s attention to the fact that we’re striving to be comprehensive in our approach to make a clear statement about public safety in the city.”

Debating amendments

The debate spilled over into a packed council hearing room at the Wilson Building, as dozens of liberal activists — wearing black shirts that read “Don’t throw D.C. under the crimnibus” — came to urge the council to vote against the legislation.

The scene showed how the pendulum has swung on criminal justice reform in the District: Just over three years ago, criminal justice advocates were applauding the council’s action on police accountability after the murder of George Floyd. Now they were condemning the council.

“It’s our position that the residents of D.C. need to be safe both from crime but also from abuse of power, and this bill is not going to make D.C. safer,” said Melissa Wasser, policy counsel at the ACLU of D.C., adding that she doubted any public safety benefit would come from changing the District’s neck restraint law or expanding pretrial detention.

Pinto had sought to address various lawmakers’ concerns about the legislation in amendments, including on police transparency and accountability.

But other council members pushed to go further. Kenyan R. McDuffie (I-At Large) successfully led an amendment to remove a provision that would have greatly expanded the collection of DNA from felony suspects at the time of arrest, vs. after conviction.

Pinto strongly opposed that amendment. “There are hundreds of unsolved rapes and homicides in the District. This is a tool to help us solve those cases,” she said during the breakfast.

But McDuffie said he remained concerned that collecting a person’s DNA before they are convicted of a crime amounted to a significant invasion of privacy, even with some of the tweaks Pinto had made.

In the hearing room, as he pushed for the debate in front of the activists, McDuffie closed his remarks by intoning, “Let us not forget we are all innocent until proven guilty,” drawing whoops and claps from the audience.

The amendment passed 9-4, leading to an eruption of applause.

McDuffie applied the same logic to the provision expanding pretrial detention for people charged with violent crimes, something the council passed last summer on a temporary basis. He asked: Is there proof it has made D.C. safer?

He argued that the evidence was lacking — once again over Pinto’s objections — and in a last-minute amendment, he appealed to his colleagues to add a provision making the changes to pretrial detention temporary, having them expire after 225 days. In the meantime, D.C. would be required to study whether the changes had an impact on crime — and only then would the council vote on whether to make the changes permanent.

“This amendment does not change what we’re already doing. What it says is we’re going to be armed with additional information about the impact about what we’re doing before we make it permanent,” McDuffie said. “We’d be making an evidence-based, data-driven decision, which we are not making today.”

Pinto, in a clear moment of exasperation, pleaded with McDuffie to withdraw the amendment, arguing that D.C. already keeps a lot of data and his measure was unnecessary. McDuffie insisted on the vote.

The amendment passed 10-3, leading some elated activists to jump to their feet and hug.

Policing changes

The amendments were in addition to more than a dozen Pinto made Monday, especially to address concerns members had raised about police accountability changes.

The original version of her bill would have declassified vehicular pursuit tactics as a “serious” or “deadly” use of force, concerning many lawmakers. The amended version reverses that change, though it retains language that makes clear police can launch a chase even if it risks the life of the suspect, still angering activists.

Pinto’s legislation initially sought to limit the public’s ability to see police officers’ full disciplinary records, restricting public disclosure only to sustained allegations of misconduct. Pinto removed that provision.

The bill would make numerous other adjustments to D.C.’s Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act of 2022, such as restoring officers’ ability to view body-camera footage when writing police reports. The policing legislation has long faced attacks from Bowser, the D.C. police union and congressional Republicans who say it makes officers’ jobs harder, and it has been constantly targeted for revisions.

In fact, in a split screen Tuesday, the House Oversight and Accountability Committee voted to repeal provisions of the 2022 bill that took away the D.C. police union’s right to negotiate discipline, among other changes that particularly rankled the union. It is one of several ways congressional Republicans have gone after the bill, which Congress blocked on a bipartisan basis last year but which President Biden saved with a veto. This congressional bill, the Protecting Our Nation’s Capital Emergency Act, would be subject to the Senate filibuster, significantly decreasing its chances of succeeding. Congress has oversight over D.C. legislation through a provision in the Constitution.

“D.C. cannot afford to lose another police officer during this crisis,” Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) said.

In a letter to the House Oversight Committee from 12 of the D.C. Council’s 13 members opposing the proposed rollbacks, city lawmakers said the changes would make it harder for the police department to root out bad officers. Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) was the only council member who did not sign the letter; spokesman Chuck Thies noted that Gray similarly proposed rolling back some disciplinary reforms in a police retention bill he introduced last year.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) called the measure a “shocking assault on local democracy” and suggested that it was introduced at the behest of the police union following several failed attempts to override these same laws at the local and congressional level. Still, the measure advanced from the committee on a 22-19 vote.

Pinto and Mendelson drew attention to the congressional action on the dais during the debate.

Pinto pointed to congressional Republicans’ determination to overturn certain policing or public safety legislation from the D.C. Council as a reason to oppose some amendments, including one from council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) to expedite an expansion of criminal records that are allowed to be expunged. Pinto said that she supported the substance of the bill but that members needed to be “strategic” about the process, since attaching it to Secure D.C. could threaten the bill in Congress.

“I need everybody to remember that we have some friends and opponents a couple blocks away who are very interested in getting involved in District affairs,” Pinto said.

The Lewis George amendment passed 10-3.

Emily Davies contributed to this report.

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