Mar 6, 2024 - News

D.C. passes sweeping public safety bill, reversing some reforms

Photo illustration of a Metropolitan Police cruiser with lines radiating from it.

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios. Photo: Celal Gunes/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

D.C. is reversing progressive reforms with a sweeping public safety bill — raising penalties for theft and gun crimes and bowing to some demands from the police union.

Why it matters: The D.C. Council approved the bill Tuesday after a 25-year high in homicides, leading progressive lawmakers to break with activists who warned of a return to failed tough-on-crime policies.

Driving the news: It creates a new crime for organized retail theft and revives a 90s-era anti-loitering law creating drug-free zones. It also revises the definition of an officer chokehold, a change sought by the police union, along with the new permission for cops to view bodycam footage before writing incident reports.

  • Those changes, first proposed by Mayor Muriel Bowser in the fall, and the rest of the bill are a culmination of fierce debate that ensued into the final moments before the vote, with activists interrupting lawmakers.
  • The bill passed with near-unanimous approval. Ward 8 Council member Trayon White voted "present."

Friction point: A controversial element involved the ability of authorities to collect a DNA sample from a suspect and enter it into a national database — without having to wait for their conviction.

  • Despite privacy concerns from some council members, it gained approval after its scope was narrowed to allow DNA collection only after a finding of probable cause and limited to certain violent crimes and sexual abuse misdemeanors.

Another provision gives judges more power to jail suspects charged with violent crimes until their trial. Minors can be held longer until their trial.

Yes, but: One change that would have lowered the threshold for felony theft to stealing a $500 item was stripped out to keep the bar at $1,000.

What they're saying: "We are a city that is committed to creating opportunity and that believes in second chances, but we will not tolerate violence and we will not tolerate criminal activity that disrupts our sense of safety and our ability to build thriving neighborhoods," Bowser said in a statement after its passage.

The big picture: The large package divided Democrats between defenders of progressive criminal justice reform and moderates who urged a tougher response to crime.

  • Anxiety over carjackings and shootings has led to unprecedented recall campaigns against two left-leaning council members, Charles Allen in Ward 6 and Brianne Nadeau in Ward 1.
  • Progressive activists urged council members up to the last minute to vote against stiffer sentences and expanding DNA collection.

What's next: The law takes effect as soon as Bowser signs it, thanks to an emergency version of the bill that passed.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the new bill's provisions.

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