Community members were visibly unsatisfied with answers and what they viewed as police refusal to release footage at a Jan. 15th meeting between Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 6B and District residents about a Dec. 22nd MPD stop of three black boys. Officers briefed the January meeting of ANC 6B on the incident, when seven officers detained three boys near Frager’s Hardware (1323 E St. SE).
The entire interaction was filmed over the course of about an hour by Hill resident Ariel Gory, who posted clips to social media. The clips galvanized the community, leading to the discussion at Tuesday’s meeting at the Hill Center (921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE).
The incident began at around 1:30 p.m. Dec. 22 when police responded to bystander reports of an elderly man being followed into a 12th Street SE CVS. The caller said the man was being threatened by three children in possession of a knife and provided a description of the three children involved.
Three boys were stopped on the 1300 block of E Street by members of the MPD Bicycle Unit. As the officers accompanied the boys to the store, four more officers stopped the group outside of Frager’s Hardware where the boys were questioned. The three boys were held by seven officers for nearly an hour before they were released to the custody of parents and guardians.
The man at CVS declined to press charges or to file a report, preferring to go home.
Community members were outraged at what they saw as an excessive number of officers –seven officers to stop three boys—as well as the length of detention. Many said the stop was an example of the criminalization of black boys.
Community members argued that the boys were treated differently because they are black, with attendee Andrea Zimmerman noting that 88 percent of people stopped by the First District between 2010-and 2017 were black. “When you look at who lives in the neighborhood, this is not parity,” she said.
“I believe that other children in this community would not have been treated this way,” said Maurice Cook, Executive Director of Serve Your City DC. “Please listen and hear that black people are being criminalized in this community.”
Cook said that as a black man he felt this was even more true now than it had been in the 1990s, when violent crime was at a peak in the District. “I hope that you truly want to fix that, because you guys have the guns,” he told MPD First District Commander Morgan Kane, who presented and took questions at the meeting.
“You, on a one-on-one basis, need to do better,” said Cook.
A mother said that incidents like this one, compounded with MPD refusal to release footage from body-worn cameras, made her fear for the life of her 16-year-old son.
“I’m worried you all are going to kill him,” she said, her anger evident.
Kane said that the stop was not random. She said the children were questioned by the police because they matched the radio description of three boys involved in what was then believed to be a potentially violent crime. “This wasn’t a self-initiated activity,” she said, “this was a call from a third party that appeared to be a crime in progress.”
She said that video from body worn cameras spans about 38 minutes each, and shows that the decision to contact guardians was made after eight minutes. The boys were not frisked until the 12-minute mark.
Attendees asked why the search had not been conducted sooner so that the boys could have been released earlier. Kane agreed. “I would have preferred that they had done it initially,” she said, “but they didn’t.” No knife was found.
Community members were upset that seven armed officers were necessary to question three young boys. Kane said this had happened in part because two separate units responded to the incident. A four-member bicycle unit that travels as a team initially stopped the boys. A second unit of officers interviewed the elderly man near the CVS. After the man left to return home, the second unit met up with the bicycle unit and the boys.
It was then that contact was made with the children’s parents and they were subsequently released to their parents or guardians. Kane said that the children were in the custody of officers for about 40 minutes total, the bulk of that time spent waiting for parents to arrive.
A Problem of Tone
Kane acknowledged that there were problems with the tone of at least two of the officers but said that they were not disciplined. Calling it a training opportunity, she said she had spoken with the female officer who had initiated the search for the knife about what Kane described as her ‘stern tone’. In regard to a male officer who was perceived to be mocking Gory as she filmed, Kane said that the officer was not mindful of what he projected, and that he was actually inviting her to film rather than mocking her. “What he was giving was not what was perceived,” she said, adding that she had spoken to him.
However, Kane defended the decision to stop the three minors, saying that the children were believed to possess a knife and that officers were unsure at the time if the case was an armed robbery or assault. “What would you have me do?” she said. “We had a potentially violent crime, we had to at least question them.”
Noting that she was raising her own son in the First District, Kane said that the last thing that MPD wanted was for children to think they were not there to protect them or did not want them to succeed in school. “We’re not going to fix this without working together,” she said offering to conduct outreach and work with members of the community.
Body Camera Footage
Community members made it clear that the failure to release footage from officer body cameras was a key issue for them. In late December, Commissioner Denise Krepp (ANC 6B10) submitted an FOIA request to view the video, and was told it would cost more than $5,000 to redact the video.
When Krepp requested the fee be waived, citing her status as an elected official, police responded by saying that juvenile police records are confidential and cannot be disclosed. Krepp said that both she and the public were frustrated.
“They don’t know what’s going on. I’m an elected official and I don’t know what’s going on,” she said, calling for Mayor Muriel Bowser to release the video.
FOIA Officer Inspector Vendette Parker said that MPD had received 218 requests for video last year and denied fewer than ten of them. Parker said that redactions are necessary when body worn cameras pick up information from the radios also worn by officers, such as names and addresses, criminal records or social security numbers as well as to obscure identities of people passing by.
Community member Zack Weinstein said that these regulations rendered the body worn camera virtually pointless for the community looking to hold officers accountable. “At the end of the day, almost any recording could be disqualified,” he said, arguing that a need for redaction could provide sufficient excuse for MPD to refuse to release footage in almost any situation.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Gory, who had filmed the interaction, said she was disappointed with MPD response. Gory said she had been hoping that officers would come to the meeting with an open heart and mind. “I am disappointed because while you say you are listening, while you say absolutely you understand, this entire time, [your] tone and [your] energy has combined to try and convince us that we are not feeling what we feel and that we are not seeing what we saw.”
“This hurt us. This did not feel good, this did not feel safe.”
Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), who attended the meeting to speak on a different matter, said that he would work with MPD Chief Peter Newsham as well as Councilmember Charles Allen (Ward 6-D) who is Chair of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety to address the issues with footage from the body worn cameras. “Clearly there’s a mistrust of police,” he said, adding this was something that needed to be dealt with by MPD.
Commissioner Krepp said that she would invite Chief Newsham, Chairman Mendelson and community members to discuss the topic further at a meeting of the Hill East Task Force to be held 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 28 at St. Coletta of Greater Washington (1901 Independence Ave. SE).