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Washington, D.C. Continues Low-level Arrests Amid Pandemic

The Metropolitan Police Department has discussed reducing arrests, but it has not formally announced any policy changes.

On March 11, police stand guard around the White House after Washington, D.C declares a state of emergency over COVID-19.Photo by Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Over the weekend at least 170 people were arrested and booked in Washington, D.C., in the midst of the COVID-19 epidemic, many on low-level charges.

Among the arrestees between Friday evening and Saturday morning were charged with low-level offenses like misdemeanor marijuana distribution, failure to appear in court, and driving without a license.

The arrests came even as the city took drastic steps to reduce the spread of the disease, which has killed at least 100 people nationwide, and infected at least 22 people in the D.C. region. A city-issued advisory against “non-essential gatherings” announced Wednesday was formalized on Friday as a mandatory ban on gatherings of 250 or more. On Sunday, Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered nightclubs and multipurpose facilities to close, and announced a ban on table seating at restaurants and bars, along with other measures.

The Metropolitan Police Department’s approach may be changing soon, however. Representatives of the department, the U.S. Marshals Service, and court administrators, among others held a meeting on Friday. Betty Ballester, director of D.C.’s Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association, told The Appeal that police officials said at the meeting that they planned to “make better use of the citations system.” Ballester said ideas discussed included setting court dates well into the future and the release of detainees. She said the Metropolitan Police might also simply not enforce laws related to some low-level crimes. 

Ballester offered a hypothetical example of a man cited for an open container violation. “Probably, if he doesn’t give the police a hard time, he’s going to go home,” she said. “They’re not going to charge him at all.”

The police department has not formally announced any policy changes, and did not provide a response to The Appeal regarding its arrest policies before publication time. On Monday, however, the chief judge of D.C. Superior Court issued an order allowing police and prosecutors to release people with citations instead of detaining them pending a court appearance.

James Zeigler, an attorney in Washington, D.C., told The Appeal that facilities like the Metropolitan Police’s Central Cell Block are exactly the kinds of environments that public health experts warn people to avoid.

“Even for the people who aren’t going to be detained, they’re going to be funneled through this system where they’re going to be held with tens of other people, and on a bad day, over 50 of 60,” Zeigler said. “It should be that, in recognition of how serious this problem is, and the need for really drastic measures, that we are not arresting and detaining anyone even briefly unless there is an immediate and clear public safety risk.”

Premal Dharia, a former public defender who now runs the nonprofit Defender Impact Initiative, said the Metropolitan Police should do everything possible to reduce the number of people moving into the system. It’s not just people arrested who are exposed, she said, but also everyone from arresting officers to the personnel processing admissions to the jail. A Metro Transit police officer tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday.

“It puts everyone at risk,” said Dharia.

Dharia said the courts could also take action by not issuing new bench warrants for failure to appear, which resulted in a number of arrests over the weekend.

Several other jurisdictions have taken steps to reduce the flow of people through the courts. Chicago’s Cook County Circuit Court system announced Friday that it would suspend some operations for 30 days. Likewise, New York State’s Office of Court Administration announced that no new jury trials would be conducted and jury selections would be suspended until further notice. 

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, home to Cleveland, released hundreds of people from its jails over the last week. In Los Angeles, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he reduced the number of people in his county jails from 17,076 to 16,459 in the last two weeks. The New York City Board of Correction called for the release of people in the city’s jails who are vulnerable to COVID-19. 

But most jurisdictions have yet to reduce arrests or release people held in jails or prison facilities as a way to stanch the spread of COVID-19. In New Orleans, Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said the department would explore “citing as much as possible and summonsing as much as possible” but would not commit to stop making low-level arrests. “Law and order is what this is all about,” Ferguson said.

On Monday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said in a statement that although he’s making decarceral policy changes at his office, the city’s police made “dozens of non-violent misdemeanor arrests” over the weekend including four people arrested for unlicensed selling of liquor (late Tuesday, however, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw instructed the department to halt arrests for low-level offenses including prostitution and vandalism).

And New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters he refuses to direct the NYPD to reduce arrests. “It’s not like there’s some time-out that criminals take because of coronavirus,” he said. “I would not want to see the NYPD not arresting someone who deserves to be arrested, because of coronavirus.”

On Monday, New York’s Legal Aid Society called for an immediate moratorium on all NYPD arrests, and the release of all people held at the city’s troubled Rikers Island jail complex.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic and our last priority should be to cycle New Yorkers through our broken criminal justice system, separated from their families, communities, and quality services,” Tina Luongo, attorney in charge of the criminal defense practice at Legal Aid, said in the organization’s statement.  “The continued incarceration of our clients during this health crisis could very well carry a death sentence.”