What does police reform look like to D.C.'s police union?

What does police reform look like to D.C.'s police union?

The District’s police force has come under major scrutiny during the last few months. In response to the local protests after George Floyd’s death, the D.C. Council passed emergency police reform legislation that, among other things, makes neck restraints a felony and bans using rubber bullets and teargas to disperse peaceful crowds. The Council also cut $9.6 million from the mayor’s proposed police budget increase.

Many officers do not agree with these steps towards police reform. According to an internal survey from the D.C. Police Union, 71% of officers are considering leaving the Metropolitan Police Department because of the police reform bill, and 39% are considering leaving law enforcement altogether.

How does D.C.’s police union respond to the emergency legislation? And what does police reform look like to MPD officers? We sit down with the chairman of D.C.’s Police Union, Greggory Pemberton, to talk about police reform and changes that need to be made.

Produced by Richard Cunningham


  • Greggory Pemberton Chairman, D.C. Police Union; @G_Pem


  • 12:00:03

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast disabled activist and media maker Alice Wong joins us to talk about "Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the Twenty-First Century." But first, the Metropolitan Police Department like police departments across the country has been under scrutiny for the last few months. In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police local activists continue to protest in the District for police accountability and racial equity.

  • 12:00:31

    KOJO NNAMDIThe D.C. Council has put forth its first step toward police reform. Last month the Council passed emergency police reform legislation that among other things makes neck restraints a felony and among other things bans the use of rubber bullets and tear gas as a method to disperse peaceful protestors. Not all officers agree with these measures. In addition, the force is seeing a sharp increase in dissatisfaction among officers. Joining me to discuss all of this is Greggory Pemberton, Chairman of the D.C.'s Police Union. Greggory Pemberton, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:04

    GREGGORY PEMBERTONGood afternoon, Kojo. Thanks for having me.

  • 12:01:06

    NNAMDIGreggory Pemberton, what was your reaction to the murder of George Floyd?

  • 12:01:10

    PEMBERTONI think like many other police officers and many other police unions in this country. I think we saw that video and we found that behavior abhorrent and nauseating. No one should be treated that way. No police action should be handled in that manner and I think it's been condemned by every major Metropolitan police union including our own. And I think it obviously serves as a topic of discussion as to how we get away from these incidents happening ever, right? As rare as they might be, we want to make sure that that number gets down to zero. And we're here for that part of the discussion and we just want to be involved.

  • 12:01:46

    NNAMDICould you see something like that happening here in the District of Columbia?

  • 12:01:50

    PEMBERTONNo. I could not. And the reason is is that for the past 20 or so years the Metropolitan Police Department has taken a much more advanced approach than other Metropolitan areas in terms of use of force reform, and particularly in 2002, then Chief Ramsey -- Charles Ramsey who was in charge of the police department. He actually called in the Department of Justice. Usually that looks like a consent decree, which to your listeners is when the federal government steps into a police department that's not acting appropriately.

  • 12:02:19

    PEMBERTONWell in this case, Charles Ramsey actually invited them in and told them that he had a problem with the amount of force that was being used on the department and he wanted to reform that. And the Department of Justice stuck around here and rewrote our policies and reinstituted training. And made sure that they monitored all of what was going on for probably 10 or even 12 years until they finally signed off saying that the Metropolitan Police Department had reached these benchmarks and these goals to make it one of the most profoundly responsible and professional police departments in the nation.

  • 12:02:48

    PEMBERTONBut in addition to that just even over the past five years, the use of force policy that exists in the Metropolitan Police Department's general order has probably been rewritten four or five times in order to address the growing concerns about some of these tactics and techniques. In 2015, we were probably one of the first major Metropolitan areas to adopt body-worn cameras, and we did that department wide basis.

  • 12:03:12

    PEMBERTONAnd the Union stood shoulder to shoulder with the chief of police and the mayor and said, we absolutely need these. We need these for police accountability. We need to these to make sure that everyone is satisfied that our police department is doing what they're supposed to be doing, which is responsible policing. And the union was right there along with the City Council and the mayor and the chief of police adopting those policies and informing our members of how to most appropriately adopt those cameras and use them to make sure that they were doing what the citizens wanted them to do.

