In D.C. bill, Bowser aims to curb retail theft, drug trafficking and police reform

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The Bowser administration on Monday unveiled new policing and crime legislation aimed at cracking down on “organized retail theft” and open-air drug markets. in the District, while undoing or modifying a series of police measures The changes were approved after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

The bill, the Addressing Crime Trends Now Act, would establish new felonies for participating in or “directing” organized retail theft, intended to target shelf theft of specific items to sell on the street, and It would revive a “war on drugs”-era policy that would allow the police chief to declare temporary “drug-free zones.” The legislation would also restore a law that went into effect at the start of the pandemic in 2020 that made it illegal to wear a mask for the purpose of committing criminal acts, intimidating people or causing fear.

And after months of complaints from the police union and debate in congress, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is also seeking to reverse a number of provisions of the Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Amendment Act, such as modifying the definition of neck restraints and slightly relaxing restrictions on vehicle pursuits. The changes, Bowser said, are intended to equip officers to better respond to crime and make the department more attractive to future officers. while facing historic staffing lows.

“We need to act now and send a strong message that violence is not acceptable in our city, and this perception that people have that you can commit a brazen crime and get away with it has to end.” Bowser said. “This legislation will change that.”

Bowser introduced the bill as DC experiences some of its worst peaks in violent crimes over the past 20 years, although his bill largely targets nonviolent crimes such as retail theft and public drug dealing.

When it comes to organized retail crime, city officials said they tried to distinguish between shoplifting or chronic theft and targeted theft of specific items (laundry detergent, for example) that can be sold on the streets or fraudulently returned to stores. stores.

A DC grocery store is removing Tide, Colgate and Advil to deter theft

Retail crime is far from new in the District, but data on organized incidents is difficult to track, even as many have attracted more attention on social media and neighborhood email groups. A police spokesperson said the department does not specifically track retail-related crimes and that incidents can be classified as burglaries or robberies, depending on the details.

Burglaries in D.C. that don’t involve cars are up 22 percent compared to the same period last year, but remain below what the city experienced before the pandemic, in 2018 and 2019. The number of burglaries, according to According to the latest data from D.C. police, it is about the same as this time last year and below pre-pandemic levels.

The previous D.C. law allowing the police chief to temporarily create a “drug-free zone” for five days in a 1,000-square-foot space was in effect from 1996 to 2014, when the D.C. Council repealed it. along with one that created “prostitution-free zones.” The law was repealed amid constitutional concerns primarily with the prostitution-free zone law, although council members feared The concerns could extend to the drug-free zone law because the two were similar.

Bowser, then a council member, voted in favor of the repeal.

At a press conference, when asked about her support for repeal in 2014, Bowser did not directly address her action at the time. but he explained why he supported bring back temporary drug-free zones today.

“I supported that bill,” he said. “Part of the reason we call this Addressing Crime Trends Now is that we want to mitigate a trend that we see in open-air drug dealing that we have virtually silenced in this city” in all but a few areas. , “and I don’t want that problem to proliferate.”

Acting Police Chief Pamela A. Smith and Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Lindsey Appiah said leaders are confident the law is constitutional.

“Residents have very real complaints about drug transactions they witness in public spaces,” Smith he said at the press conference. “This serves as another tool for our MPD officers to address drug-related crimes on the streets of our district and protect the public from dangers.” associated with the deal.

The legislation also proposes a number of changes to the Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Amendment Act, some of which may draw pushback from criminal justice advocates who fought for the bill in 2020 following the killing. of Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck.

Bowser said some of the provisions in the police bill “just don’t match” the needs of officers. in routine police work.

The provisions of the police bill that Bowser seeks to change include modifying the ban on neck restraints to avoid disciplinary charges for what officials described as “incidental touching” of the neck.

Although the police law prohibits neck restraints intended or having the effect of restricting a person’s “movement, breathing, or blood flow,” the amended version would eliminate the word “movement” as well as the language “effect.” Bowser’s top public safety officials said the department was interpreting the law so broadly that too many officers were handing out disciplinary infractions for “accidentally touching” a person’s neck or, in one example shown to the press, grabbing the back of the neck. of a person while trying to protect them from hurting their head. Intentionally strangling and restricting a person’s breathing or blood flow would still be illegal.

The legislation would also adjust a provision that prohibited police from reviewing body camera footage to help write any police report; In Bowser’s proposal, the ban on reviewing footage would only apply in cases of officer-involved shootings or serious use of force. Officials said the law should not mislead officers but rather encourage accurate police reporting in routine arrests unless the officer is accused of wrongdoing.

City officials said officers ran into “credibility issues” if they wrote a police report that had conflicting details with body camera footage, which in turn prompted prosecutors. hesitate to press charges. And at a time when the US attorney’s office has come under fire for refuse to prosecute two-thirds of cases in 2022 (up 56 percent so far in 2023), officials said they wanted to make changes that could allow for more successful prosecutions.

The bill would also eliminate some police law provisions that expanded transparency in cases of officer misconduct, such as requiring public disclosure of officers’ names in disciplinary cases and restricting public access to disciplinary records in cases that were not sustained.

Smith drew parallels to the desire for police officers to have the same privacy protections as other D.C. employees while also holding them accountable for their wrongdoing. The police union had long complained that the Comprehensive Police and Justice Reform Amendment Act infringed on officers’ privacy, while advocates said the public should be informed about officer misconduct. .

This story is developing and will be updated.

Emily Davies contributed to this report.

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