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DC officials spar with lawmakers over capital policing, crime rates

The House oversight committee is set to vote Wednesday on whether to advance another measure aimed at overriding district law.

WASHINGTON (CN) — Focused on the District of Columbia's efforts to roll back its new law aimed at improving police transparency, House Republicans dialed in on the district's government Wednesday for the second time this year.

The House oversight committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday afternoon on Georgia Congressman Andrew Clyde’s resolution that, if approved, would block a package of policing reforms made law in January by the D.C. City Council.

Among its provisions, the municipal legislation known as the Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Amendment Act would make it easier for the public to access footage from police-worn body cameras and would bar individuals who had been fired from other law enforcement organizations from serving on D.C. Metropolitan Police Department.

The measure would also make it illegal for D.C. police to use chokeholds or other types of asphyxiating restraints when making arrests.

Clyde and some of his GOP colleagues have disparaged the bill as anti-police, a sentiment shared by the D.C. police union, and have accused the city’s leadership of being soft on crime — pointing to what they say is a trend of increased carjackings and other violent crime in the district.

The resolution is Clyde's second legislative action aimed at blocking D.C. law. Both the House and Senate passed a similar measure in early March disapproving of a separate municipal law that would have relaxed penalties for certain low-level crimes and lowered minimum sentences for more serious offenses. President Biden supported that effort.

A vote on Clyde’s latest resolution was scheduled for 4 p.m. in the oversight committee. As a federal district and not a state, D.C.’s laws can be subject to congressional review.

For D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, who testified Wednesday morning before the Republican-controlled oversight committee, congressional attempts to roll back municipal law are making it harder for city leadership to address criminal justice.

“Contrary to what some would say, this legislation is not an attack on police or a threat to public safety,” Mendelson said of D.C.’s policing bill. ”Rather, it promotes police accountability.”

The council chair also pushed back on attempts by some lawmakers to portray D.C. as crime-ridden. Violent crime in the city decreased by nearly half over the last decade, Mendelson 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.”

On the other hand, D.C. police union chair Greggory Pemberton testified that the police-reform bill led directly to what he called a mass exodus of officers from the MPD. Pemberton told lawmakers that the department has lost around one-third of its rank-and-file officers.

“The lasting impacts of these horrible policies will not be fully realized for some time,” the union boss said, “and the efforts to repair the damage done could take decades without swift and thoughtful actions.”

Mendelson contended, however, that the D.C. police union was primarily opposed to the measure because it restricts the organization’s ability to bargain on behalf of officers facing disciplinary action.

Republican lawmakers used the bully pulpit Wednesday to press their attack on D.C.’s leadership.

“The council has continued to overlook its law enforcement officers in favor of progressive, soft-on-crime policies that only benefit criminals,” Committee Chair Jim Comer said in an opening statement.

“The citizens of D.C. and visitors to our nation’s capital deserve to feel safe,” the Kentucky Republican added, "and our police deserve to have the resources to ensure safety for all."

Alabama Congressman Gary Palmer argued that the quality of the district’s school system was contributing to high crime rates among juveniles. “Your schools are not only dropout factories, they’re inmate factories,” the lawmaker said.

Mendelson disagreed with that interpretation, firing back that the D.C. council is working to secure better educational outcomes via more funding for the city’s schools.

Meanwhile, Democrats on the committee suggested that GOP meddling in the district’s legal framework made the case for D.C. statehood.

“This hearing, called to malign the people of D.C. and their leaders for criminal violence that our colleagues will do nothing to stop, should instead be a hearing to examine and move statehood for the people of Washington, D.C.,” Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin said. “The people of Washington are an independent, self-governing community who want their statehood.”

Eleanor Holmes Norton, who serves as D.C.’s nonvoting member of Congress, stood by that sentiment, and called Republicans’ proposed resolution “profoundly undemocratic and paternalistic.”

“Congress has the authority to admit the state of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” the district’s representative said, referring to the proposed name of what would be the 51st state. “It is time for Congress to pass the D.C. statehood bill.”

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