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The GW Hatchet

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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Staff Editorial: DC’s latest public safety plans deserve a closer look

Violent crime is an issue. Getting “tough on crime” won’t fix it.

Ward 2 Councilmember Brooke Pinto, who represents the area including Foggy Bottom, unveiled a comprehensive package of legislation last month designed to “improve safety for D.C. residents.” No Washingtonian should have to fear for their safety — but how can the Council guarantee that?

While parts of Pinto’s “Secure D.C. Plan” have merit, her proposals deserve scrutiny. Her plan would empower the Metropolitan Police Department, which has a history of abuses, and trade away civil liberties without a guarantee of public safety. And some of these policies, namely stop-and-frisk and pretrial detention, aren’t as effective at reducing crime as their supporters may claim.

Pinto’s plan follows previous legislation that the D.C. Council passed in July amid rising violent crime. Homicides in D.C. have surged 37 percent in 2023, reaching 214 total homicides so far this year. Meanwhile, other major metropolitan areas like New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia are experiencing a decline in homicide rates this year, dropping anywhere from 2 to 21 percent.

It’s against this backdrop that Pinto has trotted out seemingly “tough-on-crime” legislation. D.C. law already allows police to “frisk” civilians with their consent, but one bill would permit MPD officers to stop-and-frisk — pat or sweep the outside of someone’s clothes to search for weapons — anyone they “suspect is on probation or parole for a gun conviction” in a public place.

These searches could go so far as to potentially violate Fourth Amendment rights, as several D.C. judges said in a letter of concern to Pinto. And even if it is constitutional, stop-and-frisk policing isn’t a surefire way to prevent crime. In 2019, 86 percent of MPD’s stop-and-frisks did not lead to a warning, ticket or arrest. These searches also disproportionately target Black people, who make up 47 percent of D.C.’s population — they’re the target of 91 percent of those searches that didn’t lead to a warning, ticket or arrest. Studies show that repeated, unwarranted stop-and-frisks can lead to long-term anxiety and depression, as well as worsen community relations and breed distrust with local police forces.

Pinto is surely aware of the implications of the stop-and-frisk policy, adding “it is not the intent of the Council to authorize law enforcement officers to conduct searches for the sole purpose of harassment” to the text of the legislation. But this language does nothing to actually prevent racial discrimination by police officers, a demonstrable issue in MPD.

Another part of the plan expands pretrial detention — when someone is detained while they await trial. Instead of improving public safety, pretrial detention effectively leads to mass incarceration. In fact, 93 percent of people released pretrial nationally are not rearrested for any offense, violent or nonviolent, while awaiting their trial. Only 1 percent are rearrested for a violent offense.

Granted, some policies in the plan have the potential to make a dent in crime. The package of legislation includes installing an emergency call box system at bus stops along commercial corridors across the city and establishing a first-in-the-nation board to provide policy recommendations on protections for transgender and gender-diverse people to the D.C. Council. The Secure D.C. Plan would also expand community access to safe and clean recreational space.

Given the choice between “tough-on-crime” policies that damage community relations — and don’t actually address the problems D.C. is facing — and more proactive, preventative measures, we favor the latter. Violent crime is an issue. It’s not a given that expanding police power and implementing discriminatory policies will address it.

The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by Editorials Assistant Paige Baratta based on discussions with Contributing Culture Editor Jenna Baer, Opinions Editor Ethan Benn, Contributing Social Media Director Anaya Bhatt, Contributing Opinions Editor Riley Goodfellow and Social Media Director Ethan Valliath.

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