News & Politics

DC Is Unlikely to See Unrest Like Baltimore’s. Here’s Why

DC's police operate under more constraints, for one thing.

Photograph by Ryan Rodrick Beiler/

Could the civil unrest, rioting, burning, and looting that swept through some Baltimore neighborhoods this week happen in the District of Columbia?

Of course.

It’s possible that a DC cop or US Park Police officer could shoot or abuse a suspect, as cops manhandled Freddie Gray in Baltimore. And the images could go viral, and people could take to the streets.

But that situation is highly unlikely in the nation’s capital, not because we don’t have poverty and heavy-handed police. We have both in certain neighborhoods. But cops here operate under a bureaucratic discipline system that’s more heavy-handed than most U.S. cities.

“We are vastly different than Baltimore in a lot of ways,” says Delroy Burton, chairman of the DC police union. “Our training, rules, and regulations create a different environment.”

After a number of police shootings in the 1990s, the US Department of Justice reviewed the DC Police Department and issued a memorandum mandating that every time a cop uses force, the incident must be reported, investigated, and often adjudicated with reprimands or termination.

“As a result of that DOJ system,” says Burton, “we operate under a bureaucratic discipline system that’s harsh on an officer. It’s so harsh that officers become risk-averse.”

Which means they may decline to get out of their vehicles.

I covered an investigation of three fine officers fired for protecting themselves while investigating a drug deal.

The discipline system that came down on them is still in place.

Let’s say you’re a cop on patrol and you pull a car over for running a red light. You approach the driver and see a pistol on the back seat. It’s not licensed. You ask the driver to get out and face the car. To place him in cuffs, you twist his wrist.

“Ouch,” he says. “You wrecked my wrist!”

You are required to write up a use of force investigation report, or “ufer.” Then you have to take the suspect to the hospital.

“That’s an everyday occurrence,” Burton says.

In the case of Freddie Gray, as soon as he asked for an inhaler, DC police would have taken him to the hospital.

“Any time an arrestee is sick or injured, we have to transport him or her to the hospital,” Burton says. “It’s cumbersome, but in the long run it protects the officer, who has to write up the report on how force was used and why.”

Even with the rules in place, troubling incidents have brought residents and cops into conflict. Take the 2007 case of DeOnté Rawlings. The 14-year-old was shot and killed by an off-duty cop who said he thought Rawlings had stolen a minibike from his garage. The officer also said DeOnté had drawn a gun and shot at him first. Local and federal investigators took the cop’s side, but residents of Congress Heights believed the cop murdered the boy.

In 2011 cops in an unmarked car shot and killed 18-year-old Rafael Briscoe, who ran from them. They said he had brandished a weapon. His mother said: “it was a drive-by on him.”

Neither Rawlings nor Briscoe provoked a strong reaction from the community, but after recent and raw police shootings in Ferguson and North Charleston, a similar incident in DC could cause an uproar.

“We’re in terrible condition here,” says Sean Blackmon, an organizer for the group #DCFerguson. He accuses the police of being “an occupying army” that uses paramilitary tactics like jump-out squads. And he says economic conditions and racial tensions are similar in DC and Baltimore.

Not really. Baltimore lost its manufacturing employment base; DC still has the federal government as a foundation. Baltimore is still awash in heroin. DC’s crack epidemic crested in the early 1990s. Baltimore cops use force on a regular and wanton basis, according to David Simon, who covered cops for the Baltimore Sun before he wrote books and The Wire.

Even so, the District still has neighborhoods where urban ills make them fertile ground for violence, crime and uprisings.

The numbers of homicides and violent crimes have been falling across DC, but some neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River suffer from a high number of shootings, high poverty rates, high number of school dropouts, high unemployment, and poor health.

Testifying Wednesday morning before the DC Council’s judiciary committee, Pastor William H. Lamar IV of the Metropolitan AME Church said the causes of violence like we’ve seen in Baltimore are “under the surface” here him DC. Committee chair Kenyan McDuffie disagreed.

“I think they are on the surface,” he said.