GLAA's Police Oversight Testimony


February 12, 1997

Chairman Evans, Members of the Committee, and Fellow Citizens:

My name is Rick Rosendall. I am President of the Gay & Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian civil rights organization in the country. With me this morning is Craig Howell, a former GLAA President, our current Secretary, and a veteran activist in his own right. We are pleased to be with you this morning.

Mr. Chairman, let me begin by expressing our horror at the wanton unprovoked murder of Police Officer Brian T. Gibson just a few days ago, an act of violence that has shocked the nation. Officer Gibson's sacrifice in the line of duty stuns us once again into the realization of how much the survival of our most basic civilized values depends on the courage and dedication of the individual cop on the street. With all the publicity given to the crime problems here in Washington, we in the gay and lesbian community can testify from first-hand experience about the professionalism and idealism we have encountered in the vast majority of the members of our Metropolitan Police Department. [Here Rosendall interpolated comments, following up on an exchange between Evans and the previous witness about the extra burdens the police bear in providing protection to the President and embassies, to add that the large number of political demonstrations and marches also fall into this category which makes the District different from other cities -- and that GLAA has experienced a high degree of professionalism and cooperation from MPD on this score.] That statement may seem simple enough to you, even trite; but it is a statement we could not have honestly made a quarter-century ago, when most policemen were openly contemptuous of lesbians and gay men.

At the same time, we also know from first-hand experience that there are still some on our police force who fall short sometimes or who still harbor irrational prejudices and resentments which occasionally result in unacceptable behavior on the job. Dealing with this minority of the police force is a prime motivation for GLAA's support for speedy funding and establishment of an effective system for civilian review of public complaints of abusive language or excessive use of force by members of our Metropolitan Police Department.

For most of last year, we were expecting that the Council would enact Bill 11-428, the Police Conduct Review Board Act of 1995, which would have established the kind of civilian review system we have in mind. But in September, the then-chair of the Council's Judiciary Committee, Mr. William Lightfoot, informed us that he would not act on this legislation because no funds were available for funding it. When we wrote to Mr. Lightfoot, Council Chairman David Clarke, and all other members of the Council to demand that the Council find the needed funding and enact Bill 11-428 before the year ended, we were told that the Council's hands were tied. To quote from Mr. Clarke's letter of October 3 to us:

"The lack of appropriated funds for a police conduct review a real issue which cannot be addressed until the Mayor sends a budget bill or budget amendment to the Council. Under the home rule charter, the Council cannot initiate a budget amendment on its own. The Mayor is required to send the annual budget proposal to the Council in February and that submission, in the past, has usually been accompanied by an amendment to the existing year's budget. At that time I recommend that you testify on this matter at the Council's budget hearings."
Well, it is now February, and here we are.

We hope we will not get caught up in a vicious circle here. Last fall we were told you could not pass the bill authorizing the board because there was no funding; we hope you now won't tell us that you can't provide funding because the legislation authorizing the board has not been passed! Chairman Clarke did tell us in his October 3 letter that "if Bill 11-428 is not considered by the Council prior to the end of this Council Period in December, I intend to re-introduce the bill at the beginning of the next Council Period in January." Mr. Clarke's health has not allowed him to re-introduce that bill so far this year; if he does not soon recover, we hope someone else -- perhaps you, Mr. Chairman -- will pick up the banner.

In last year's elections, we asked all candidates: "Will you support legislation that will establish an effective civilian complaint review system for our Metropolitan Police Department?" We were gratified that we received positive answers from Councilmembers Allen, Brazil, Evans, Jarvis, and Schwartz. (Mr. Chavous did not respond to our questionnaire.) This budget cycle provides the Council's first opportunity to put those promises into effect.

We are not asking for an exorbitant amount of money from anybody's viewpoint. The old, inefficient, and toothless Civilian Complaint Review Board was getting an annual appropriation of about $1 million. With the improvements that would be incorporated by the proposed Police Conduct Review Board Act, the new board should be able to do a better job for a smaller amount--something on the order of between half a million and three-quarters of a million dollars for FY 1998, we would think. If the new board can be set up before FY 1997 is over, prorated funding should be provided in any FY 1997 supplemental budget.

We emphasize that handling of public complaints against the police is one function that has to be done by some government agency. The only real issue is whether the process will be under the total control of the police department itself or whether there will be meaningful civilian participation. One of the most irresponsible aspects of the Council's abrupt decision to shut down the CCRB in 1995 was that the 824 unresolved complaints still pending when the CCRB was abolished were dumped into the laps of the MPD without providing the department with any additional funds for processing. As we told Councilmember Lightfoot in our October 2 letter: "In effect, you stripped away resources without stripping away the problems requiring those resources." All we can ask you on the Council now is: What were you thinking when you let this happen?

It is time to undo the errors of 1995 first by authorizing an adequate budget for the Police Conduct Review Board and second by enacting the appropriate legislation as quickly as possible.

