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Hearing on Civil Rights Issues Affecting DC's Latino Communities

Friday, March 21, 2003

Hearing on Civil Rights Issues Affecting DC's Latino Communities

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

Charles H. Ramsey
Chief of Police
Metropolitan Police Department

Chief Charles H. Ramsey delivered the following statement to the United States Commission on Civil Rights on March 21, 2003.

Members of the Commission, staff and guests – thank you for the opportunity to present this testimony regarding police-Latino community relations in the District of Columbia and the Metropolitan Police Department’s ongoing efforts to strengthen and improve those relationships. For your information, the text of my statement is posted on the Police Department’s website, www.mpdc.dc.gov.

The Mt. Pleasant disturbances of 1991 represented a low point in relations between DC’s Latino communities and its Police Department. And while those events predated my arrival in the District of Columbia by seven years, I certainly appreciate the history and the gravity of that time. I recognize that Mt. Pleasant will forever serve not only as an important moment in our city’s history, but perhaps more importantly, as a starting point for rebuilding the relationship between Latinos and the MPD.

I applaud the Commission for the leadership role it has taken over the years in analyzing that event and helping us understand the underlying issues that contributed to the Mt. Pleasant disturbances. And I acknowledge and commend the Commission, the Council of Latino Agencies, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee, and many others for keeping these issues in the forefront and monitoring our progress along the way. I also want to assure the Commission that during my time as Chief, relations with the Latino community have been a priority, and they remain a priority today. And in recent years, the pace of reform in this area has accelerated – and accelerated dramatically. Even more importantly, the results of our efforts have been equally dramatic.

Today, I will outline our progress, accomplishments, and challenges in four key areas: (1) recruiting, hiring and retention; (2) deployment of resources; (3) community outreach; and (4) police integrity. Because many of our reforms in these areas have come about in just the last several months, these efforts are not fully covered in the Council on Latino Agencies’ September 2002 report. So I appreciate the opportunity to bring the Commission up-to-date on the full range of our reforms.

Recruitment, Hiring and Retention

One of the most obvious and glaring facts revealed by the Mt. Pleasant disturbances was the under-representation of Latinos on the Metropolitan Police Department. In 1991, just 2.5 percent of the sworn members of the MPD were Latino, compared with nearly 5.5 percent of DC residents who identified themselves as being of Latino origin. 

For any community, this type of under-representation creates issues of perceived fairness, sensitivity, and equality. For Latino communities, however, the issues go beyond mere perception. They involve a whole range of language and cultural barriers than can impede policing effectiveness. So increasing the percentage of Latino officers on the Police Department must be a priority.

In its latest report, the Council reported the MPD had 177 Latino officers, or 4.9 percent of the total force. Today, that number stands at 207, or about 5.7 percent of the total. One-hundred and sixty-one (161) of those members are police officers, master patrol officers or recruit officers; 28 are detectives or investigators; 17 are sergeants, lieutenants and captains, and one is an Assistant Chief – Jose Acosta, who I promoted last year to Assistant Chief in charge of the East Regional Operations Command. He is the first Latino in the history of the MPD to achieve the rank of Assistant Chief, and I am very proud to have had the opportunity to recognize his leadership talent and to promote him to an executive command position that he most definitely deserves.

The percentage of Latino officers in the MPD still lags behind the percentage of Latinos in the city’s population. But we have significant progress in closing the gap – and we have made our Department more rich, more diverse, and more skilled in the process.

Part of our success has been the result of a new recruiting campaign on the island of Puerto Rico, which has proven to be a fertile area for highly qualified, well-educated, bilingual officers. Last spring, a team of MPD recruiters, working with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources, visited several locations and tested hundreds of potential applicants – both entry level and experienced officers who would qualify under our “lateral entry” program. Last month, I had the honor of swearing in the first group of 26 lateral officers from Puerto Rico. There are other Puerto Rican officers still in training. And we are continuing discussions with Puerto Rican Labor authorities about further streamlining the recruitment process – for example, by allowing entry-level tests and physical examinations to be conducted on the island.

I recognize that much of the District’s Latino population has roots in Central and South America, not Puerto Rico. Still, the expeditious hiring of officers from Puerto Rico is helping to increase the number of Latino officers in the MPD – and helping us immediately bridge important language barriers.

At the same time, we have stepped up efforts to attract and retain officer candidates from our Latino communities here in the Washington, DC area. In recent years, we opened a walk-in recruiting center in the lobby of Police Headquarters and added a Spanish-speaking officer to that facility. We have placed recruitment ads in various Spanish-language newspapers, as well as radio and television, and we continue to appear at various job fairs geared toward Latinos. Last spring, our Department teamed up with Univision and Telefutura to develop a series of recruitment public service announcements – 260 of these recruitment ads were broadcast free of charge leading up to our Career Expo last April.

