This post was originally published on The Washington Informer

By Sam P.K. Collins

Amid demands for more police, some young people are calling for a more nuanced response to the epidemic of youth violence and crime gripping the District. Their solutions involve addressing bullying and the culture of low expectations that young people encounter in the school system. 

For some people, like AaLiyha Bunter, lowering crime also means realizing police officers can do only so much to make communities safer, oftentimes because of the harsh manner in which they interact with District residents. 

“I hear about police killing Black folks and hurting innocent people,” said AaLiyha, a 13-year-old Southeast resident. “I don’t see them always being the solution for violence happening in the city. Police officers can be helpful when they are around communities and helping somebody in need. When they see something, they can ask questions because a situation may not seem how it looks.” 

Examining a Polarizing Topic 

AaLiyha counted among several young people who converged on R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast for a youth hearing that D.C. Council members Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) conducted on Feb. 25. 

For hours, participants took to the mic and spoke candidly about their experiences and the policies they wanted to see come to fruition. 

When it came to District police officers and school resource officers, some young people recounted their negative interactions with law enforcement officials that brought to mind inequitable power dynamics. In other instances, young people said relationships of this nature extended into the home with parents dealing with economic and socioemotional issues of their own. 

Days before the youth hearing, D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) introduced legislation to boost police recruitment efforts and bring the District’s police force to 4,200. 

If passed, the Police Officer Recruitment and Retention Act of 2023would authorize the mayor to provide bonuses to retirement-eligible officers who delay retirement by five years. It also repeals elements of previously passed legislation that lengthens the time allowed to address officer use of force and prevents officers from changing disciplinary measures in collective bargaining agreements.  

Over the last decade, the number of officers in the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) fell from 4,100 to less than 3,400. The legislation, the latest among Gray’s efforts in the last few years to increase the police workforce,  would also allow the mayor to fund negotiated recruitment and retention incentives for police officers. 

In a statement, Gray said his legislation wasn’t the only solution to curbing violent crime. However, opponents of the bill have pointed to police-involved deaths of Kevin Hargraves-Shird, Lazurus Wilson and Karon Hylton-Brown as an indication of not only the D.C. government’s unwillingness to tackle the deep-seated causes of crime, but the local police force’s thirst for hunting down Black residents. 

I hear about police killing Black folks and hurting innocent people. I don’t see them always being the solution for violence happening in the city.

AaLiyha, a 13-year-old Southeast resident

While MPD Officers Terence Sutton and Andrew Zabavsky were tried and convicted last year for Hylton-Brown’s death, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia most recently declined to file charges against Sergeant Reinaldo Otero-Camacho and Commander Jason Bagshaw for the deaths of Hargraves-Shird and Wilson, respectively. 

Hargreaves-Shird’s family has since filed a civil suit against MPD. 

During an oversight hearing that Pinto, chair of the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, conducted on Feb. 22, participants discussed the frequency with which alleged offenders were released without charges filed against them — sometimes due to the lack of evidence. That conversation, once again, shed light on aggressive policing tactics that sparked skepticism about whether police officers can carry out their jobs lawfully. 

The Police Officer Recruitment and Retention Act of 2023 is scheduled to reach the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety and the Committee on Executive Administration and Labor, chaired by D.C. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At large), on March 7. 

In speaking about the legislation, Pinto said that she plans to explore the issue of police staffing more holistically and in the context of what residents and officials have discussed over the last couple of years. 

“Since George Floyd, the conversation has been urgent to ensure there is police accountability,” Pinto said. “We have to have a good and accountable police department. A lot of effort went into the police commission. My goal is to have a hearing and an earnest conversation on where we are on police staffing, and hiring and firing practices.” 

Young People Seek More Understanding 

Toward the end of last year, the number of youth arrested in D.C. surpassed 900, according to data released by MPD.  At a press conference last August, a frustrated MPD Chief Robert J. Contee III called for youth who inflict harm to be held accountable for their actions. 

In the months since, some youth have requested the same of adults in local leadership. 

During the youth hearing at R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center, Southeast youth Darchelle Bennett expressed her desire for adults to understand what young people had to endure during the pandemic, and continue to endure every day. 

Darchelle, 13, recounted teachers at her school not accommodating her requests to adjust their teaching style so she could master complicated math concepts more quickly. Another stressful aspect of learning for Darchelle has been the threat of violence on school grounds. 

In reflecting on her testimony, Darchelle said talking about it made her feel better, even if for a moment. 

“Children get a hold of weapons [and] when that happens, it makes me feel like I’m not safe where I am learning,” Darchelle said. “I want to see more security and more counselors. We go through bullying, not being able to fit in and thinking that you have to do things to make people like you.”

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