Just a few blocks away from the White House—where President Donald Trump recently called for rougher treatment of people in police custody—the District of Columbia city council is quietly implementing one of the most progressive crime bills in recent history.
The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act of 2016, sponsored by Democratic Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, represents a dramatic and desperately needed shift in how the nation’s capital will approach violent crime. In 2015, D.C. led the country in two categories: murders and police presence. With 119 homicides, it had a higher murder rate than every state in the country; and with six officers for every 1,000 citizens, it was the most heavily policed district in America.
Get TalkPoverty In Your Inbox
In his office on Pennsylvania Ave, Councilmember McDuffie sports a pink polo beneath a gray tweed jacket. He speaks in perfect prose, with none of the ums and ahs and broken sentences that plague most of us. He believes in the NEAR Act because it addresses the “root causes” of violence.
“You cannot arrest your way out of this problem,” he says.
McDuffie was raised in D.C. in the 1980’s and 90’s, when it was known as the murder capital of the United States. He grew up around the open drug markets; he had friends who were killed in their neighborhoods.
“I’ve seen a person shot, bleeding out in my arms. I’ve seen these things firsthand,” he says. “That is the context I brought to this work.”
McDuffie has also seen the perils of overpolicing. He’s watched police officers “converge on communities of color, stopping people in neighborhoods like mine without probable cause.”
The NEAR Act draws from model programs in Chicago and Richmond by establishing an Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE) in D.C. The ONSE will hire people from within the community—“people who have credibility in these neighborhoods,” McDuffie says. They will identify community members who are at risk of committing violence or becoming a victim of violence, and then offer them trauma-informed therapy, life planning, and mentorship. The bill also provides funds to train police officers on “cultural competency” and how to recognize bias, and it calls for increased data collection on police stops and the use of force.
While he was drafting the bill, McDuffie consulted with local activists who had long called for criminal justice and police reform in the district—including Eugene Puryear, an author and organizer who helped found the Stop Police Terror Project.
Puryear’s energy is contagious; he peppers his caffeinated speech with phrases like “punctuated equilibrium” and “tectonic shifts.” He lauded McDuffie for doing a “deep dive on the issue,” but he also wants to credit the organizers who he thinks helped create the political space for the NEAR Act. He believes that the national Movement for Black Lives—and its local manifestations, such as the Stop Police Terror Project—convinced the council members to care about overpolicing and mass incarceration because their constituents were fired up about these issues.
During the early phases of the Stop Police Terror Project, the group interrupted a speech by Mayor Muriel Bowser, who was pushing a crime bill that would have boosted police presence in the city. The group faced harsh criticism for the action—Puryear says that “everyone said we were band of radicals interrupting stuff with no positive program and no support in the community.”
But when the city council held a public hearing two months later to compare Bowser’s bill to the NEAR Act, nearly everyone who testified did so in favor of the latter. With overwhelming support from the community, the council passed the NEAR Act unanimously in March 2016. But neither the council nor the mayor fully funded the act in the 2017 budget, essentially putting it in limbo.
Over the next several months, the Movement for Black Lives kept growing. Thousands of protestors demonstrated in 88 cities across the country in the weeks after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police officers. When Puryear and the Stop Police Terror Project started knocking on doors to gather signatures to fully fund the NEAR Act, they saw how badly residents wanted action.
“Once you would say you had any connection to Black Lives Matter, doors were swinging wide open,” Puryear said. He knocked on at least 500 doors, and he says that “every person who came to the door signed our petition, bar none.”
The council and the mayor agreed to fully fund the NEAR Act in the 2018 budget, which will go into effect on October 1. And the NEAR Act isn’t alone: Puryear says it’s part of a “cascading series” of local initiatives that came around in this “Black Lives Matter moment.” This includes a body-worn camera program for D.C. police officers and a juvenile justice bill, also sponsored by Councilmember McDuffie, that bans solitary confinement and court shackling for underage defendants.
Puryear believes that social change in the United States comes in spurts—long periods of very little change followed by rapid periods of huge changes. He hopes that we’re in one of those periods now, but he recognizes that progress isn’t inevitable. “What we do really matters,” he says. “The opportunities that are presented can just as easily be lost.” He thinks the next major battle surrounding the NEAR Act is its implementation: “There’s a lot of different ways this can be rolled out within the letter of the law.”
McDuffie agrees, and he says he’s working to make sure the bill gets implemented with the spirit and intent of how it was drafted.
The two models that the NEAR Act is based on have shown promise: Richmond has seen a 76 percent drop in homicides, and the Cure Violence model has curbed violence in pilot programs around the world. It remains to be seen whether the nation’s capital will have similar success—whether the old way of approaching violent crime, with militarized policing and mass incarceration, is finally on its way out.