One other tool I established to help recruit and retain Latino members is a language stipend. Any member – sworn or civilian – who can be certified in a language other than English, including American Sign Language, is paid an additional $50 per pay period, or $1,300 dollars per year. There are currently 90 members – 82 sworn and eight civilians – who have been certified as Spanish speakers.

So in the area of recruiting and hiring, and especially within the last year, I believe our Department has come a very long way since the Mt. Pleasant disturbances. That is not to say that we have achieved our goals; we have not. But we have put in place the programs, the systems, and the new partnerships that will help us continue to move forward.

Deployment of Resources

In addition to hiring more Latino officers, we have also made significant progress in the deployment of our Latino personnel. One of the issues that came out of Mt. Pleasant 12 years ago was not only that our Department was under-represented with Latino officers, but also that we did not effectively deploy the Latino – and especially the bilingual – officers that we had. Today, we make a concerted effort to assign our Latino and bilingual officers where their skills, talents, and effectiveness can be maximized.

For example, the vast majority of the newly hired officers from Puerto Rico were assigned to the Third and Fourth Police districts, which have the highest concentrations of Latino residents in the city. Of course, all of our members must be given – and are given – the opportunity to compete for specialized assignments and promotions, and this can result in some Latino officers moving out of neighborhood assignments. But to the extent possible, we try to assign our Latino and bilingual officers to our Latino neighborhoods.

But even with more Latino officers – and more of these officers being assigned to Latino neighborhoods – I still recognized that our Department was not providing the depth and quality of service that our Latino residents deserve. So last summer, I created a dedicated Latino Liaison Unit, housed in the heart of the Adams Morgan community, at 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW, and staffed by a group of highly motivated, dedicated bilingual officers and detectives. The Latino Liaison Unit is citywide in scope, although many of its efforts are focused on the upper end of 3D and the lower end of 4D. Every day of the week, officers assigned to this unit patrol neighborhoods, investigate crimes, provide translation services for the districts, help crime victims, mediate neighborhood disputes, and otherwise promote community policing within our Latino communities. The creation of the Latino Liaison Unit has been an important – and long overdue – reform that has reaped tremendous benefits in a short period of time.

Another critical area for deployment is our Public Safety Communications Center, which answers all 9-1-1 and 3-1-1 calls in the District. The PSCC currently has eight employees, including one supervisor, who are bilingual in English and Spanish; six of these employees have been certified through the Department’s Language Skills Program. We just recently posted a job announcement for another bilingual operator. Unfortunately, this level of staffing does not guarantee that a Spanish-speaking operator is available during every shift. However, if a bilingual operator is not available, Spanish-speaking callers to 9-1-1 or 3-1-1 are immediately transferred to the Language Line Service, which provides translators in well over 100 languages and dialects – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Approximately 92 percent of our Language Line referrals are currently for Spanish, so we are providing that critical 9-1-1 life-line in Spanish.

Finally, I have appointed a Latino Affairs Coordinator for the Department – Mr. Enrique Rivera. He is responsible for overseeing all of our various programs, policies and initiatives involving the Latino community – to ensure we are addressing their issues in a comprehensive, coordinated, and effective manner.

Community Outreach

The creation of the Latino Liaison Unit has brought about a measurable increase in both the quantity and the quality of our outreach efforts to the Latino community. I will admit that in the past, Latino residents have not always been able to participate fully in our community policing strategy. But we are working very hard, at the grassroots level, to close that gap.

Our newest initiative in this area is our “home visits” program. Members of the Latino Liaison Unit, along with officers from the Third or Fourth district, arrange to have a Latino family convene a meeting in their home, in which MPD officers and officials discuss crime and safety issues with a small group of family members, friends, and neighbors who attend the meeting. The intimacy of these sessions helps to break down barriers and build trust, which in turn empowers the participants to get more actively involved in broader community policing activities. This program is still in its infancy, but I am very excited by its prospects.

Other outreach efforts have included the establishment of a Latino Citizens Advisory Council, which began in the Fourth District and was subsequently expanded to include 3D as well. In addition to advising the 3D and 4D commanders on issues affecting Latino residents, the Advisory Council has been instrumental in the development of the home visits program, as well as before- and after-school violence prevention programs and a recent briefing I held with Spanish-language media. The Advisory Council is planning a Community Assembly for May 3, to coincide with the anniversary of the Mt. Pleasant disturbances. Our Department has also teamed up with the Aspira Association to conduct a specialized outreach and education campaign for Latino residents on the importance of seat belts and child safety seats, as part of our “Click It or Ticket” initiative.

