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House panel turns attention to crime and police reform in D.C.


Partisan debates about public safety and police reform were on full display today in Congress, where a House committee discussed crime in the nation's capital and a D.C. bill that would impose new discipline and accountability measures.

Reporter Martin Austermuhle from member station WAMU joins us to talk about what's happening in and to D.C. Hi, Martin.


FLORIDO: Thanks. Fine. Let's start with today's hearing in the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, which focused largely on crime in Washington. What is the Republican interest there?

AUSTERMUHLE: That's a very good question. But while Washington does have an elected mayor and city council, it's not a state, as many listeners know, and Congress does have a final say on what happens in the city. And it's usually a pretty useful political tool for either party to highlight when it's convenient. So Republicans have made law and order a central component of their pitch to voters across the country. So focusing on crime in Washington, the nation's capital, isn't just something that's pretty easy for them. It's also something they can have a direct impact on. Now, it also helps that Washington's local government is majority Democratic, so it's an easy target for Republicans on Capitol Hill.

FLORIDO: Well, we've heard that crime is up in Washington and that police staffing is down. What were Republicans and Democrats saying about the state of the nation's capital?

AUSTERMUHLE: Yeah, it's very true that crimes like homicides and carjackings have gone up since the pandemic hit. And at the same time, the city hasn't been able to keep up with the number of police officers who are leaving the department. Hiring is just not there right now. So Republicans say this is all a product of local officials defunding the police and passing anti-police legislation since 2020. But congressional Democrats and some local officials say that Washington is actually just suffering the same public safety challenges as many cities across the country and that hiring for officers is difficult everywhere, not just in Washington.

FLORIDO: Martin, this all sounds very similar to a debate a few weeks ago, when Republicans in Congress led the charge to block a bill passed by Washington's local lawmakers that would have revised the city's very old criminal laws and, in some cases, lowered penalties for crimes.

AUSTERMUHLE: Yeah, it definitely is. So that bill gave Republicans a very easy opportunity to accuse Democrats of being soft on crime, and it worked. Because even President Biden, who has supported statehood for the district, said he was on board with blocking the city's revised criminal code bill. Now, of course, this is about more than just what's happening in Washington, D.C. Republicans see concerns about crime being an issue they can hammer on. And many Democrats, including Biden, are tacking to the middle and saying that they support police and want to be more aggressive about getting crime down.

And now, Republicans actually have a new target in Washington. There's another bill that was passed by city lawmakers that imposes these new discipline and accountability measures on police. And Republicans are using this bill to continue to kind of hammer the rhetoric that Democrats are being soft on crime. Now, this bill requires that body camera footage from police shootings be made public. It bans the use of chokeholds. It creates a public database of sustained police misconduct cases and other similar provisions.

FLORIDO: And what were Republicans saying is wrong with those proposals?

AUSTERMUHLE: Well, they argue that they're just anti-police and will just make police hiring harder. They basically say that these are an extension of defunding the police, which was a controversial rallying cry amongst progressives a few years ago. Now, Democrats say these are actually pretty commonsense accountability ideas that even made their way into congressional bills that were debated after George Floyd was killed by police in Minnesota back in 2020.

FLORIDO: Republicans in Congress have spent a lot of time over the last couple of months focusing on what's happening in Washington. How are local officials and activists responding to all this?

AUSTERMUHLE: I think the best word to describe it is they're feeling embattled. I mean, the city's elected officials have always dealt with some level of congressional interference. It comes with the territory. But Republicans have certainly stepped it up in terms of getting involved in local legislation, demanding access to the local jail to visit January 6 detainees and more. And all this, of course, follows the years when Democrats were in control of the House, and they twice passed bills to make D.C. the 51st state.

FLORIDO: WAMU's Martin Austermuhle, thanks so much.

AUSTERMUHLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Austermuhle is a reporter in WAMU’s newsroom. He covers politics, development, education, social issues, and crime, among other things. Austermuhle joined the WAMU staff in April 2013 as a web producer and reporter. Prior to that, he served as editor-in-chief for DCist.com. He has written for the Washington City Paper, Washington Diplomat and other publications.