Katherine Frey / The Washington Post / AP

Black Lives Matter halts DC mayor’s speech proposing more police powers

Activist group wants more community-based approaches to stemming violent crime – not more police with stronger powers

Chanting “Police are not the answer,” dozens of protesters from the Black Lives Matter movement on Thursday prevented the mayor of Washington, D.C., from completing her announcement of a new police program plan to curb a sharply rising murder rate in the nation’s capital, local news reports said.

The chants disrupted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s speech, and she left the stage as the crowd jeered and cheered, according to The Washington Post. Bowser, a black Democrat who was first elected in 2013, spoke to reporters afterward.

The new program would put hundreds more officers on the streets and ease restrictions on searching homes of some offenders, along with other changes.

Instead of an increase in police powers, activists say they want to combat violent crime with an approach that involves members of the communities affected by killings.

“Some critics have said that today’s event will be about arresting black men,” the Post quoted Bowser as saying. “We’re not here to talk about arresting black men — but about how we can save their lives.”

Bowser is set to submit a bill to the city council in September.

She was trying to announce her plan in Ward 8, a largely African-American area in the city’s southeast quadrant. Neighboring Ward 7 has experienced a 95 percent increase in murders this year. Citywide, there have been 103 killings so far in 2015, compared with 72 at this point last year, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.

Bowser’s plan includes adding about 200 police officers to the streets, the Post reported, and easing restrictions on searches of the homes of violent offenders. Some officers will be shifted from administrative duties to the streets.

The new measures let police detain for 72 hours violent offenders who violate restraining orders. Another part of the plan allows police to search for guns in the homes of violent offenders on parole, because, according to the mayor’s office and the Metropolitan Police Department, parolees are mostly responsible for the rise in murders.

Eugene Puryear, an activist and Green Party politician who represents Stop Police Terror Project D.C., a group affiliated with Black Lives Matter, said the mayor’s approach was deeply flawed and would result in more police oppression in African-American communities.

“More cops with more weapons and tougher laws and expanding police powers  — that got us the era of mass incarceration, but it didn’t stop crime,” he told Al Jazeera. “Instead of a police surge, there needs to be a community surge.”

He said that successful ways of reducing police violence require the participation of community members who have returned from jail or who have “walked in the shoes” of young people at risk of committing or falling victim to violent crime. Bowser’s bill would put such people under stricter scrutiny by law enforcement.

Puryear also said the city’s de facto racial divide — with a majority black eastern section and majority white western area — makes it hard for Washingtonians to understand one another’s experiences with police.

“If you’re not experiencing these oppressive police practices, then it’s easier to look at the police and say this [Bowser’s plan] is the solution,” he said.

Her plan includes the opening of a community center to help residents get access to social services. Puryear, however, said that is a mere nod to community involvement and isn’t a centerpiece of the program.

Black Lives Matter DMV (District, Maryland and Virgina) activists on Thursday posted to their Facebook page a statement by activists at Stop Police Terror Project D.C. who criticized the mayor's approach as being harmful to relations between police and the African-American community.

The statement said more community-based approaches, in which residents go out on the streets and engage young people directly, have been more successful and don’t endanger the rights of people released on parole, whom they call returning citizens.

“Further, a blanket approach only further criminalizes those returning from prison, playing into the biases that often hurt returning citizens in the job market, thus deepening poverty in the most hard-hit neighborhoods economically,” the statement read.

“Metropolitan Police cannot be trusted to fairly administer a program like this,” the statement added. “We already know from the efforts to decriminalize marijuana that District police officers were using marijuana to conduct a racially biased stop-and-frisk program under false pretenses.”

In 2014 voters in Washington approved a referendum legalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. An American Civil Liberties Union study had found that black Washingtonians were eight times as likely as white residents to be arrested for marijuana possession, and backers of the referendum argued that legalization would help make the criminal justice system more fair.

Bowser’s office denied it was headed down the path of stop and frisk, a tactic that caused outrage in New York City during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg because it allowed police to search people for reasons as vague as making furtive movements and overwhelmingly targeted young New Yorkers of color. 

Bloomberg said stop and frisk was necessary to take illegal guns off the street and save the lives of black and Hispanic residents. But searches turned up small amounts of marijuana more often than illegal weapons, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union study.

Instead, Bowser’s planned measures “are targeted to violent individuals who have been convicted or arrested for crimes like murder, armed robbery and sexual assault,” the mayor’s office said in a news release.

“The District is not a stop-and-frisk city," she said, "and we are not going to become one.”

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