  • 12:03:41

    PEMBERTONSo I think when you ask me is that, something that would happen here? The answer is No. I don't ever see that happening here. We have a very advanced and very professional police department here compared to other major jurisdictions.

  • 12:03:52

    NNAMDIRecently President Trump promised to send federal law enforcement into cities he says aren't doing enough to crack down on protestors. I can't think of a city whose police department has more experience with protestors than Washington D.C. Do you think D.C. needs assistance from federal law enforcement?

  • 12:04:09

    PEMBERTONI do not. I do not. And as you pointed out in your question, we're probably the most premier police department in the world when it comes to civil disturbance first amendment protesting and even rioting, even dealing with situations that turn tumultuous and even violent. We have a very restrained police department. We have very restrained policies. We have some of the most expert officials on the department in our special operations division that know how to handle these situations and know how to accurately and safely and responsibly restore order.

  • 12:04:41

    PEMBERTONI certainly don't think that we need federal law enforcement to come and help us with that, because I don't believe that those officers have that same level of training in how to deal with those situations. And even more so than that I think what's most important about the situation is that we know how to deal with situations when they get out of hand, right? And we've dealt with these situations in the past. We've had these situations occur, and in each of those circumstanced the Metropolitan Police Department has been able to responsibly render order in those situations.

  • 12:05:13

    NNAMDILast month MPD received assistance from federal law enforcement to help contain violence and vandalism at the protests, a move that was criticized by activists and others. Do you know if the MPD requested that assistance?

  • 12:05:27

    PEMBERTONIt's probably outside of my purview to comment on that as a union leader in terms of strategy and tactics, but I am not aware of that ever being requested by the department and certainly it would be completely unusual to me as someone, who's been on this department for 15 years to have seen something like that happen. So I don't believe that that happened, and I don't have any information to say that it did.

  • 12:05:50

    NNAMDILet's cut to the chase. Greggory Pemberton, when you hear the phrase "defund the police," what does that mean to you?

  • 12:05:58

    PEMBERTONWell, that's a good question, because it's very hard to pin that down when you could ask five separate people and they'll give you five separate answers. And it doesn't seem like there's any sort of consensus on what that literally means. Now, when you try to pin people down sometimes what they'll say is, well, we're not talking about abolishing police officers. We're talking about taking money that's used to fund police departments and reallocating it to other areas in the community that might actually help reduce crime in other sort of more social venues.

  • 12:06:27

    PEMBERTONNow that's a fine proposition. However, until somebody shows me what line item the money is coming out of it's hard for me to sort of comment on how that would affect policing or police officers in general. I do know from experience when budgets get cut typically the first things to get cut are training and manpower. And those are the two things that I think are most critical to get where everybody wants us to get. I mean, the one thing that unions and activists agree on is that we need a better police department.

  • 12:06:57

    PEMBERTONThat the police departments need to continue to improve and they need to continue to get better. And the way that we do that is hiring better people and enhancing the training. And if you're going to cut money out of a police departments budget, the areas that's going to come from first is training and manpower, which is going to degrade the police department. And it's going to actually take us in the opposite direction.

  • 12:07:16

    PEMBERTONSo until someone shows up and says, well, this is where the money is coming out of. It's hard for me to comment on it, but on the back end of it where you say, well, we're actually going to reallocate some of these calls for service to other agencies. Well, I'll tell you if you're going to tell me that police officers are going to have less calls for service or less work to do on any given day you're not going to get a lot of gripes from me. You're certainly not going to get a lot of gripes from the men and woman on the police department. But the concern is that for decades these other agencies have been lumping these responsibilities back onto the police department, because they've done such a bad job of handling themselves.

  • 12:07:50

    PEMBERTONSo if you want to give those responsibilities back to those agencies, I think we'd be fine with that. But I have an apprehension to say that the reason we were handling them in the first place is because they weren't serving the community properly when it was underneath those other jurisdictions. So there's some concerns. And what this all brings me back to is that these conversations need to be more robust.

