Inside the D.C. Council’s Turn away from Progressive Crime Strategies

Robb Hill for The Washington Post
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has urged D.C. Council members to resist efforts to throw out a provision in the new crime bill that would drop the threshold for felony theft from $1,000 to $500.

The D.C. Council on Tuesday is likely to solidify its turn away from the liberal strategies it once trumpeted as lawmakers aim to pass new legislation that will impose harsher penalties for gun crimes and keep more people locked up as they await trial in the nation’s capital.

The legislation, known as the Secure D.C. Omnibus Amendment Act, comes after months of public outcry that city leaders were not doing enough to stop stores from being ransacked and people from getting carjacked or shot. It reflects months of fiery neighborhood meetings, calls from fed-up business owners, closed-door consultations with top public safety brass and intense oversight from congressional lawmakers who on a national stage derided what they called “soft-on-crime” policies, according to those involved in shaping the law.

And it is not without controversy. It adjusts some of the law enforcement accountability changes the city imposed after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Activists packed a council hearing where lawmakers debated the measure last month, at times jeering the member who put it forward. Even some council members who voted to advance the bill say they’re skeptical it will make D.C. safer. But they had grown tired of hearing they had done nothing on crime, and that widespread perception made them “ornery, on edge and difficult,” Council Chair Phil Mendelson (D) said.

“It’s a different council than four years ago,” Mendelson said. “I would say that this council is much more moderate with regard to public safety.”

The legislation was led by council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), a lawyer who was elected to represent downtown as the council’s youngest member in 2020, weeks after Floyd’s murder. The bill’s elements were drawn from a number of sources, including legislation proposed by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other members of the council.

Violent crime is down 10 percent and homicides are down by 31 percent in the early months of 2024, but council members are still under pressure to act coming off a year in which the homicide total reached a high not seen since the late 1990s. Two council members – Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) – are facing recall efforts over crime. Dozens of national business trade leaders, including many based downtown, wrote to Bowser and the council on Thursday, expressing alarm about “random acts of violence,” including the fatal shooting of a former elections official while he waited to pick up his wife in downtown D.C., and the killing of a 10-year-old girl who was struck by a stray bullet in Northeast on Mother’s Day.

While amendments are possible, the council plans to pass most of the bill on an emergency basis so that certain provisions that don’t cost money can go into effect immediately. Lawmakers advanced it through a first vote nearly unanimously at a February meeting.

The bill would enhance punishment for some gun crimes, make it easier, for much of the next year, to hold people while they await trial, and give more power to police – including by reviving a 1990s-era tool that would allow officers to create temporary drug-free zones. That provision drew significant concern from multiple council members, some of whom questioned if it was just “messaging” – but sustained demands from residents led many to concede they would give it a shot.

“It did not matter where I went in the city – they’re saying the same thing: Do something about it, do something about it,” said Lindsey Appiah, deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “It was really like, okay, these are real pain points for people.”

In an interview, Pinto said she began crafting the legislation after the summer, when ire over rising crime in neighborhoods was escalating. In August, the most deadly month in a particularly deadly year for D.C., council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) called for the National Guard to help stop the violence.

On Sept. 26, D.C.’s homicide count for the year surpassed 200. That evening, council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) headed to a community meeting about public safety in North Shaw. But the big-picture ideas he presented to prevent crime long-term didn’t resonate with the crowd as White had hoped.

“A resident got up on the mic and told me they did not want to hear another word about how I was going to fix crime in five years,” White said, adding that the moment drove him to prioritize crime-response legislation. He introduced other bills last week to reduce truancy and enhance vocational training and mentorship for young people.

Pinto, too, was getting flooded with concerns from residents and business owners. In January, the night before she introduced the Secure D.C. omnibus package, Mike Waters, the owner of Across the Pond Bar in Dupont Circle, told her at a neighborhood Zoom meeting he was thinking about closing his doors. The month before, he said, there had been a shooting outside, and his staff was “freaking out.”

“It was a very safe city. Now, you’d have to have your head buried in the sand if you don’t realize what’s going on,” Waters said in an interview.

Pinto pointed Waters to the Secure D.C. package, specifically provisions that would grow private security cameras, expand pretrial detention for people charged with violent crimes and lower the threshold for felony theft from $1,000 to $500.

“I hope and expect that when we pass Secure D.C.,” Pinto told him, “you and others will feel a difference in your public safety as soon as possible throughout the city.”

