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New District Law Expands Authority of Office of Police Complaints

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The District of Columbia recently enacted a new law that expands the authority of the Office of Police Complaints (OPC) while adding protections designed to limit infringements by police on First Amendment rights.

The "First Amendment Rights and Police Standards Act of 2004"  [PDF] took effect on April 13, 2005, following the required period of review by the US Congress.

The legislation expands OPC's jurisdiction to include complaints filed by the public alleging that Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) or DC Housing Authority Police Department (DCHAPD) officers failed to wear required identification or refused to identify themselves by name and badge number when requested to do so by a member of the public.

In addition, the new law grants the Police Complaints Board (PCB), OPC's governing body, jurisdiction to monitor and evaluate MPD's handling of First Amendment assemblies.

Beyond these enhanced powers for the District's police accountability agency, the law also includes a number of protections for citizens wishing to exercise their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly in the nation's capital.

The legislation establishes a policy for MPD's handling of large crowds that gather for political demonstrations, emphasizes communication and voluntary compliance, and eliminates preemptive police actions that could chill First Amendment expressions.

Provisions of the new law curtail the use of police lines to entrap demonstrators who have not broken any law and restrict the use of wrist-to-wrist restraints. The legislation also prohibits the use of tear gas and pepper stray on peaceful demonstrators.

Enactment of the new law, which was introduced by Councilmember Kathy Patterson, followed a two-year investigation by the District Council's Judiciary Committee into MPD's handling of anti-globalization protests in Washington, DC, between 2000 and 2002.

A separate section of the bill was included in response to the Police Complaints Board's detailed recommendations for changes to MPD's arrest procedures. From now on, people arrested for certain misdemeanors, and who opt to resolve the charge by "posting and forfeiting" a cash amount, will receive a written notice describing the process, their release options and the consequences of posting and forfeiting as opposed to contesting the charge in court. MPD must also obtain a signed acknowledgment from arrestees that they have received a copy of the notice.

A report and recommendations [PDF] issued by the Police Complaints Board in 2003 showed that "post and forfeit" is commonly used to resolve arrests in the District with little notice to arrestees about, and limited documentation of, the process.