Before closing, we wish to note with high praise the outstanding work that has been done by Gays & Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV) in working with both the police and fire departments to sensitize them to the daily challenges they face with the District's gay and lesbian residents. This is a good example of the approach we favor: not an adversarial approach, but a pro-active and cooperative approach for the benefit of all. In particular, we want to comment GLOV for their indispensable role in spotlighting the problems in the D.C. Fire Department that were first exposed by its mishandling of the investigation of the Tyra Hunter case and repeated since then in other similar incidents. GLOV has released a very worthwhile report on the Fire Department's problems, and the steps needed to resolve them; if your committee has not already received a copy of GLOV's report, we will get a copy to you very soon. If your committee has later budget and oversight hearings, we hope you will encourage GLOV representatives to participate.

We also want to take advantage of this opportunity to denounce the proposals being touted in some quarters for a federal takeover of the Metropolitan Police Department. Few steps could be more inimical to the legitimate interests of the gay and lesbian community of Washington, or to the legitimate interests of the District's general population. As I alluded in the opening of our testimony today, some of us remember the bad old days when Congress ran the city, mostly down; in particular, the police were universally hostile to lesbians and gay men in the pre-home rule Dark Ages. We have made enormous progress in improving relations between the police and the gay and lesbian community over the past decades since the advent of home rule; we will not sit back quietly and allow all that work to be undone by reactionaries on Capitol Hill and elsewhere. There is no evidence that federalization of the MPD will do anything to eliminate the random shootings of police officers or do anything else to fight back against our city's crime problem. Little is to be gained, and much will be lost, by federalization.

Let me add that I'm still reacting to Mrs. Horan's [an earlier witness] appalling testimony about the outdated Kevlar vests. This is just one example of how it isn't enough just to establish a policy and communicate it and assume that that will be enough -- any more than you can buy a new car and give it its first tank of gas and assume that will be enough. You must have ongoing maintenance and vigilance.

In my neighborhood on 17th Street (around the corner from where you used to live, Councilmember Evans), the MPD has a human face; his name is Officer Joe Zelenka. He makes a significant, and I think a measurable, difference in the quality of life of our community. Everyone deserves to know someone like Officer Zelenka. We are looking forward to your ongoing vigilance, Mr. Chairman, and that of the rest of your committee, in conducting oversight to ensure that the men and woman who are sworn to protect us have the resources that they need, and that the highest standards of service are maintained.

Mr. Chairman, and Councilmember Mason, we recognize budgetary realities, but it is also possible to be "penny wise and pound foolish," which will be the case if this problem continues to go unresolved. I am a computer professional, and one of the early pioneers in the development of digital computers was a woman named Grace Hopper. She used to say something about strategy: It isn't enough to ask how much it will cost to do this. You also have to ask how much it will cost *not* to do this. I hope you will keep this in mind with regard to the establishment of effective civilian review. We look forward to working with you and with the MPD in the months ahead.

Thank you for your time. We would be glad to answer any questions you might have.

{NOTE: The Judiciary Committee includes Evans, Brazil, Chavous, Mason, & Thomas.}

# # # # # #

Follow-up letter to Councilmember Evans:

February 21, 1997

The Honorable Jack Evans
Council of the District of Columbia
John Wilson Building, First Floor
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20004

Dear Jack:

I want to thank you for convening that very useful public hearing on oversight of the Metropolitan Police Department on February 12. I especially appreciated your public commitment to establish a new and revitalized civilian complaint review process by the end of the year. We at GLAA hope you will introduce the appropriate legislation and set hearings as soon as possible so that this commitment can be kept. In the meantime, of course, the Council will have to set aside some appropriations to fund it, hopefully with the full concurrence of the Mayor and the Control Board.

I want to raise a couple of points based on some things said at the February 12 hearing.

First, you pressed the Metropolitan Police Department to finish up work on the 500 cases left over from the old Civilian Complaint Review Board, and you asked them to provide you with monthly updates on their progress. Let's not forget all the new complaints about police misconduct that have been filed since CCRB was abolished as of June 30, 1995. Realistically, there is no way all the old and all the new cases can be cleared up before the new system is implemented; the new Police Conduct Review Board (or whatever it will be called) will inevitably inherit a backlog.

Second, MPD officials predictably expressed great enthusiasm for the idea of doing all the investigative work on the public's complaints themselves, calling it more efficient to use experienced investigators already on the payroll. This is flatly unacceptable and misses the whole point of a civilian complaint review process. We ourselves can cite chapter and verse of recent instances when our public safety agencies have done a miserable job of investigating public complaints; have we forgotten Tyra Hunter already? Letting the police investigate each other, under the usual rules of the so-called "blue code," would render any subsequent civilian participation (e.g., reviewing the appropriateness of proposed penalties) largely meaningless.

GLAA believes that there may be great promise for processing complaints more quickly if mediation is mandatory before any investigation begins; a lot of cases may be settled at the mediation table. Mandatory mediation has just been enacted for the processing of cases involving alleged violations of the D.C. Human Rights Law, and we hope that will help whittle down the 4-year case backlog plaguing the Office of Human Rights. If the police routinely stonewall all mediation attempts, that promise may never be realized, but that's the kind of issue that should be thoroughly discussed in public hearings.

Again, congratulations for getting off on the right foot as chairman of the Judiciary Committee. All of us in GLAA look forward to working closely with you in the days ahead.


Richard J. Rosendall

cc: Gay Men & Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV)
Mary Jane DeFrank, ACLU/NCA
The Washington Blade