  • 12:08:11

    PEMBERTONThat is our main complaint about this situation is the emergency nature of this, the fact that there's no public testimony. There's no government testimony. There's no opportunity to provide expert testimony or any research or data empirical or otherwise about how these policies might affect the communities that we police. And when you do things like that you're bound to make mistakes, because they have not heard from all of the stakeholders in the situation. And when that happens I think we're going to find ourselves on the other side of this thing regretting some of these decisions that were made.

  • 12:08:41

    NNAMDIHere now is Keith in Fairfax, Virginia. Keith, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:47

    KEITHYeah. I was going to say I think "defund the police" is actually a really bad phrase for what people really want to do. I heard somebody at one point use the term we need to reimagine safety. I think that would be a much better hashtag. I think it's more accurate to what we're really trying to do in terms of providing more supports for mental health services, addiction counseling, social work as opposed to just cutting police budgets. It's more about providing that support for all these other services.

  • 12:09:17

    NNAMDIGreggory Pemberton, how do you feel about that?

  • 12:09:20

    PEMBERTONYeah. I think Keith hit it on the head exactly what I was saying in my last answer, which is if we're going to fund other agencies to take away workload from police officers there's no complaints here. That's fine. I think the concern is that if you're actually taking money out of a police budget to do so police officers and police departments need to know where that money is coming out of because the concerns that we have are if you take those moneys out of manpower and training the quality of the police department is going to degrade over time. And nobody wants to go in that direction where the police department and the police officers are less trained and less qualified.

  • 12:09:54

    PEMBERTONSo like Keith is saying, if we're just talking about putting more money into some of these other agencies so that they can help out by all means. You know, I'm open ears to those policies and I would love to have those discussions. But, again, it doesn't seem like those discussions are being had. And that's the biggest gripe we have.

  • 12:10:10

    NNAMDIHere's Jason in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jason, your turn.

  • 12:10:14

    JASONOkay. Yeah, I just wanted to touch on the deployment of the federal officers in D.C. I am a former MPD officer and I'm a current federal police officer. And it's a huge difference. When you look at federal officers, they're not doing a whole lot. So to take somebody like that and to deploy them in a very complex city like D.C. and considering everything that was going on was just a horrible move. And that should never happen in any city, because these officers, they're just not the right answer for what's going on there. The folks in D.C. they get it. They live it. They research it. They know it. So just leave that up to the local PD, and I'll take my answer offline.

  • 12:11:01

    NNAMDIOkay. Greggory Pemberton.

  • 12:11:02

    PEMBERTONI think he's right. I think he summoned it up pretty well, which is that the training that exists in becoming a Metropolitan Police Department and continuing to be a Metropolitan Police Department there is consistent and regular training on dealing with these situations. Whether it is a completely peaceful First Amendment assembly or it is something that has become tumultuous and violent and has rolled over into what is described as a riot under the D.C. code. And the training that we receive in those things is so robust that it does seem silly to say, well, let's bring in a bunch of other police officers from other areas whether they're federal law enforcement or otherwise.

  • 12:11:35

    PEMBERTONIf they don't have those same sets of skills them mistakes can be made and the level of restraint that needs employed in these situations so that they don't become worse, I think it's a very delicate situation. And brining in people that don't understand the delicateness of that, I think it's dangerous. And I think the caller is right about that.

  • 12:11:52

    NNAMDIOnly got about 30 seconds left in this segment. But ACL of D.C. tweets, "Why are MPD members not wearing masks when interacting with members of the public? We need officers to help stem community spread of COVID?" To which you say, what?

  • 12:12:08

    PEMBERTONSo the current policy that exists in this current phase that we're in in the District of Columbia is that officers are directed to wear masks when possible when they're outside and they can't maintain social distancing.

  • 12:12:22


  • 12:12:23

    PEMBERTONSo I think officers try to do their best about that. In the current climate in the current circumstance it's not always going to happen that way, but I think they're trying to do their best.

  • 12:12:31

    NNAMDIOkay. Got to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:12:53

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Greggory Pemberton, Chairman of D.C.'s Police Union. Greggory Pemberton, earlier this month the D.C. Council unanimously passed emergency police reform legislation including making neck restraints a felony, a ban on rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse peaceful crowds. And requiring the release of body camera footage within 72 hours of an incident. What's the union's position on this legislation?

