As gentrification swallows Chocolate City, report finds DC cops targeted black residents

After years of fighting transparency, D.C. police released data that show black people are arrested 10 times as often as whites.

Metropolitan Police Department  Chief Peter Newsham with his boss, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham with his boss, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D). CREDIT: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Black people in Washington, D.C., were arrested 10 times as often as their white peers during a recent five-year period that has also seen the capital city top lists of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the nation.

Some 86% of those arrested from 2013 to 2017 by the Metropolitan Police Department were black, a new report from the American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. found, even though the D.C. populace was just 47% African American during that same period.

The details of the analysis are likely to put renewed pressure on MPD brass, who have long disputed the local perception that officers treat black and white residents differently. The numbers, it seems, are not on the senior officers’ side here.

The disparity is even starker on the specific charge of driving a car without a permit – where 78% of those arrested were black but the driving-commuter population of the city is just 34% African American. Black people are also dramatically more likely than their white peers to be arrested for public consumption of marijuana – which remains illegal though the drug itself is no longer criminal to possess, purchase, or use in private residences.


The systematic disparities identified in the report raise dire questions about potential racial bias at either the level of individual officer conduct or department-wide policy. MPD has resisted sharing or even collecting such data for years – even after the City Council enacted a law requiring them to collect and disseminate even more detailed stats than the ones the ACLU-DC obtained through the Freedom of Information Act for the new analysis. The department’s illegal resistance to the NEAR Act’s data tracking rules makes it impossible to probe the topline racial disparity evidence for causal components, the ACLU-DC’s researchers wrote.

The new figures on policing disparities across the district follow a report this winter that D.C. has experienced the highest “intensity of gentrification” of any U.S. city from 2000 to 2013. More than 20,000 black residents were pushed out of their former neighborhoods in that time, researchers from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found.

The mass displacement of families of color by economic policy choices and the disproportionately tighter police scrutiny of black residents of the district is likely not coincidental. Indeed, some of the types of crimes that most frequently resulted in a black person’s arrest by MPD officers have a direct link to property ownership and wealth disparities.

Open container violations and public marijuana consumption arrests, for example, stem from law “that makes it illegal to do in public what is legal to do in private,” as the ACLU-DC’s analysis puts it. “Because people in poverty are less likely to own property than wealthier individuals, they have fewer private places to congregate with friends. That makes members of low-income communities more likely to gather in public – and commit open container violations if they drink alcohol while doing so.”

Last summer brought a particularly ugly example of how open-container enforcement and racially disparate policing undermine both MPD’s credibility and D.C. residents’ quality of life. The department faced controversy in local media for weeks after the release of videos showing a plainclothes squad from the city’s notorious Gun Recovery Unit confronting a group of men in front of a barbershop in Deanwood.


The incident left many locals suspecting the GRU cops had used an undercover or a paid informant to try to set up the barbershop men – who were drinking liquor from red solo cups in front of the storefront at the time – and Chief Peter Newsham was forced into unusually strenuous public defenses of his department. A pair of public hearings about the incident also afforded local black residents a rare opportunity to recount specific stories of police harassment that echo the Deanwood videos.

Newsham said then that his officers don’t waste time on open-container arrests during public hearings about the Deanwood incident. But they have in fact made more than 4,752 arrests where open-container was the most serious offense since 2013, according to the ACLU-DC report. Eighty percent of those arrested for open container violations were black, the report says.

Newsham later blamed the public scrutiny of his officers’ suspicious conduct in Deanwood for a shooting there, suggesting that criticizing his officers makes the city more dangerous without acknowledging that community mistrust might also be a rational response to the racially unequal approach that locals have long reported and the ACLU’s data analysis confirms.

This stuff doesn’t just happen in Deanwood, which is among the few remaining demographic and cultural redoubts of the old, pre-gentrification days when D.C. was known as the Chocolate City. Newsham’s officers are doing their jobs in a fashion that places disproportionate scrutiny on black people wherever they find them across the District.

The ACLU-DC’s geographic analysis of the data showed that the racial disproportionality of MPD enforcement conduct persists in both predominantly black and predominantly white sectors of D.C. Using census tracts to split up the arrest and population data, researchers found black arrest rates far higher than the black population share in all but a handful of the hyper-local zones. And in more than two-dozen census tracts, black people make up less than 25% of the populace, but more than half of MPD arrests.


D.C.’s rapidly-shrinking black populace is subject to dramatically stricter police scrutiny whether at home or while roaming the gleaming, sterile, and barely-recognizable corridors of the city that have gentrified most aggressively in recent years. That context underlies not just controversies like the Deanwood dust-up in 2018, but also the higher-profile #DontMuteDC protests that made national news after residents in one of the new gentrification high-rise apartment towers in Shaw threatened legal action over a nearby phone store’s decades-old habit of playing go-go music on loudspeakers positioned above the door.


Gentrification can at times be rendered abstract or ephemeral. It is often portrayed as coincidental by the policymakers who shape tax incentive structures and strike redevelopment deals with the same people who fund their campaigns. The wealthier people who move into the new buildings and re-cut neighborhoods from which longtime locals have been displaced often view the turnover as a near-inevitable force of nature. Some may lament that redevelopment hasn’t been more inclusive, and some may try to sue the few people still clinging to a place in the neighborhood that’s been claimed for them in civic planning meetings. To each camp, gentrification is just a thing that happens sometimes in public life.

But it is a choice. The elected officials and profit-hungry developers who cooperate to determine what any given community will look like are also deciding for whom it will be built and tailored. Those decisions get enforced in various ways – some as subtle as a shift in design aesthetics and a jump in the prices on a lunch menu, and others as blunt as a billyclub to the gut.

Try though they have to prevent the public from seeing data like this, the MPD has now been forced to confirm its own role in the displacement machine that’s rapidly recast the capital city’s socioeconomic character.