D.C. Council Set To Vote on Public Safety Bill as Homicide, Carjackings Surge

The district’s leaders are desperate to address its 39 percent spike in violent crime, but the proposal is facing opposition from criminal justice reform advocates.

AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file
Washington Metropolitan Police investigate near the Supreme Court and the Capitol. AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file

“Unacceptable” is what a D.C. council member is calling the district’s stunning 39 percent increase in violent crime last year, as she pushes for a legislative package that she says will “turn the tide on crime trends” that have overwhelmed the nation’s capital. 

Councilwoman Brooke Pinto will move the “Secure D.C. Omnibus” for a vote on January 17. The legislation includes more than 100 public safety and crime interventions, including giving police the ability to declare drug-free zones, targeting retail theft, and addressing crime at transit stations. It will also set a presumption that adults and juveniles be detained pre-trial, requiring judges to write statements explaining cases of pretrial releases.

 “It is resoundingly clear — from residents across the District, businesses, visitors, and our federal and regional partners — that urgent and effective action is needed now,” Ms. Pinto, whose office did not respond to a request by the Sun for comment, said

The package comes as D.C.’s homicide rates surged — with 274 murders last year, the most on record since 1997, as the Sun has reported, prompting calls for Congress to intervene. Carjackings, too, nearly doubled in 2023 compared to the year prior. 

The legislation is strongly endorsed by D.C.’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, who called upon the City Council to “move with urgency” to pass it.

“We know that driving down crime requires us to send a clear message that if you make our city less safe if you bring violence to our community, you will be held accountable,” Ms. Bowser said in a statement. 

Yet, the legislation is facing criticism from civil rights and judicial reform groups, who say the proposals are likely to lead to an abuse of police power. 

“There’s so much more we could be doing that we’re not doing through this bill,” an attorney and executive director of D.C. Justice Lab, Patrice Sulton, tells the Sun. “So each time there’s a big announcement that we’re going to keep people safe and then you don’t have any of the things that have actually been demonstrated to keep people safe is disappointing because it’s giving the public this false sense of hope and security.”

There are policies in the bill that are “really harmful” and will make crime worse, she said. 

“There is such a thing as over punishing a neighborhood, over punishing a child, as most people know from parenting or teaching,” Ms. Sulton said. “There’s such a thing as destabilizing communities to the point that the policing that you’re doing and the mass caging that you’re doing is actually making our gun violence problem, our violent crime problem, and our overall crime problem worse than it would be otherwise.” 

The proposals are not in touch with thousands of residents, she said, drawing from her 20 years of living in the area and working on crime issues. 

“We did polling of district voters, and in all eight wards they asked for solutions that do not look like the solutions in this bill,” she said, noting concerns that D.C. already has high rates of police-civilian contact. 

“Thematically, it’s pretty simple, when people have the ability to earn a living wage, the ability to feed their children, crime goes down dramatically, and D.C. is just not serious about that,” she said, noting that other cities where crime has gone down have “invested substantially” in violence prevention in a “whole-of-government” approach instead of piecemeal solutions to addressing crime.

“D.C. government agencies don’t work together well, and Brooke Pinto and I are in strong agreement about that,” Ms. Sulton said. “Integrating services is really important.” 

Last year, the number of police officers in D.C. reached a 50-year low, and the district remains short by hundreds of officers. Gallup polling indicates that 46 percent of Americans don’t consider the nation’s capitol safe to live in or visit. 

While civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, warn of expanding police power, some residents have called on the police to be more active in addressing crime.

“We’re in danger, our women are in danger, our kids are in danger,” a D.C. resident, Larry Lewis, told ABC 7 News. “I’ve never seen it this bad until now,” he said, adding that “people will continue to die” until police do more to address crime. 

One of Ms. Bowser’s goals has been to expand police presence, visibility, and engagement with the community.“Everywhere I go in the city, from Ward 1 to Ward 8, the thing I consistently hear from our residents, our businesses, and our community as a whole is that they want to see more police in their neighborhoods,” she said in April. “They want to see and know the officers assigned to their community.”

The New York Sun

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