DC’s Office of Police Complaints may be one of the most robust civilian review boards in the country, but it’s still unable to check systemic racism and racial profiling by its officers, says Seema Sadanandan, policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore, a city grappling with a police force accused of systemic rights abuses.
Graphic videos of brutality have come to light as The Baltimore Sun exposed it’s cost over $10 million to settle over 100 cases of undue force in the past four years alone. The Police Department is under federal review, and just this week the City Council passed a bill requiring the police to wear body cameras, which the mayor has promised veto.
It’s widely agreed the city’s existing civilian review board doesn’t have the authority to hold officers accountable. As Baltimore lawmakers, advocates, and community makers look to other cities for models that work, we now turn to Washington, D.C. Officers there recently began wearing body cameras. Its review board, the Office of Police Complaints, was formed after a federal investigation over a decade ago. It has a staff of 20 full-time investigators and subpoena power to compel officers to testify. Its recommendations for holding police accountable are generally enforced by the police commissioner.
Now joining us to discuss this is Seema Sadanandan. She’s the policy and advocacy director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital.
Thank you so much for joining us.
SEEMA SADANANDAN, POLICY AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR, ACLU OF THE NATION’S CAPITAL: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So Washington, D.C., is considered to have one of the most robust review boards in the country. What role did public pressure and grassroots movements have in getting this board established and keeping it maintained?
SADANANDAN: Public pressure and the office of the ACLU played a huge role in establishing the police complaint review board. And you’re right. This is considered to be one of the model complaint review boards in the country. And so what that means is that when a complaint is actually submitted to the board, there will be some type of investigation. And there are various different remedies which are provided. Particularly, they might in some circumstances bring the officer and the person in to talk to each other, or there might be some kind of complaint, there might be some kind of punishment recommended or disciplinary action.
Now, the thing to realize is, all that being said, yes, in the national context, the D.C. police complaint review board is one of the most effective, one of the models. However, it is almost completely ineffective. At this point, we are seeing very, very few complaints which are being sustained, and where they are sustained, the chief of police, Chief Lanier, has–you know, her position is that the recommendations of the complaint review board are sort of advisory opinions. She doesn’t have to follow them. And she actually requested an opinion from the attorney general this past year, who agreed with her and said that she doesn’t have to actually discipline her officers.
So there is generally a problem with police complaint review boards, because they are inherently reactionary. And it requires that something go wrong before you address these–what tend to be systematic kind patterns and practices which produce hostile interactions between police and residents of any given community. So I think that here in D.C. we’re grappling with, well, if not the police complaint review board, well, then what?
NOOR: Right. So the board has the power to review but not change policy. And some say racism persists in the department. The Associated Press recently reported that Councilmember Tommy Wells said there was deep racism in police practices. Numerous black residents testified in front of the city council about difficult encounters with the police. And Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who is black, said he’s lost count of the number of times that he, a council member, has been stopped and searched for no reason. So can you talk more about–.
SADANANDAN: So that’s right, that’s exactly right. I mean, what we’re seeing here in D.C. isn’t something new for the residents of D.C. What’s new is that in the past two years the ACLU and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee have come out with really in-depth studies of arrest patterns here in the District of Columbia.
And so out of these studies of arrest patterns, a few different things emerged. One, by and large, across all categories, black people made up a disparate amount of arrests. And that became particularly salient when we looked at certain categories of nonviolent offenses, which we know a lot about the behavior. And marijuana is a perfect example of that. That’s how we ended up with the first racial justice oriented marijuana decriminalization bill in the country.
But it was much deeper than that. You have more than 45,000 arrests every single year–and counting–in a city of only 600,000 people. Ninety-six percent of those 45,000 arrests are for nonviolent offenses. So when you think about rationalizations like black-on-black crime for being the reason why police are interfacing so much with the black community, that’s not what the statistics were showing. The statistics were showing it was for nonviolent drug possession charges, largely traffic offenses and other minor violations, which we as a district have engaged in in an in-depth question across the city with council members, public officials, and community members, asking the question as to whether or not these police practices are actually making us safer.
And so, yes, there were hundreds of people that came out just a couple weeks ago and said, look, we don’t feel safe. And I think that really gets to the heart of this way in which the war on drugs and our present-day police practices have really perverted the meaning of public safety, where we measure public safety based on the number of arrests or the number of homicides, when the reality is, if you’re a black man in the District of Columbia, if you’re a person of color, if you’re living in a neighborhood, a black neighborhood, and being over-policed, you might not feel it safe, and you may feel particularly unsafe when you see the police coming your way.
