Criminal justice reform act rolls out

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The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act was passed unanimously by the D.C. Council in 2016. (Current file photo)

City officials are in the process of implementing the far-ranging provisions of a 2016 law that called for a new approach to policing and criminal justice in the District.

The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act was passed unanimously by the D.C. Council and included 20 requirements. However, because the bill was passed late in the budget cycle, few programs received funding in the first fiscal year. The NEAR Act was then fully funded in the next budget cycle.

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Kevin Donahue spoke at a Feb. 8 Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3B (Glover Park, Cathedral Heights) meeting about the current status of the act’s implementation, after citizens raised concerns about the release of policing data. Donahue said the city intends to release more data than are required under the act, but collecting and cleaning the data has proved time-consuming.

“There’s a lot of good faith demand for that data among members of the D.C. community that I want to respect and be responsive to,” Donahue said. “What I committed to doing is I said, ‘look, as we collect the data, where our data-sharing agreements allow, we’re going to make that data available in as raw a form as we can. So that people in the public can do their own analysis and not have to rely on the reporting that we put out.’”

Local resident Martha Davidson spoke at a January ANC 3B meeting, asking the ANC commissioners to consider a resolution urging the city to release certain data on policing. Davidson said after Donahue’s presentation that she felt he had explanations for why certain parts of the law are not implemented yet, but believes public pressure will be necessary to ensure the law is carried out fully.

“I appreciate what he had to say,” Davidson said. “I was somewhat encouraged by it. I was glad to see that they were going to put the data online, even the broad data that they had, because they realize the public really wanted and needed to see it.”

However, Davidson noted when she later checked online, she has not yet been able to find the data. Donahue told The Current he expects early data to be posted online within 30 days of the Feb. 8 ANC meeting that he spoke at. However, he said that data will continue to be posted online as they become available and will become more granular over time.

“I like it when people advocate for the NEAR Act,” Donahue said at the meeting. “I like it even if it’s expressed in a way where they’re frustrated with me, because it still serves the purpose of trying to get knowledge out there.”

At the meeting, Donahue described five data lifts that his department has or will work on, across three parts of the NEAR Act.

The first is that the act calls for the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) to have access to all complaint files, even if the complaint was made to the Metropolitan Police Department and the department didn’t refer the complaint over. Donahue said giving the OPC access to this data took a lot of work over the course of the last year.

Two other data projects deal with crime data collection. One requires collecting demographic information about victims and those arrested for felonies. The second is tracking what happens to individuals after they are arrested for a serious crime (whether they are charged, go to trial, etc.). Both of these data elements fall under the same portion in the NEAR Act, which requires a yearly report to the mayor and the D.C. Council.

Donahue said although the act does not require the raw data be released, he plans to publish them where he is able to. One of the challenges, Donahue said, is getting court information in a way that allows for following an arrest to an outcome.

Another two data undertakings come in a different portion of the act, and deal with stop and frisk and use of force data collection. The first deals with collecting demographic information about the subjects of the use of force. The second involves gathering information about stops, searches and frisks. This includes both collecting demographic information and looking at when these actions end in arrest. This part does not require any data reporting, but Donahue said he also plans to report out data whenever he is able to.

“There’s probably 50 different data elements,” Donahue said. “We have or are really close to being able to fully do probably something in the mid-40s. The ones we have left are not due to lack of hard work or good faith, but they’re genuinely difficult to get through.”

Other portions of the NEAR act call for implementing what some have called a “public health” approach to violence. Donahue said three portions of the act address this public health approach to violence. One calls for the creation of an Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. This office will engage directly with individuals who are committing violent acts and provide them with services. Donahue said there will also be financial incentives for individuals who complete activities like counseling and job training programs. This office opened last year and is in the process of hiring all its employees.

The act also calls for social workers to be placed in emergency rooms to help trauma victims access services. Donahue said this was one of the first activities funded, and that the program started in the summer of 2016. There are now social workers in all D.C. trauma centers, except George Washington hospital, where the program will expand later this year. So far about 500 trauma victims have opted into the program.

“When someone comes in with a stab wound or a gunshot wound, before they leave the hospital, they have an opportunity to get connected to services if they so choose,” Donahue said.

The final public health portion of the act calls for the police department and Department of Behavioral Health to work together on cases involving substance abuse and mental health issues. The program would allow police officers to bring a clinician with them to assist individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems, rather than arresting them. An executive director has been hired and the two departments are working through details of the program, Donahue said.

“D.C. has a mental health court and a drug court that are really well recognized,” Donahue said. “But you have to get really far into the prosecutorial process to get those diversions. So this is a program of ten people that will have the diversion in some cases happen prior to someone having to ever get charged with a crime.”

Donahue also stressed that most portions of the act did not require funding and were able to be implemented more rapidly. These included “civilianizing” the crime lab. Now civilian scientists collect crime scene data, which has resulted in higher quality data collection, Donahue said. The act allowed for retired police officers to be hired by the crime lab without risking their pension.

There are also portions of the act that provide for a work release program for pre-trial detainees, and good time credits, which allows inmates who participate in reentry programming to be released early.