'There is not a crime crisis,' DC lawmakers insist at testy House hearing on police, public safety

Republicans are seeking to repeal another of the district's laws.

March 29, 2023, 6:27 PM

Republican members of the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday pressed Washington, D.C., officials about public safety and the city's management in the wake of Congress taking the unusual step of blocking controversial changes to the local criminal code.

For almost four hours, legislators debated D.C.'s laws at a hearing nominally focused on policing in the district. Having stopped the so-called crime bill last month, House Republicans are now seeking to repeal a law enforcement reform bill in D.C.

But most of the session focused on crime in D.C. -- such as the recent attack on a staffer for Sen. Rand Paul -- and on the crime bill, rather than on police reform.

Some lawmakers were blunt in their questioning.

"Why is D.C. allowing violent criminals to remain on the streets for so long?" asked Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C.

She cited the Saturday stabbing of Paul's staffer "by a man who was released from prison just the previous day," she said. (The victim is in stable condition and a suspect has been arrested, according to Paul's office and police.)

"On average, any given homicide suspect in D.C. has already been arrested 11 times before he or she actually commits homicide," Foxx said, echoing a pattern raised by Metropolitan Police Chief Robert Contee earlier this month. Others on the committee said their staffers had been "jumped" as well.

City councilmembers acknowledged the pervasive "concern" about safety but pointed to data that showed the reality was the most serious crimes have been dropping.

"While perception is important, the reality is less concerning. Let me be clear: People should feel safe, and it is a problem that many residents of the district don't," Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said.

PHOTO: Members of the Washington, D.C. government are sworn-in before testifying during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee's hearing on March 29, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Members of the Washington, D.C. government are sworn-in before testifying during a House Oversight and Accountability Committee's hearing about Congressional oversight of the Nation's Capital, March 29, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. From left; D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, Council Member Charles Allen, CFO Glen Lee, and D.C. Police Union Chairman Greggory Pemberton.
Cliff Owen/AP

"The number of violent crime incidents in 2022 was 45% lower than a decade earlier and total violent crime last year was 7% less than the year before," he said. "I know this belies the common belief and, when it comes to crime, how people feel is important. But there is not a crime crisis in Washington, D.C."

Still, Councilmember Charles Allen said there is still "a lot of work to do."

"Many residents feel unsafe, and the district is experiencing persistent, troubling increases in two areas of violent crime in particular: homicides and carjackings. These trends are being seen nationwide, and the district is not immune," Allen said.

The chairman of D.C. Police Union, Greggory Pemberton, pointed to several provisions passed by the city council that, he said, limit how severely criminals are punished.

"The criminal penalties that exist within our criminal justice system are incredibly weak," he said, in part.

He also said that that councilmembers' efforts to cut or redirect funding for D.C police have resulted in "a mass exodus" of officers available for duty. Mayor Muriel Bowser has said she is pushing for the city to have 4,000 sworn police.

The Oversight Committee also pointedly questioned councilmembers about the revised criminal code, which would have lowered some punishments and raised others, among other changes.

Bowser attempted to veto the changes to the code in January but was overridden by the council.

With support from the Democratic Senate and President Joe Biden's sign-off, a Republican-led effort in the House successfully blocked the crime bill earlier this month. It was the first time in decades that Congress, which maintains ultimate authority over D.C., used its power to stop a district law.

D.C. leaders like Bowser said the episode showed the importance of the district gaining autonomy and statehood.

House Oversight and Accountability Committee Chairman Rep. James Comer listens to a witness during the committee's hearing about Congressional oversight of D.C., on Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., on March 29, 2023.
Cliff Owen/AP

At Wednesday's hearing, Oversight Chairman James Comer asked Mendelson about Mendelson attempting to withdraw the criminal code before Congress could vote on stopping it.

"I'm seriously concerned that your actions may have been an attempt to provide cover for congressional Democrats," Comer said.

Mendelson denied pulling the bill for that reason: "It was not a change of heart, sir, but you know when you see yourself losing -- because it was clear that the Senate, the votes weren't there -- then you pull it back, and you work on it some more."

The lengthy hearing also included exchanges on guns and gun violence, including this week's school shooting in Nashville, Tennessee; the ongoing prosecution of Jan. 6 suspects; and public urination.

Afterward, the committee voted 21-17 to support the repeal of the D.C. police reform bill, which was passed after the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

During the hearing, Maryland Rep. Jamie Raskin, the ranking Democrat, criticized what he suggested was Republican hypocrisy: “They're so tough on crime -- well, except for Jan. 6 and violent insurrection and those [defendants who] are clogging up the courts of the District of Columbia."

"But they're so upset about crime, they want to overturn this police reform legislation," he said. "Ridiculous. Everybody should vote against this.”

The district's police legislation had formalized several changes implemented after Floyd's death, including classifying neck restraints as "lethal and excessive force," limiting the use of chemical irritant to disperse crowds and requiring police to publicly release footage from use-of-force incidents.

The police repeal bill is expected to go for a full vote in the House.