Following their successful effort to nullify the District of Columbia’s revised criminal code earlier this month, House Republicans set their sights on a new target: a set of modest reforms designed to increase accountability and transparency in D.C. law enforcement. Republicans were clearly hoping for a do-over of the criminal code debacle, forcing a difficult vote that would divide the Democratic Party and subject moderates to “soft-on-crime” smears.
It appears that they badly miscalculated. A Wednesday hearing on the GOP bill went disastrously for Republicans as white GOP congressmen lobbed blatantly racist insults at the District (whose population is majority-minority). Just one day later, after intense lobbying from the Congressional Black Caucus, President Joe Biden declared that he would veto the override bill if it reached his desk. The Democrats’ united front provides a night-and-day contrast to their treatment of the criminal code nullification bill. It’s a sign that the party is shifting back to its previous support for D.C. autonomy. It’s also evidence that Biden hasn’t abandoned support for police reform despite his tough-on-crime rhetoric earlier this month. And just as importantly, it’s proof that even as he shifts to the right in advance of 2024, the president will still stand up to a belligerent police union that will pillory his position as an attack on cops.
D.C.’s police accountability bill, the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act, has actually been law since 2020. At the time, the council enacted the law as an emergency measure; it’s now trying to make it permanent. The act is really quite modest, implementing many gold-standard reforms proposed after George Floyd’s murder. It bans chokeholds, limits the use of tear gas and deadly force, mandates the release of certain body camera footage, codifies a use-of-force review board, and increases de-escalation training. The measure is extremely similar to the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act that House Democrats passed in 2021. MPD, the District’s police department, has already adapted to the new rules.
Although Republicans gestured toward these reforms as grounds to oppose the bill, their real objection lies with two provisions that the D.C. Police Union has decried as an existential threat: the creation of a database of police discipline files accessible through public records requests, and the removal of discipline from collective bargaining. The police union does not want the public to have access to disciplinary records, insisting on a right to conceal misconduct allegations from the public. And it really does not want to cede disciplinary authority to management.
That’s because, like many police departments, MPD has long demanded lavish protections against discipline at the bargaining table, shielding officers from termination even after grievous abuses. For years, MPD secured a right to arbitration whenever officers faced discipline, an often drawn-out process tilted in favor of the police. D.C.’s police chiefs have complained that these protections limit their ability to fire officers who engage in severe misconduct. And in October, the D.C. Auditor found that reinstatement cases dragged on for an average of eight years, put dangerous officers back on the force, and cost the District $14 million in back pay over a five-and-a-half-year period.
The D.C. Police Union was so furious about the disciplinary reform that it sued in federal court, all the way up to the Supreme Court (and lost each step of the way). And so, after it failed to persuade the council, the mayor, the voters, or the judiciary to kill the new reforms, it turned to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. (In a conversation Friday, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb decried this “circumvention of democracy” as “insulting to the people of D.C.”) The union convinced hardline conservatives to prioritize nullifying the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act, which led to Wednesday’s hearing. But Republicans did not seem very eager to engage with the specific reforms at issue, instead seizing upon the occasion to condemn D.C. as a crime-ridden hellhole. They did not, however, bother to get their facts in order beforehand, leading to exchanges like this one, in which GOP Rep. Lauren Boebert condemned D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen for passing a law that doesn’t exist:
And on and on it went. When Republicans chastised D.C. for failing to prosecute criminals, Allen had to explain that the U.S. Attorney’s Office, not the D.C. government, handles felonies, and that the current U.S. Attorney has refused to prosecute 67 percent of people arrested. (D.C. residents have no say in whom the president appoints to this position.) Republicans continually asserted that crime is “rampant” and getting “worse” in the District; Council Chairman Phil Mendelson pointed out that, in reality, violent crime actually dropped this year. The worst—and most blatantly racist—moment came when GOP Rep. Gary Palmer dismissed D.C.’s public schools as “inmate factories.” (A majority of students are Black.) As Schwalb told me: “Can you imagine being an elementary school kid who believes her national Congress thinks she’s never going to be anything but a criminal? What could be more insulting or damaging to the psyche of children?”
One day after the hearing, Biden announced that he would veto the GOP bill. That blunt defense of D.C. interests was a marked difference from the last go-round, when Biden initially said that he opposed a proposed bill to nullify D.C.’s revised criminal code without offering a promise to veto it, before eventually changing his mind and signing the bill. His initial opposition led most House Democrats to vote against the nullification bill. When Biden flip-flopped, he hung furious House Democrats out to dry. This time, the president has made it very clear from the outset that he’ll kill the bill if it reaches his desk. That strong position should shore up near-unanimous opposition from House Democrats and Senate Democrats, drawing a clear line between the party’s view of the criminal code revision (bad) and the police reform bill (good).
Biden’s position has implications far beyond the specifics of D.C. law. The president’s support for the criminal code nullification raised the very real possibility that he was falling back on his earlier, carceral views about criminal justice—even though police reform remains as urgently necessary as ever. The move also implied that Biden might be afraid to take on police unions (a perennial obstacle to reform) and the D.C. Police Union in particular (which lobbied hard in favor of nullifying the new code). But the president’s refusal to play ball with the latest nullification bill suggests instead that the criminal code fiasco was a one-off, or at least a deviation from Biden’s stated beliefs on both police reform and D.C. autonomy.
It didn’t help Republicans, of course, that they fumbled the new bill so badly. Using the hearing to call D.C. schools “inmate factories” pretty much gives the game away, dropping any pretense that Republicans really care about protecting D.C. residents. When lawmakers use District law as a political football without bothering to conceal their racism, it doesn’t exactly help their cause. The Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act is going to remain the law in D.C. That’s good for public safety, good for democracy, and bad for the GOP’s crusade to treat the District as a colony unworthy of governing itself.