On Tuesday, Feb. 6th, DC Council unanimously voted to pass the Secure DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2024 on its first reading –but with several notable amendments.
The bill is a compilation of several previously proposed bills aimed to limit crime in the district, which has been on a sharp rise in DC. Though it contains many provisions, it particularly focuses on tightening charges for retail-related theft and gun penalties.
The bill’s easy passing was expected, as council has been under great pressure from their citizens to address public safety. Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) has been under particular pressure, with some residents in his ward leading an effort for a recall vote.
The only councilmember to not vote “yes” was councilmember Trayon White (Ward 8-D), who voted “present”.
The legislative meeting regarding the act was attended by a large audience of Washingtonians who expressed distaste for the bill, often making noise over Councilmember Brooke Pinto (Ward 2-D) as she spoke Tuesday.
Pinto has born the brunt for the majority of disapproval over the act, as she introduced the bill and is Chairwoman of the Comittee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Throughout the meeting, it was Pinto who opposed amendments to the bill proposed by the other councilmembers, voting no on three out of the four amendments that were passed.
Perhaps the most notable amendment removes a part of the act that would have called for DNA to be taken upon arrest rather than after conviction.
That amendment was introduced by Councilmember At-Large, Kenyan McDuffie (At Large-I), who noted that even if one is arrested but not charged, collecting DNA at the arrest would put that person’s DNA in a police database. McDuffie saw this as a violation of the principal of “innocent until proven guilty”, and said that “privacy rights of the innocent should be preserved,” a statement met with applause from the crowd.
Councilmember Allen and Councilmember Janeese Lewis George (Ward 4-D) supported McDuffie’s amendment by pointing out that DC’s Department of Forensic Science is already backlogged and thus would not be able to effectively handle an uptick in DNA samples. Despite Pinto asking for the amendment’s withdrawal, saying that she sees DNA collection at arrest as a powerful deterrent, the amendment passed by a vote of 9-4.
Another significant amendment addressed a controversial provision regarding the wearing of face coverings. The provision had originally prohibited the wearing of a face covering that was seen to “cause another person fear for his or her personal safety.”
Many concerned citizens had argued such a provision would enable profiling and contribute to disproportionate arrests of minority Washingtonians. Though wearing a mask while committing a crime, abusing, or intimidating others will still be illegal, taking away the vague language around fear was passed with no objection and with support from Councilmember Pinto.
The final amendment made to the bill will delay more permanent changes to DC’s pretrial detention policy to 225 days after the act’s passing. In the meantime a study will be done on pretrial detention’s efficacy in order to allow for a more informed decision.
Other proposed amendments such as Councilmember T. White’s proposal to also provide more resources to areas labeled as drug-free zones (where the act gives police the ability to order gatherings of multiple people to disperse if they suspect drug dealing), not just law enforcement, were withdrawn but will be addressed at second and third readings of the bill. But his proposed amendment regarding language around the what types of face coverings included was withdrawn from further discussion in the second and third readings of the bill.
Another amendment introduced by Councilmember Janeese Lewis George will accelerate the application of the Second Chance Amendment Act of 2022, which expands the type of criminal records eligible for sealing and expungement in DC. Lewis George argued that the law will help public safety, as formerly incarcerated people will be able to pursue more jobs, rather than being forced to get money through criminal means. The amendment was passed but was met with a forceful objection from Councilmember Pinto. Pinto argued such a change would risk the bill being struck down by the federal government.
Shadow of Congress
That was a consistent theme of the meeting — the looming possibility that the Secure DC Bill would be shut down by the federal government. Some elements of the bill were presented as need to ensure Congress would not overturn legislation.
“[T]here is strategy behind every provision in [the act] to protect …home rule. We have very real threats when it comes to home rule and people wanting to take away our local government, so it is not just up to us with all of the policy preferences we want to make”, Pinto said, a reminder of the lack of authority that the DC Council has without statehood.
When Councilmember T. White brought up concerns that elements of the bill will decrease police accountability, Pinto went back to the same argument. “Changing this provision with this amendment puts the entirety of Secure DC at risk of being overturned by congress,” she claimed.
In closing remarks, councilmembers agreed that the act is not a complete solution to DC’s crime. They expressed intent to address root causes of crime as well as ensure equity in the justice system. Councilmember Allen expressed concern about the act’s removal of policies meant to keep police accountable, saying, “less transparency does not make us more safe.” Councilmember T. White, who was the most critical of the act throughout the meeting, also had some hesitations about the bill, saying, “I do know that mass incarceration has not helped our community.”
Though in agreeance that there’s more work to be done, Councilmember Pinto seemed confident in the act. “[I] believe that today’s actions send a very clear message: that we are turning in a safer and more secure direction.”
The bill must also pass on a second reading before being signed by the Mayor and then reviewed by Congress.
Theo Weller is an 11th-grade student at School Without Walls High School, as well as a lifelong Capitol Hill resident. In addition to his internship at the Hill Rag, he writes for his school newspaper, The Rookery. Reach him at Theo@hillrag.com