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a summary of oversight in dc

dc office of police complaints and police complaints board

What is the Office of Police Complaints?


The Office of Police Complaints (OPC) is an agency intended to provide civilian oversight of law enforcement, investigate citizen complaints, and “promote positive community-police interactions”.


The OPC is authorized to receive complaints against the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the Housing Authority Police Department (HAPD) involving incidents of harassment, use of force, insulting language or conduct, and discriminatory treatment, among others; however, it does not have sole authority as MPD is also directly authorized to receive these complaints.


The OPC is also authorized to conduct review and make recommendations regarding MPD policies and practices. As a regulatory body, it publishes an annual report on citizen complaints and resulting disciplinary actions (if any) and is meant to publish another annual report on use of force by MPD.


While the OPC purports to create a link between DC’s residents and its police departments, none of the disciplinary or policy recommendations made by the OPC are binding, and decision making is ultimately left in the hands of the police departments. There is no true structure of accountability.

What is the Police Complaints Board?


The Police Complaints Board (PCB) is the governing and decision-making body of the OPC.


The PCB is a five-member board, with all five members nominated by the Mayor and confirmed by City Council. One member is required to be a member of MPD, while the remaining four may not have any law enforcement affiliation. Members serve a three-year term and may be reappointed. The PCB is required to conduct meetings that are open to the public.


The PCB is tasked with reviewing complaints and making formal recommendations to the Mayor, City Council, MPD, and HAPD. Recommendations may be made regarding general MPD policies and practices, as well as discipline in response to a specific citizen complaint; however, the PCB has no authority to actually enforce any of these recommendations.


When the PCB reviews a citizen complaint, it has the option to dismiss the complaint, refer the complaint for conciliation or mediation, refer the complaint to the US Attorney for the District of Columbia for criminal prosecution, or refer the complaint for investigation by the OPC. The PCB does not have the authority to determine if or how an MPD officer will be disciplined in response to a complaint, only to make findings of fact based on an OPC-conducted investigation.


What happens if the allegations of a complaint are sustained by the Police Complaints Board?


After the OPC completes its investigation and examination of the complaint, the Executive Director of the PCB transmits a complaint file, which includes a determination of the merits of the complaint, to the Police Chief for further action. The file is then reviewed by MPD officers who recommend discipline based on MPD’s standard table of penalties and report back to the Police Chief. The Police Chief ultimately determines what action is taken, if any, and has the authority to dismiss or overrule the recommendations of the PCB, “with justification”. Effectively, the OPC can collect information in response to a complaint, but MPD retains the sole authority to police itself and its officers.


As an example of why MPD can’t be trusted to discipline its own officers, the only direct reference to use of force within MPD’s standard table of penalties is the broadly categorized “unnecessary or wanton use of force” with a minimum penalty of 3-day suspension for a first time offense.

Has the Office of Police Complaints been impacted by any recent legislation?


Regulations for the Office of Police Complaints and Police Complaints Board were most recently changed in 2017 under passage of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. Among other changes, the OPC is now further authorized to collect data and conduct reviews of the policies and practices of MPD, including a requirement to review all use of force incidents and in-custody deaths by MPD. The NEAR Act does not, however, grant the PCB any authority to enact discipline of officers or implement changes to MPD policy; the PCB remains authorized only to make recommendations and publish reports. The NEAR Act also maintains that any FOIA requests regarding public records collected by the OPC may only be submitted to MPD, leaving MPD ultimately in control of this information.


How effective are the Police Complaints Board and Office of Police Complaints?


Some have praised DC’s Police Complaints Board as one of the strongest police review boards in the country and as a potential model for other cities. For example, some cite the fact that PCB has the power to subpoena documents or responses from complainants, officers, or others involved in an investigation; however, while this power is important, it is not nearly enough to hold the police accountable.


Unless the PCB is made fully independent of MPD, is granted enforcement authority, and is comprised of more equitably selected membership, it presents little more than a front for police accountability.


As an example of how the PCB is not all it’s cracked up to be, 80% of the total 440 cases closed by the OPC in FY 2017 were dismissed or withdrawn, according to the OPC’s annual report.

Statistics from 2017 office of police complaints and use of force annual reports

  • 773 new complaints received by the OPC

    • 145 complaints of use of force

    • 691 complaints of harassment

    • 151 complaints of discrimination

  • 478 new investigations opened by the OPC

  • 440 investigations closed

    • 70% of “closed” cases were dismissed

    • 10% of cases were withdrawn

  • 69% of complainants were black

  • 83% of complainants were non-white

  • 13 complaints were sustained, 9 officers disciplined

    • 6 officers received re-training

    • 1 officer received a letter of prejudice

    • 2 officers received official reprimands

  • 96 cases were mediated

  • 991 use of force cases reported

  • 89% of subjects of use of force were black

  • MPD's Use of Force Review Board made 117 determinations and found 96% of cases were justified

  • MPD's Use of Force Review Board made 16 excessive force determinations and found that only 1 was sustained