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Report: Special Police Units Exclusively Used Force On Black People

Above photo: Tony Hisgett/Wikimedia Commons.

The vast majority of people stopped, frisked, or arrested by officers in D.C.’s special gun recovery and narcotics units were Black, according to a new report mandated by the D.C. Council. Black people were the subjects of 87% of stops, 91% of arrests, and 100% of use-of-force incidents, despite making up 46% of the population. White people accounted for just 5% of stops.

The report gives a more complete picture of the operations of these special units, which have been accused of using aggressive tactics with little oversight or transparency. The units, part of the Narcotics and Specialized Investigations Division of the Metropolitan Police Department, are responsible for complex narcotics investigations, as well as efforts to get illegal guns off the streets. They often wear plain clothes.

The report on the NSID was required by a law passed in July, 2019 by the D.C. Council. It was initially supposed to cover three years of police activity, but due to inconsistency in MPD’s data collection over that timeframe, the review looked at just 6 months, from August 1, 2019 to January 31, 2020. The independent report was conducted by the National Police Foundation.

“Limitations in the data available and provided by MPD prevented using a longer period of time,” wrote the foundation’s president, Jim Burch, in an introduction to the report. “We cannot determine if the activity associated with NSID-assigned personnel has, or is, changing over time.”

D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, called the report a “snapshot in time” and said it added depth to what the public and lawmakers already knew about police operations.

“I have been holding oversight hearings for the last couple of years as we’ve had this conversation around policing,” Allen told WAMU/DCist. “One of the elements that we continue to hear from the public was concerns around this unit.”

At oversight hearings, residents have testified that they have been targeted by police based on “where they lived or how they looked,” Allen said. “The anecdotes are important. The lived experience is critically important. But it’s also helpful to have the data that backs that up.”

Previously disclosed data showed disparities in MPD stops and arrests, but to a lesser degree than appear in the drug and gun unit data. In September, MPD released four weeks of department-wide stop and arrest data, showing African Americans accounted for 70% of all stops, while white people comprised 15% of stops and Latinos accounted for 7%. Another batch of data released in March showed similar numbers.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, D.C.’s population is 46% Black, 37.5% Non-Hispanic white, 11% Latinx of any race, 4.5% Asian, 0.1% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, 0.6% American Indian or Native Alaskan, and 3% two or more races.

In May, 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union published four years’ worth of arrest data it obtained from the police department through Freedom Of Information Act requests. That report showed 86% of all people arrested were Black — and not just because police were focusing resources on predominantly African American neighborhoods. Black people were disproportionately arrested in 90% of D.C. census tracts, according to the ACLU.

The data examined in the new report includes 2,871 stops of 3,680 people by NSID officers. NSID stops accounted for less than 5% of all stops conducted by MPD during the 6 month period. Of those stopped by NSID officers, 46% were frisked or searched. In about one-third of those searches, illegal guns or drugs were seized.

Of the total 2,871 stops recorded, 2,035 resulted in arrests. Those arrests showed similar disparities to the stops data: 91% of people arrested were Black, 6% were white and 5% were Latinx.

The data show 52 instances of use of force, against 59 people. All 59 were Black, and all but 3 were male.

“The data that is mentioned in the report speaks volumes,” said Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie. The data, McDuffie said, bolstered the argument for cutting MPD’s budget.

“We need to redirect funding away from the police department to other government agencies in other priorities and invest in those communities where people have been over-policed for years,” said McDuffie.

The MPD data releases and the National Police Foundation report come in response to police reform legislation authored by McDuffie in 2016, called the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results, or NEAR, Act. The legislation aims to use public health approaches to reduce incarceration and violence. Among the provisions of the law is a requirement that MPD record and make public data about all stops, frisks, arrests and instances of use of force.

McDuffie said MPD has not worked quickly to implement the NEAR Act provisions on data collection and transparency, and he pointed to shortcomings in the new report — particularly the curtailed timeframe it covers. “I read this report bearing in mind that it took three years and multiple FOIA requests and a lawsuit to finally compel MPD to follow the law and put forth the data as required by the NEAR Act.”

In 2018, the ACLU sued the District for failing to implement the NEAR Act. In June, 2019, a judge ordered MPD to begin collecting data as required by the law.

Monica Hopkins, executive director of the ACLU of the District of Columbia, said the report’s limited timeframe and scope left her frustrated. “In many ways, it leaves us with more questions than answers,” Hopkins told DCist.

“We are talking about a tactic and we are talking about a portion of the Metropolitan Police Department that sort of operates as a covert militarized unit,” said Hopkins.

In Hopkins’ view, the report confirms MPD’s use of “jump-outs,” a tactic where plainclothes officers jump out of an unmarked car to question or search people. The report mentions jump-outs as a part of its recommendations, suggesting that officers should be “easily identifiable” as MPD during jump-outs. D.C. Police have denied using jump-out squads.

Other recommendations in the report include better data collection and diverting more non-violent people to other city agencies rather than the criminal justice system.

A spokesperson for MPD wrote in an email, “We have seen the report and would like to thank the National Police Foundation for their work. With regard to the recommendations, several of them have already been done or are underway and the others will be given careful consideration.”

McDuffie said that despite the report’s limitations, it confirms what people in the community already know.

“Practically speaking, the people in these communities don’t need anymore reports to tell you what they experienced. In many cases on a daily basis,” said McDuffie.

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