The pressure, though, was not merely from residents and business owners. It was on a national stage, too. Over the past year, Republican-led House committees held several hearings about public safety policy – calling in the city’s mayor, police chief and top prosecutor, who is federally appointed, to defend their performance in the face of rising crime. From campaign stops across the country, former president Trump decried Democrat-led D.C. as infested with violence, and said he would take over the local government if elected again. And with President Biden’s support, Congress voted to block the city from passing a revised criminal code; the measure was a years-long effort to modernize city law, though it also included provisions that reduced the maximum penalty for certain crimes.

In October, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) was carjacked at gunpoint in the Navy Yard area. He later endorsed a candidate for Ward 7’s council seat because she promised to be “tough on crime” – an unusual move for a congressman.

Criminal justice activists who seemed to make inroads with city lawmakers in the wake of Floyd’s killing say the political rhetoric swallowed their voices – and put D.C. on a dangerous path. If the bill passes, D.C.’s already-taxed jail will have to house even more people. More people will end up with felony records, which might hinder their ability to get work in the future. And the measure isn’t even likely to have its intended effect, said Patrice Sulton, executive director of DC Justice Lab.

Sulton and Pinto met in December, as Pinto was crafting the omnibus package. Sulton said she told the lawmaker that the draft included too many hard-edge provisions from the U.S. attorney’s office, and that the tactics would not reduce crime.

(U.S. Attorney Matthew M. Graves said he talked to Pinto about clarifying the carjacking statute to make it easier to prosecute those cases, and he stressed the importance of pretrial detention for people charged with violent crimes. “I was incredibly appreciative that she really listened to us,” he said.)

Sulton said that in her meeting with Pinto she asked the lawmaker if she would consider reintroducing the revised criminal code. Pinto’s answer was an emphatic no.

“We’ll have the same Congress in 2024,” Pinto said.

Pinto said she has worked hard behind the scenes to allay activists’ fears and get her colleagues on board. But over the past year of debate, she has also made concessions.

She described one conversation with a resident that swayed her to leave out a provision that would have allowed police to randomly search people charged with violent offenses while on pretrial release.

The resident, James Dunn, had served about three decades in prison for second-degree murder and now serves as an outreach worker. “Being frisked,” he told the council member, “would be very traumatizing for us as returning citizens.”

“It would be an embarrassment,” Dunn, 52, said. “Not just to us but to our families and in the community when you’re trying to build trust.”

Pinto had that measure excised. But as her colleagues pushed for other changes, she warned them that Congress was watching. In the coming week, the Republican-led House Oversight Committee is expected to weigh a measure that would repeal part of a city law allowing young adults to get lighter sentences, according to a draft of the legislation obtained by The Washington Post. The measure would limit eligibility for leniency to people 18 years old or younger; currently, people 24 years old or younger are eligible for lesser penalties, if they meet certain conditions.

“Last year, when we tried to reform the criminal code, we were reminded we were not in the legislating business alone,” Pinto said on the dais last month, making reference to the bipartisan vote in Congress to reject the D.C. legislation. “I need everybody to remember that we have some friends and opponents a couple blocks away who are very interested in getting involved in District affairs.”

The measure seems likely to pass Tuesday, but not before some last fireworks over provisions on which members are divided.

Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) has said she is skeptical of subjecting more D.C. residents to lengthy prison sentences by lowering the felony theft threshold from $1,000 to $500, which she argues will do little to curb retail theft – an issue that is likely to be debated Tuesday. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (I-At Large) had successfully advocated to remove a provision from the bill that would have expanded collection of DNA after an arrest, instead of after a conviction, arguing it “cast aside” the principle of innocent until proved guilty. But on Tuesday, Pinto is expected to fight to restore it after lobbying her colleagues.

In a radio interview on WAMU on Friday, Bowser urged council members to undo McDuffie’s amendment and to resist any “percolating” efforts to throw out the provision expanding felony theft. “Some people are calling this shoplifting. ‘It’s small, it’s minor’ – it’s not minor,” Bowser said. “We are having people destroying local retailers that provide a service to communities.”

White, the only lawmaker to vote “present” on the first vote, has also said he would push for changes, though he hasn’t detailed them.

On Thursday, he stood amid police lights in the Navy Yard area, close to where a man had fired a bullet into an officer’s torso.

“We have a crisis when it comes to public safety in D.C.,” he said. Students in their backpacks walked past the crime tape to their nearby elementary school. “D.C. needs a real comprehensive strategy to address public safety.”

A reporter asked him if Secure D.C. was that strategy.

He paused, then said, “No comment.”