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Opinion: Invest in Public Safety, Not Policing

Over the weekend of Nov. 6 and 7, three more neighborhoods in Ward-6 were impacted by the public health epidemic of gun violence. By my rough calculation, these were part of a weekend that saw at least 12 shootings across the District. 

There have been 177 homicides this year and the homicide rate is 21% higher than last year, marking the third consecutive year of increase. 2020 is on pace to be the deadliest year in the past 15. It is easy to get caught up in these alarming numbers, but it is vitally important to remember that each of these statistics represents an individual, a unique story, a loved one stolen from their community. 

Unfortunately, this violence has also prompted short-sighted, ineffective and racist calls for more policing –leading to more prosecution, and more incarceration. 

The very nature of the “solution” of policing is shortsighted. Policing is retroactive and does nothing to address the root causes of violence, which arise from deep inequities in our community. In fact, policing widens those inequities. The enormous half-a-billion dollar police budget in DC takes a disproportionate amount of funds that could be redirected to affordable housing, employment services, violence-intervention and other proactive programs that address those root cause issues. 

Furthermore, it is clear that the “solution” is not working. According to a DC Fiscal Policy Analysis report, MPD’s gross operating budget has grown by 14 percent since 2015, and MPD’s police force (approximately 55 police officers per 10,000 residents last year) is double the national average, well above the average for cities of DC’s size. 

And what has this massive investment gotten the residents of DC? Despite the growth and size of the force, the homicide rate has continued to climb over the past three years and the homicide closure rate has continued to decline during the past decade.  

Clearly, over-policing is not working, and continuing to throw more money at an ineffective solution won’t begin to change that. 

Finally, and most importantly, we must be clear about what these calls for more policing are: racist. The majority of people calling for increases in policing are white. The majority of people who will be harmed by this are Black.

This is not hyperbolic; this is not an attempt to disparage anyone –it is just a fact. Nearly three-quarters of the police stops conducted between July 22 and December 31 last year—72 percent—detained Black people. Furthermore, a study by the ACLU showed that, despite representing only 47 percent of DC’s population, Black individuals comprised 86 percent of arrests between 2013 and 2017. 

The simple truth is that policing is racist and more policing will not only not reduce violence in our communities it will make it worse by significantly harming communities of color, specifically the Black community. 

The systemic racism of policing has never been more clear to me, than through the actions of MPD over the past few months. This past weekend white supremacists were allowed to come from out of state, walk around with little regard to public health safety protocols, and incite violence, with little intervention from MPD. This juxtaposes the experience of black and brown DC organizers who have been tear gassed, shot with rubber bullets, kettled and arrested over the past few months despite peacefully protesting. 

So, instead of pushing for these short-sighted, ineffective, and racist policies, we must listen to the communities most directly impacted by violence, invest in evidence-based community solutions that address root cause issues and reimagine public safety. At its core, this boils down to divesting from MPD and reinvesting in community safety.

Funding MPD at such historically high levels comes at the expense of other programs and at the expense of DC communities. Currently, MPD’s budget is larger than each of the budgets for affordable housing, employment services, and physical and behavioral health. It is approximately 55 times greater than the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement or the Cure the Streets Program in the Office of the Attorney General. 

We must dramatically shift that. One of the clearest examples of how this strategy would work is by working to make police-free schools. MPD currently receives $25 million annually to police and criminalize our youth. Coalitions led by youth advocates are calling for this money to go towards an expansion of school-based mental health programs, violence intervention programs, the DC Safe Passage Program and general support for students and educators instead. 

We must listen to the young people who are pleading with their elected officials to create policies that will love them, not harm them. And that is just one example. Just imagine what would be possible if we divest from MPD and reinvest in the community.

As a community, we must reject these short-sighted, ineffective, and racist calls for more policing and instead listen to the communities most directly impacted by violence, invest in evidence-based community solutions that address root cause issues, and reimagine public safety.

Pranav Nanda is a Hill resident, law student, former teacher and current activist working to help youth and marginalized communities fight to meet their needs in the District. You can reach him at: electpranavnanda@gmail.com

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