NOOR: And so has this board had any impact? And how often are officers held accountable? Or are you saying that the police commissioner can just dismiss the recommendations of the review board?
SADANANDAN: Yes, that is what I’m saying. And that is really what’s playing out these days. I believe Cathy Lanier has been the chief of police here since 2007 and has really benefited from the dramatic drop in violent crimes. But really that’s a trend across major cities. Another reason is that the community that has largely been targeted for enforcement of many of these crimes is also being moved out of the city. There’s been tremendous gentrification over the past many years.
Now, that being said, we’ve seen our black population drop by the double digits in the past couple of years. However, our jail population remains more than 92 percent black for as long as I’ve looked back, more than a decade. So there is a deep racism here. It’s not just about a single officer’s interaction with a single individual; it’s about practices, strategies, and tactics which are being used in the black community which would be wholly unacceptable were they used in the white community. And that’s where marijuana became really the jumping-off point for us to begin talking about racial profiling here in the district.
NOOR: So, as cities like Baltimore–and we know we’ve seen what’s happened in Ferguson and other cities across the country. As they grapple with issues of police brutality, a lack of accountability, as they look to D.C. for answers, what would your message be? What powers does D.C.’s board need? We also–as I mentioned in the introduction, D.C. has–they’re starting to have body cameras on police officers. They’ve now legalized marijuana, which lessens the impact of the war on drugs (doesn’t completely remove it). But are these the kind of solutions that are needed? And what solutions are being discussed on the grassroots level in Washington right now?
SADANANDAN: Well, I think that you’re right. The war on drugs did really contribute to the instream of federal funding that strengthened these police edifices that are controlling and policing and really enforcing drug laws–nearly exclusively, here in D.C., in the black community.
That being said, the war on drugs is not sort of at the root of racism. We also deal with implicit bias, historical racism, and other institutions which reproduce inequity. I think it is necessary that we end this war on drugs, which has been a war on black and brown communities, because we have more than 5,300 people every single year–91 percent of whom are black–entering into the criminal justice system through marijuana alone, let alone other drug-related offenses. So, yeah, that’s absolutely necessary, but it’s not sufficient.
One of the things that’s happened, one of the things that happened with Ferguson, for example, is we saw tanks in the street. And that was really–it didn’t sit well with most of middle America, particularly the parts of America that aren’t exposed to really aggressive types of policing. But what we’re not seeing through Ferguson is the regular daily indignity that black communities are being subjected to by policing strategies. Like, for example, in New York, they had to stop and frisk. Well, in D.C. we have jump-out cars, we have the vice units, the drug units who are roving around in unmarked cars and jumping out at people and scaring the living daylights out of them, not to mention creating the very type of frightening situations that escalate the chances of violent outcomes, like the turn tragedy we saw with Ferguson, like one we saw in New York. I mean, in each of these circumstances, you have this extremely aggressive type of policing strategies and tactics being used to enforce low-level non-violent offenses.
That’s become our culture, to drive through Southeast, for example, and to see young black men placed on the curb while their bodies, their cars, their belongings are searched. So it’s a criminalization of men in general. You know, D.C., about 50 percent of the population here is African-American, and three out of every four black men in D.C. are spending time in jail or prison. So when you think about what Tommy Wells said at the hearing a couple of weeks ago, he said there is a deep racism here, and he’s talking about this reproduction of structural inequity.
Now, followup to that hearing, we had Cathy Lanier come in, and it just seems like the police department is tone deaf when it comes to what’s happening in the community. And even with respect to stop-and-frisk data–there was some stop and frisk data that was tossed around, but the reality is is that the D.C. police department doesn’t even collect the type of data that we’re talking about.
So when I think about what type of solutions we need to see here and around the country, it’s going to have to be a lot deeper than a complaint review board, which is essentially reactive. What we need to do is look at the amount of discretion that police officers are afforded in the community. What about consent searches? Are these searches actually consensual? We need to look at the affirmative responsibility of police to de-escalate situations that oftentimes they’re creating in these interactions.
You know, I go give trainings at high schools almost every week, and just a couple of weeks ago, I gave a training to more than 200 kids at a D.C. high school about how to de-escalate and survive a police encounter. That should be shocking. That should be troubling to people, because we shouldn’t have to teach our children how to survive these encounters and how to de-escalate. Shouldn’t that be the responsibility of the police department?
So it’s a really deep question. It’s about the people who get arrested. But it’s about mothers and daughters and grandmothers, and it’s about an entire community that’s been disenfranchised by collateral consequences.
NOOR: I want to thank you so much for joining us.
SADANANDAN: Thank you so much for having me.
NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.