The following statement was presented by Assistant Chief Willie Dandridge to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Honorable Jim Graham, Chair, on July 13, 2007, at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.
Good afternoon Chairman Graham, members of the committee, and guests. My name is Willie Dandridge, and I am the Assistant Chief of Police over the Regional Operations Command – East, which is comprised of the Sixth and Seventh Police Districts. I am pleased to testify on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Department about Bill 17-26, the Litter Control Administration Amendment Act of 2007.
As most of you know, the appropriate role for the police in dealing with littering in our city is a long running debate. Most recently, in May of this year, a three-judge panel in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) issued a ruling that MPD does have the authority to enforce the Litter Control Administration Act of 1985, overturning a July 2006 ruling from the OAH. Even with the issue of MPD’s enforcement authority decided, other questions remain. Is litter a public safety issue? What is an appropriate and effective role for police to play in the fight against litter? And would the potential benefit outweigh the likely costs? I would like to briefly address each of these questions.
Is littering a public safety matter for law enforcement? Some people argue that since there are more important crimes for the police to address, they should not bother with littering violations. But since no one here is suggesting that a police officer prioritize a littering ticket over a robbery or a burglary, we do not need to spend too much time on this. We all recognize that although other crimes are more serious, littering is still an important offense against the community. Neighborhoods with a lot of litter are at risk of more serious crime and disorder. Ultimately, keeping streets, sidewalks, parks, and vacant lots clean is important for keeping our neighborhoods safe.
What role should police play in litter enforcement? On the other hand, just because cleaner streets are generally safer streets does not mean that it is the responsibility of law enforcement to keep them clean. The role of leading or initiating anti-littering efforts rests with the Department of Public Works, and should remain there, as keeping the city clean is central to DPW’s mission. There are also practical obstacles to police having an effective role in preventing littering. While people may think twice about throwing trash on the ground or out a car window if they think they could receive a ticket for it, MPD has no authority to compel someone to provide valid identification for civil offenses not related to traffic. People just walking around the city are not required to carry identification, and thus could provide any – and not necessarily accurate – identifying information to a police officer. To be clear, I am not suggesting that people should be required to carry proof of identification at all time, but we need to recognize that without accurate identifying information, the government’s ability to hold violators accountable for this civil offense is limited. And without more certain accountability, the tickets might not be enough of an incentive to motivate people to change their behavior.
Would the potential benefit outweigh the likely costs? Lastly, it is important to think about the trade-offs for police enforcement of littering laws. For example, if officers issue tickets for littering, it is likely that some violators will contest the tickets, and MPD will have to appear at hearings for the tickets. When officers appear at hearings, they are either working their regular tour of duty, and thus are in court when they could be on the street, or, if they do not work regularly work during the day, they are working overtime. Thus, one potential cost associated with police enforcement would be fewer officers out in our neighborhoods and likely higher overtime costs.
Given that its effectiveness is uncertain, residents and the Council need to decide whether the potential benefits of police issuing littering violations are worth the potential costs. Should the Council decide that the potential benefits of litter enforcement by the police outweigh the likely costs, then this bill could make it easier for officers on patrol to issue a ticket after witnessing littering violations. There are a few additional policy/drafting issues to consider:
- The bill would authorize MPD to use a form of its own design to cite violators for littering (currently, the Office of Administrative Hearings has sole authority to prescribe the form). Because officers patrolling a foot or bicycle beat are already carrying many forms and heavy equipment, it is impractical to keep adding forms to this list of required items. By allowing officers to use multi-purpose police forms, an officer who witnesses an individual littering could more readily issue a notice of violation using a form he or she is already carrying; this is the route we would recommend as this bill moves forward.
- I am not sure what is envisioned by the language requiring the Chief of Police to “establish procedures for the proper administrative controls over the dispersal” of the notices of violation. The OAH currently has authority for adjudicating violations of the Litter Control Amendment Act, so I do not believe other administrative controls are necessary.
In closing, MPD urges the Council and residents to carefully consider whether the benefits of this enforcement would outweigh the costs. If the decision is that MPD should devote more resources to littering enforcement, then MPD strongly supports this bill as it would facilitate officers’ ability to easily issue notices of violation for littering.