Despite financial concerns and a lack of support from Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Council of the District of Columbia unanimously approved a first reading of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act of 2016 in a legislative meeting February 2, which seeks to approach crime in the District as a public health issue.
The NEAR Act proposes the creation of several offices that focus on identifying at-risk or potentially dangerous individuals. Any bill introduced in the District must be read by the Council twice, or brought up in two different legislative sessions and approved both times, before it goes to mayoral consideration and is implemented.
Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who sponsored the act, cited these offices as methods of crime prevention at the grassroots level in a press release published Feb. 2.
“This critical legislation is a step in the right direction and will address the root causes of violent crime in an effective and sustainable way,” McDuffie said. “One homicide in the District is too many. We know that we cannot simply arrest our way out of crime, we have to take bold and innovative steps like those in the NEAR Act to help prevent crime. I thank the residents, advocates and experts for their active engagement throughout this entire process. We are all in this together.”
The bill seeks to create an Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement that would identify at-risk individuals in all eight wards of the city and involve them in a paid program teaching life planning, trauma informed therapy and mentorship skills.
The ONSE is based on a similar program in Richmond, Calif., which saw a 76 percent decrease in firearm-related homicides after implementing its version of the program. At the legislative meeting, Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) expressed his support for the bill and the proposed ONSE.
“This is focused on gun violence prevention. This connects in novel and strong ways behavioral and mental health to our Metropolitan Police Department. It focuses on neighborhood engagement and interventions,” Allen said. “So for me, in short, this bill helps ensure accountability when a crime occurs, but more importantly it focuses on proven strategies that prevent the crime from occurring in the first place. And that’s ultimately what we’re trying to get at.”
The bill would also establish an Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity within the District of Columbia Department of Health that would collaborate with local police and hospitals to provide greater mental health support within these institutions. The Act plans to create a Community Crime Prevention Team in order to connect mental health professionals with housing specialists and police officers to identify at-risk and homeless individuals with greater services.
Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) expressed admiration for the bill and McDuffie’s efforts to install innovative preventative measures at the legislative meeting.
“I wanted to commend Councilman McDuffie on the work he’s done with this legislation. It’s been a long haul to get to a place that I think the District of Columbia should have been years ago,” Grosso said. “I’m proud to be on a council, as we move the legislation forward, that commits to a health care approach to crime prevention and moves our city in a new direction where we have greater community policing and a commitment to people every day trying to do the right thing.”
Although the first reading of the bill was unanimously approved, some councilmembers expressed a desire to incorporate more components from Bowser’s 2015 “Safer, Stronger D.C.” crime proposal, which highlights increased police presence on the streets as a primary goal.
Bowser’s spokesman Michael Czin criticized the bill for failing to address crime directly.
“Councilmember McDuffie’s package failed to include any provisions to combat crime,” Czin wrote in a statement to The Washington Post.
Bowser’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Tom Lipinsky, director of communications for Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), also highlighted the councilmember’s focus on the need for increased security on the Metro.
“Our biggest concern was how the Council is acting to address crime on Metro,” Evans said. “There was a provision in the Mayor’s proposal to enhance penalties for any attacks on Metro with the understanding that our public transit facilities are some of the highest priority areas for residents to feel safe, especially now that we are putting schoolchildren on Metro rail and on Metro buses as a means to get them to school safely, that everything that can be done to make those areas safe should be done.”
Several councilmembers also expressed concern about the finances of the bill, which would cost $3.9 million in the 2016 fiscal year and $25.6 million over the next four years. In the bill’s committee report, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt stated that Washington would not have sufficient funds for the bill in this financial year, meaning that its programs would need to wait until 2017 to be sufficiently appropriated in a new budget.
Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber praised the bill and its approach to city crime while also encouraging the Council to incorporate some of Bowser’s crime prevention initiatives.
“I think you need both things in order to successfully police a city or community. You need a strong law enforcement presence,” Gruber said to The Hoya. “At the same time, you need to look at your community makeup. ”
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