  • 12:13:16

    PEMBERTONSo first of all any kind of legislation that comes out regarding police we're more than happy to be part of that discussion and be part of that and be involved with that. It's ultimately citizens decide how they want to be policed. The police don't decide that. Citizens and the legislators that they elect do, and so we just want to be a part of that conversation. But the bill that you described, it has about 17 different subtitles in it, which all have pretty sweeping reforms on policing here in the District of Columbia.

  • 12:13:42

    PEMBERTONThe vast majority of them, I think about 13 of them, maybe 12 or 13 of them, the police union actually supports. We don't have any objections to a lot of this stuff. And we just want to be able to have a conversation about what we think might help tighten that up in terms of how it's going to affect communities. Now the ones that we do oppose that we do have some problems with aren't necessarily deal breakers off the break. But without having the union and the police officers show up with a voice and explain to the Council and explain to the citizens how this is going to affect policing in the most vulnerable communities in the District of Columbia that are plagued with violence, we think that mistakes are going to be made.

  • 12:14:21

    PEMBERTONThat some of these policies are going to go into effect and they're not going to have the intended effect. They're going to have unintended consequences and it's going to result in a depravation of police services in those areas that we're most concerned about protecting. So ultimately like I said in the first segment, it's not that we're just vehemently opposed to everything that they're doing. It's that we just want to be able to have a voice in the conversation.

  • 12:14:44

    PEMBERTONNot allowing public testimony, not allowing government testimony, not allowing expert witnesses to come in and talk about how these policies could affect the city, that's not democracy. That's not good legislation. And we're asking the Council to slow down about this so that we actually can have some of these hearings. We actually can have some of these discussions, because I think some of the information we point out will be helpful.

  • 12:15:04

    NNAMDIWell, you're saying that police officials don't have enough say. Elia in Foggy Bottom, D.C., I think, wants to say just the opposite. Elia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:15:14

    ELIASo one of the comments I wanted to make was I'm a little bit concerned about the role police unions in the discourse in general, because, you know, I'm not someone who's opposed to unions. In fact, I quite support, you know, the ending function of unions. But seems like, you know, the police union is involved much more heavily when it comes to creating legislation, when it comes to protecting officers, whether or not that protection is warranted. It seems that police unions play too -- you know, a much more major role in police officers careers and lives than unions for pretty much any other industry.

  • 12:15:50

    ELIASo I'm wondering what's your take on, you know, what exactly is the role of the police union especially when the police union has, you know, a history of protecting officers during situations that might not exactly warrant their best effort or energies when officers are in the wrong.

  • 12:16:08

    NNAMDIIn which officers are either wrong or display questionable behavior. What do you say, Greggory Pemberton?

  • 12:16:14

    PEMBERTONThere's a lot to unpack there. And it's an excellent question. But what I think is the thing I want to address the most about that is that there's a misnomer out there that police unions are just protect bad officers, who have gone out and they're brutalized people or they've committed crimes. And the department has moved to fire them and then union finds some way to protect them and get them back on the police department. Nothing could be further from the truth.

  • 12:16:34

    PEMBERTONFirst of all, the way that it works is if the department wants to propose termination for somebody they take them to an internal administrative hearing in the department and then that panel decides whether they should be fired. Once the panel decides they should be fired, that case comes over to the union for review. And the union has the right to appeal that. And I think at our last check I think it was something like less than 25 percent of the cases that came up to us were actually appealed to an arbitrator on that decision, which means that 75 percent of the cases that are coming to us, we're actually agreeing with the police department that that person should be terminated. That person should not be a police officer and that the administrative process was correct.

  • 12:17:11

    PEMBERTONAnd the ones that we do appeal, they're appealed to an arbitrator. The arbitrator sometimes sides with the union. Sometimes they don't. But when they do the police department appeals it to the public employee relations board, which has unanimously sided with the union. Then they appeal to D.C. Superior Court in which a judge sides with the union. Then the department appeals to the D.C. Court of Appeals where a panel of appeals court judges side with the union.

  • 12:17:32

    PEMBERTONAnd what the City Council is saying right now is all of those people are always wrong and the chief of police is always right. And he should have carte blanche to fire whoever he wants whenever he wants whether it's correct or whether due process was followed or whether it's a prior common practice is followed or whether the investigation was appropriate, we're just going to give him complete carte blanche to fire whoever he wants. And that's not an appropriate policy, right?

