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Report: DC Cops Could Be Using A Law To Cover Up Police Abuse

There is a law in the District of Columbia that could allow police to arrest a person for almost any contact they have with the public, critics say, and it has led to a large number of questionable arrests.

Some people are calling the law overly broad. Things like a protester stiffening to avoid being handcuffed or someone holding a door closed to stop a police officer trying to enter are considered “assault on a police officer.” A new report from the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University says the law may be used as a way to cover up abuse by police.

According to the report, more than 40 percent of those arrested for the crime from 2012 to 2014 had no formal charges filed, though they were still booked by police. Those cases were dropped by prosecutors mostly because they couldn’t meet the burden of proof to formally charge the defendants.

Almost two out of three people arrested during the three years of the investigation were only charged with assault on a police officer, and no other crimes, which the report said could indicate that the police used the charge to justify stopping people with no probable cause.

As the law currently stands, anyone who “assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer,” can be charged with assaulting a police officer.

However that doesn’t necessarily mean the charges weren’t justified, according to D.C. police chief Cathy Lanier, who told the Investigative Reporting Workshop that sometimes police come in to contact with people who are mentally unstable, which could lead to an unprovoked confrontation.

Last year, Lanier testified in front of D.C. City Council that she strongly believes there needs to be a legislative fix for the misdemeanor cahrge, which can carry up to a six month sentence.

“The language in the statute is too broad and includes behavior that is not an assault, such as resisting, opposing, or impeding an arrest,” She said. “However, because the charge is called an assault, it appears that police are overcharging someone who resists arrests, which naturally causes tensions between police and residents.”

While she believes it is important to have the legislation, Lanier said it is inappropriate to charge someone with assault when they only resisted arrest.

Lanier’s wish may soon be granted, as Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation May 5 that would tighten up the language in the law and make it apply only to actual assaults.

“We must always provide safeguards to protect our officers, but the law should not be so broad so that nearly any encounter with an officer could be considered an assault,” Cheh said in a statement.

Cheh’s bill would break up the charge into two separate charges, one for assault and one for resisting arrest.

The two charges would be the same in terms of severity, both coming with up to a $1,000 fine or six months in prison, but they would be narrowed to better fit their intended purposes.

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