I want to make one final point about community outreach. As excited as I am about the establishment of the Latino Liaison Unit, I do not want anyone to get the impression that all Latino outreach efforts have somehow become the responsibility of this unit – and this unit alone. Outreach and service to Latino residents remain the responsibility of all MPD members who work with these communities. All of our officers and civilian personnel must adopt the type of community-sensitive, service-based attitude that will allow us to succeed in all communities.

That is why our policies and training continue to emphasize cultural awareness and sensitivity. For example, all recruit and lateral officers now complete a 20-hour Diversity Awareness and Sensitivity Training Program. This class provides officers with an understanding of how biases, prejudices and stereotypes impact effective law enforcement, with a special focus on Latino, Asian-Pacific Islander, and Arab cultures. We have also provided a one-day Diversity in the Workplace workshop to the vast majority of our experienced sworn and civilian personnel. And our Institute of Police Science continues to revise and update diversity training for sworn members of the Department. Our goal: to ensure that all of our officers can police effectively and compassionately in all or our communities.

Police Integrity

Police use of force and other integrity issues are the last area I want to cover today. The Mt. Pleasant disturbances represented much more than anger and frustration over a single use-of-deadly-force incident; they revealed deep-seated distrust in how the MPD trains for, responds to, and investigates use-of-force incidents in general. Regrettably, the Department made little progress in this critical area in the months and years immediately following Mt. Pleasant. In fact, shortly after my arrival in 1998, the Washington Post, in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series, documented that the MPD used deadly force more than any other major city police department in the country – and that our own internal records could not even account for every incident that the paper documented.

I recognized this situation as intolerable, and my management staff and I have worked tirelessly over the last five years to turn a badly broken system into one that is becoming a national model for integrity and excellence. We have completely revamped our use-of-force policies. We have doubled to 16 hours the amount of annual use-of-force training – and we are compelling officers to complete the training or have their police powers revoked. We created a Force Investigation Team to quickly and thoroughly investigate all use-of-force incidents. And we have established new record-keeping and review procedures so that we can document our actions and continuously improve our performance.

This reform effort culminated in the signing of a historic Memorandum of Agreement with the US Department of Justice on use-of-force reforms. As opposed to the type of costly and restrictive consent decrees that other cities have endured, this MOA codified many of our ongoing reforms and established milestones and timelines for implementing other changes in a cooperative atmosphere.

Since our reform effort began, police-involved shootings have declined substantially, and public confidence in our investigations of these incidents has risen. I recognize that there continue to be tensions in the Latino community over certain use-of-force incidents in recent years. But I also know that our ability – and our commitment – to investigate all use-of-force incidents in a thorough, fair, professional, and impartial manner are stronger than ever.

Part of the MOA requires our Department to work with the Office of Citizen Complaint Review to enhance and better explain the citizen complaint process. We have worked hard to meet these obligations. For example, both the MPD and the OCCR now take complaints in a variety of formats, including through forms on our respective websites. And our Department has undertaken a public education effort to explain the citizen complaint process. This has included the translation of materials into Spanish, as well as Asian languages, and the distribution of these materials through community leaders and other partners.

To help address the broader issues involving racial profiling, our Department also initiated the Biased Policing Project. We have contracted with the DC-based Police Foundation to help us examine community experiences with the MPD, public perceptions of bias in the delivery of police services, as well as innovative ways to better serve the community in a bias-free manner. One product of the Biased Policing Project will be a system for collecting and analyzing information about citizen contacts with the police. Finally, our integrity efforts include an unwavering commitment to follow District policies regarding inquiries about individuals’ immigration status. The Mayor’s Memorandum 84-41 makes District policy in this area very clear: except in very limited circumstances, MPD officers are prohibited from making inquiries of subjects, directly or indirectly, about citizenship or residency status. This policy has been incorporated into Department General Order 201.26. Our officers are trained in this policy. They are expected to follow the policy. And they will be disciplined if they do not.

In closing, I want to thank the Commission once again for allowing me to present some of the Metropolitan Police Department’s programs and organizational reforms that are improving our service to the District’s diverse Latino communities. With expanded recruiting efforts in Puerto Rico and here in DC, with enhanced deployment and outreach efforts, and with an unwavering commitment to fairness and integrity, we are creating a solid foundation – a foundation that will become even more important as our city’s Latino population continues to grow and diversify.