  • 12:17:56

    PEMBERTONBut I think what Elia was saying was like, why do police unions protect all these bad cops? Well, the reason is, because that's not true. That's a misnomer that's out there. I think a lot of activists and a lot of reformers use that argument pretty heavy handedly in order to try to gain support against unions. But the fact is that unions have the same rights as teachers and firefighters and janitors or food and commercial workers we have the same rights and the same protections as any other union. And we defend those rights just like any other union does. And we do in an appropriate and a professional fashion.

  • 12:18:27

    NNAMDIGot to ask, how are your black officers and other officers of color doing during this time?

  • 12:18:35

    PEMBERTONWell, let me preface that by saying as a white male, I don't want to speak on behalf of black police officers. But I do -- I am elected by our agency and it is approaching I think 70 percent minority are non-white. I think about 63 or 64 percent are black officers. And I think the most demoralizing aspect of what's been going on is especially what we've seen downtown is where you see officers sort of maintaining lines and maintaining perimeters in order to make sure these protests stay safe and have appropriate amount of activity there.

  • 12:19:07

    PEMBERTONAnd these officers are being approached by protestors and they're having some of the most disgusting and terrible racial slurs thrown directly in their face by people of all races. And I think that that kind of behavior just is absolutely abhorrent to me. I can't figure out why that would be happening in the name of equality injustice. It just seems disgusting, but on a more general basis. I think that there's something that's disheartening about this conversation for officers of color and officers who are not.

  • 12:19:39

    PEMBERTONJust officers in general, which is just that the idea that all police officers are somehow inherently criminal racists and therefore deserve to be penalized when these people have lived their lives to go out and help their communities. They put on a uniform every day. They drive out in communities and they're trying to help the most vulnerable people in our society, prevent them from becoming victims or help them get justice when they have become victims or try to interdict when crimes are happening. And they dedicate their lives to this and they make a lot of sacrifices to do that and to help their community.

  • 12:20:13

    PEMBERTONAnd now it seems they're being maligned and besmirched. And they're having their reputations drug through the mud for what appears to be an effort to get rid of all of police in general. And I just think that it's a misguided effort. And ultimately what I've said multiple times in this interview is that we just need to be able to be a part of the discussion. So that all of us can understand what we're trying to do.

  • 12:20:34

    NNAMDIEarlier this month, the D.C. Board of Education also passed a resolution developing a plan for the removal of school resource officers and other armed security personnel and policing bodies from D.C. Public Schools by the 2021-2022 school year. Do you believe that that is an appropriate measure to take?

  • 12:20:51

    PEMBERTONAbsolutely not. We have about 100 or so school resource officers that work in all of the schools all over the city. And these officers act as mentors to a lot of young folks that are in the school system. And they're actually able to interdict not just on crimes, but on life choices. And they're able to redirect people back to the school system and back to common goals whether that's athletic or whether it's academics or whether it's, you know, achieving a higher education.

  • 12:21:19

    NNAMDIWell, I know, we only have about a minute left in this segment, but the people who push back against that say the presence of police officers in these schools can suggest to many of these young people that they are being looked at as potential criminals. That they have to be somehow policed.

  • 12:21:34

    PEMBERTONThat's preposterous. That is absolutely preposterous. And I would encourage anyone that thinks that to go talk to D.C. Public School teachers and ask them how they feel about it, because that's not what they'll tell you. And the fact is that these officers that work in these schools are not looking at these kids as criminals. They're trying to keep those school systems safe and they're trying to make sure that they have -- that all of these students have the correct influence in their life whether they're getting off track into sort of a criminal element or not. There's someone there that can help guide them to the right decisions. And that's what their role is.

  • 12:22:04

    NNAMDIGreggory Pemberton is the Chairman of D.C.'s Police Union. Greggory Pemberton, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:22:09

    PEMBERTONThank you, Kojo. I appreciate it.

  • 12:22:10

    NNAMDIGoing to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk with disability activist and media maker Alice Wong about "Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from the Twenty-first Century." You can start calling now. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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