In response to public concern about increased crime rates so far this year and especially this summer, the Council has passed a series of initial measures meant to deal with the diverse components of what has occurred. The measures passed most recently were considered emergency legislation, meaning they required a super-majority vote by nine or more councilmembers, and could have no additional cost that could not be absorbed by existing agency budgets. While they will only be in effect for 90 days, they represent a critical initial effort by the Council to get ahead of what traditionally has been a season of elevated criminal activity. Longer-lasting temporary and permanent versions of the bills, plus other possible measures, will continue the Council’s efforts.
The Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Act, the keystone measure passed at the most recent meeting, included a number of proposed public safety reforms that not only do not have a cost (as required of emergency bills), but also those deemed to provide immediate remedy to summertime crime issues and also those that an often reluctant executive would actually agree to truly implement.
Much of the debate prior to and during the Legislative Meeting focused on the creation of what is known as a “rebuttable presumption” in regards to pretrial detention in certain cases and for certain individuals. A rebuttable presumption creates a presumed conclusion that is assumed to be true until and unless it is actively disproved. While maintaining an elevated standard for which arrested individuals can be detained prior to trial, the bill allows for a presumption of the need for pretrial detention for adults who have committed crimes of violence, as well as for youth who committed a crime of violence while armed, or certain other dangerous crimes. Getting this very technical element of the legislation right is an example of the Council balancing the need for rapid and effective public safety intervention against fears of excessive or ineffective incarceration some feel the District experienced during prior periods of elevated criminal activity.
In addition to the measured expansion of pretrial detention, this omnibus short-term crime measure also:
- creates a felony offense of endangerment with a firearm, so that the reckless public firing of a gun is, for the first time, in and of itself a felony crime
- creates a standalone felony offense of strangulation for the first time
- prohibits those convicted of stalking from legally possessing a firearm
- restates and clarifies existing law stating that GPS data held by the Pretrial Services Agency (such as from ankle bracelets) is admissible in court
- expands the District’s residential and commercial private security camera incentive rebate program
- allows for extradition of misdemeanor arrestees where courts find good cause
- expedites court cases involving children, whether the child is the victim or simply giving testimony
- requires bimonthly “shooting reviews” by law enforcement officials that examine the dynamics, precursors, interrelations, response, and outreach to high-risk individuals involved/affected by every shooting in the District
- improves implementation of the of the District’s red flag law, which targets gun owners at immediate risk of harming themselves or others
- requires reporting by January 1 regarding all guns used in crimes in the District, including the location, model, point of sale, if lost/stolen, etc.
- requires quarterly reporting on all criminal diversion programs
It is worth noting that certain of these public safety measures were already due to be District law since they were included in the years-long comprehensive criminal code review passed last year by the Council. But that measure was subsequently overriden by Congress.
Another crime-related measure passed on an emergency basis at the most recent Legislative Meeting is a restatement and clarification of when police can engage in vehicular pursuits. Specifically, the bill states that police can engage in vehicular pursuits when a suspect has committed a crime of violence, poses an immediate threat to public safety, where pursuit is necessary, and where risk to the public can be mitigated.
Two other measures passed at the most recent meeting affect perceptions of public safety and the criminal justice system. In order for members of the public to be truly confident in their safety, they must know that any crime or crisis reported to their local government will be received and reported rapidly, accurately, and effectively. To address this concern, one emergency measure passed at the recent meeting requires that the Office of Unified Communications (which runs the District’s 911 and 311 systems) report monthly on how long calls took to be answered, if errors were made in responding to or dispatching calls and why, and when switchboards were understaffed.
A second measure dealt indirectly with confidence in criminal investigations, namely whether the system is fairly and universally applied. In the case of former Chief of Staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development John Falchiccio, who resigned after numerous accusations of sexual harassment, many were concerned that the initial investigation of the case was conducted internally, by the Mayor’s Office of Legal Counsel. An emergency measure passed by the Council at its most recent meeting requires that a truly independent review of the already-completed in-house investigation be conducted. Rather than conducting a new investigation, which could re-traumatize the victims, the thought was that an independent review of the prior investigation would determine if the existing investigation was trustworthy. Additionally, the Office of the Inspector General and the independent counsel it retains would be empowered to investigate claims that were outside the scope of the earlier investigation, as well as claims that surfaced or will surface subsequently. In addition, the Council’s summer recess rules allow two Council committees with related jurisdiction to conduct hearings on topics related to sexual harassment in government and the investigation thereof.
In other action at the most recent meeting:
- A bill was passed to provide incentives and subsidies for the purchase of e-bikes
- The Council eliminated its COVID vaccination requirement for its own staff, as well as the requirement for DC school students
- A bill was passed to officially systematize the use of road names on the former St. Elizabeth’s campus, so that residents there can reliably receive services, including public safety services
- A bill to provide initial forms of identification to migrants bussed to the District against their will by governors of southern states had to be withdrawn, because the District government agencies involved said they could not absorb the cost of its implementation
- A bill to disclose why automated traffic cameras are placed at each given location had to be withdrawn, since the agency said the disclosure of this pre-existing and previously catalogued data would require additional staff time, and that therefore they could not absorb the cost of the bill’s implementation