Update from Councilmember Allen on Secure DC

Last evening, the Council took a second and final vote on "Secure DC", passing the large public safety bill with a count of 12 votes in support and one vote of present. A number of the provisions in the bill also passed on an emergency basis, meaning it can go into effect in the next few weeks. I've been updating you on the bill over the last several months in my email newsletters while it made its way through the legislative process, and today, I wanted to reach out with a more in-the-weeds update on the final version.

Public safety is my number one priority, and this bill includes provisions and changes that I think can both help improve investigations and prosecutions and also prevent crime in the first place with more coordinated, whole-of-government interventions. Doing both and doing so with urgency.

On the whole, I believe this is a strong and responsive package to the unacceptable level of violence we’ve seen in our city last year. A lot of you reached out to me sharing your thoughts along the way. Many people were in support of the proposal, and many of you asked for the Council to come to commonsense compromises on several parts of the bill. I'd like to run through elements of the bill I think will help, and then go through the more substantive debates and changes made by the Council yesterday. 

I think the city needs to be very clear - it’s not the only solution, and yesterday’s action must be paired with actions by the Mayor - we need a 911 call center that picks up the phone, a crime lab that can actually process evidence, and a gun violence prevention plan in place. It also requires the prosecutors to charge cases, the courts to make wise decisions, the DC Jail and Bureau of Prisons to have an actual plan when someone is coming home after incarceration, and many more partners have to act. The District already has laws on the books with strong penalties that deal with most crimes. At times, it feels like we're trying to build workarounds for arrests that aren’t prosecuted, systems that aren’t working, and federal agencies who won’t work with us. But with yesterday's passage of Secure DC, I hope to see other partners step up as well.

Here are a few areas in the bill that I think will directly reduce violent crime once it takes effect: 

  • Strengthening and clarifying our carjacking laws following a Court of Appeals decision that led to several carjacking prosecutions not moving forward. I pushed for this change because I think this is a great example of identifying a gap in our laws and taking action to change it. 

  • Making "shooting reviews" permanent: When we talk about a whole-of-government approach to preventing violence rather than just reacting, that means inter-agency coordination and focus. That’s exactly what a shooting review does, and many cities use them successfully to target enforcement and services to "hot people" and "hot places". I introduced this component of the bill and am glad to see it incorporated.

  • Adding many of the increased gun penalties that I had included in the criminal code revision the Council moved last year but was blocked from becoming law by Congress. Again, a gap in our existing law was identified, and we’re taking action.

  • And finally, thank you to Councilmember Pinto for including my bill that expands the private security camera rebate program to now include interior cameras and other safety tools for our local businesses that suffered a rash of burglaries last year. 

One of the major outstanding issues to settle was DNA collection. As background, the Council was debating when law enforcement could collect DNA samples (most often a cheek swab or spit sample) from someone suspected of committing a crime. Current law is that DNA can't be collected until someone is convicted of a crime. There was a push to collect DNA from every person arrested for a felony and certain misdemeanors in DC, regardless of whether they're actually charged or convicted of the crime they're accused of (note: there were nearly 18,000 arrests made last year). The final version of Secure DC strikes the right balance and instead permits DNA collection when someone has been arrested and then actually charged by a prosecutor of violent offenses and certain sexual abuse misdemeanors. With this change, DC is giving law enforcement more tools to secure a conviction for a violent crime (and potentially close open cases) and also protecting the civil liberties of our residents from over reaching. Waiting until a charging decision is made to collect DNA will ensure this tool is better used, and the bill also has very strong protections for destroying any samples collected for someone deemed innocent or where charges are eventually dropped. As a reminder, I also introduced legislation to require the city to preserve rape kits indefinitely where the victim doesn't initially report the rape to law enforcement. I encourage the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety to move that bill to a vote so if victims come forward later, law enforcement will be able to use the DNA in those kits to potentially close open cases by comparing it against the new DNA collected under the bill we passed today. 

On changes to our theft law, the Council voted 12-1 to support an amendment from Councilmember Lewis George to maintain the threshold for when theft is a felony - versus a misdemeanor - at $1,000 for the total value of stolen items or cumulative value over time. There was an effort to lower the theft threshold to $500, which would have made the District an outlier on what our standard for felony theft would be. It also wouldn't change the fact that most theft cases aren't charged by prosecutors. The felony threshold approved by the Council is the same as most other states, like Michigan, Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, West Virginia, and many more. An important note: I want to distinguish this theft provision and crime from the other provisions in the bill dealing with strengthening laws on organized theft at retailers, which all remained. 

I'm glad to see we're once again pushing the Executive to adopt a strategic, citywide plan on gun violence and violent crime reduction – I funded this plan a few years ago and then, after it was developed, pushed for it to be adopted and implemented many, many times as Chair of the Council's Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety. I want the Executive to adopt the comprehensive plan we already paid for, developed by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, which has sat on a shelf since it was completed in 2022 (though I did hold a hearing on it that year). It’s a good plan and one we can execute quickly. Thank you to my colleague Councilmember Trayon White for this amendment, although it will only matter if the Executive takes it seriously.

This won’t be the end of our efforts. For example, I’m working on legislation to get at one of the canaries in the coal mine for young people, school truancy. I know several of my colleagues are taking this on as well, including Councilmember Robert White, and it’s long been a priority for the Chairman. I think we can make a lot of progress here on a complex issue with focus and a few innovative legislative ideas. 

I believe that Secure DC can help improve public safety in our city. I also hope DC residents know we’ve wrestled with this bill tremendously in an effort to get it right. We all want to see crime go down significantly. This bill is a commitment from the Council to residents that we take your safety seriously and that action is more productive than finger pointing – and I hope folks also recognize these are thorny, challenging issues to get right without creating inadvertent challenges down the road. Thank you for your many comments in support, opposition, and in between, and let me know if you have questions.

Charles Allen

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