After a lack of reform, D.C. activists advocate for stricter regulations on Police stops

By Sasha Fernandez

Advocates within Washington, D.C. are calling for stricter regulations on stop and frisk tactics, after local non-profits determined that the practice disproportionately targets Black residents. 

Patrice Sulton, director of the criminal and legal justice policy non-profit D.C. Justice Lab, co-wrote a Sep. 10 report which argued that D.C. police were conducting a lot of stops targeting Black residents. 

From July through December 2019, Black residents made up 72% of the 63,000 documented stops, despite making up 46.5% of the District’s population, according to ACLU analysis of D.C. police stop data.

“We need stronger remedies…we want the council to put in place some things that will really get them to stop doing this,” Sulton said in an interview. 

The calls for change come after there were a number of reforms to address the national crisis of police brutality and killings of Black residents. The D.C. Council, in June, passed emergency legislation to reform police, and included establishing a Police Reform Commission. 

The policy of stops and protective pat downs was left untouched. 

The Legal Basis of Stops and Protective Pat Downs

The D.C. rules on police stops are based on the Supreme Court ruling of the Terry stop; police are allowed to detain an individual when they have reasonable suspicion that the person has committed a crime. If the officer believes the person is carrying a weapon, they can do a protective pat down, or a “frisk” to check. 

Reasonable suspicion, the litmus test that police conduct before detaining someone, can be based on a number of factors including the time of day, the neighborhood, and their behavior. If the person is acting nervously, or if it is a time of the day and neighborhood associated with high crime, there is sufficient evidence for a stop, according to the D.C. Justice Lab report. 

Pat-downs, in certain instances, have been accused of being sexually invasive and illegal. The local ACLU filed a Jan. lawsuit against D.C. after a citizen said that they were sexually assaulted during a search. The lawsuit is ongoing, according to an interview with Strategic Communications Director Suzanne Ito. 

Stops and protective pat downs have been criticized under the more commonly used name “stop and frisk.” This term gained notoriety after the New York Police Department implemented this policy and disproportionately stopped minority residents, infringing their fourth amendment rights. The policy was deemed unconstitutional in a 2013 local, court ruling. 

Greggory Pemberton, the chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said in an interview that the New York stop and frisk policy “got a bad name for a good reason in certain circumstances,” but the stops and protective pat downs practiced in D.C. are not like the NYPD’s tactics.

According to Pemberton, the distinction is that D.C. police are stopping residents for criminal violations rather than as a blanket policy for screening for unlawful behavior, as it was used in New York. 

Pemberton said that unlike many policy departments, D.C. police have been monitored before;  the Metropolitan Police Department was one of the first departments to be scrutinized in a multi-year investigation by a federal agency. This investigation came after the department was documented using excessive force against its residents. 

Pemberton said that after years of federal oversight from the Department of Justice and the termination of this investigation, the department has been legitimized, unlike others across the country. 

As for claims that D.C. police are disproportionately stopping Black people, Pemberton said that officers patrol areas that are usually more impoverished with higher crime rates, and in the district, these neighborhoods, particularly Southeast D.C., are predominantly Black. 

“When police go to those areas, they’re going to be more likely to develop reasonable suspicion because there’s more of that activity there,” Pemberton said. 

Kurt Vorndran, a member of the D.C. Police Complaints Board and a commissioner on the Police Reform Commission, said in an interview that this rationale for stopping people “would be a defensible action on their part.” 

“But we wanna look at the whole picture,” Vorndran said. 

D.C. Stop Regulations, or Lack Thereof

The only regulation of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department’s stop policy came from the 2016 Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act, which requested that police maintain data of the stops. 

Police officials went years without collecting and publishing the data. The D.C. ACLU eventually sued for it. 

While the D.C. Council made changes to policing by passing an emergency reform bill this summer, it did not touch stops and protective pat downs — it only focused on consensual searches where citizens are not detained, but elect to be frisked. 

Valerie Wexler, an advocate for a D.C. police activist group called Stop Police Terror Project D.C., said in an interview that there needs to be legislation restricting stops. She said that one particular tactic that should end is jump outs where police drive in unmarked cars, detain residents, and check waistbands for weapons. This is an unconstitutional practice, because officers in this case do not have reasonable suspicion.

Chairman Pemberton denied that this tactic is used by local police.

Wexler said that despite police denial, she has heard stories of D.C. residents that have been the victim of this tactic. She said that the police department’s lack of acknowledgement of this practice makes it difficult to hold them accountable. 

“Jump outs are technically supposed to be already banned, so how do you stop doing something when they just say ‘we don’t do it’ but we know from everything that people in the neighborhood tell us that this is constantly still happening?” Wexler said. 

Ultimately, Wexler said the stops and protective pat down policy should be terminated. She cited the ACLU data, which demonstrated that only 0.8% of stops resulted in police obtaining an illegal weapon. 

“This is just a completely ineffective practice, along with being incredibly traumatizing and exposing people to huge amounts of violence, it just doesn’t work,” Wexler said.

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