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Posts about Mary Cheh


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match; our schools can't afford it; what about neighborhood security; this will add to traffic and harm my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.

Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.


Proposed rules aim to get serious about road safety in DC

The DC government has committed to "Vision Zero," a goal of eliminating all road deaths. A detailed plan from the Bowser Administration will come out Wednesday, but in the meantime, legislators have been putting forth their own proposals for laws around safety.

Photo by Jonathan Warner on Flickr.

Four bills in the DC Council about road safety proposals were the subject of a hearing on December 8. Here's a rundown of what they will do.

Enhanced Penalties for Distracted Driving Amendment Act of 2015

This bill, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, would increase fines for people who repeatedly engage in distracted driving. Anyone with three violations within eighteen months would get his or her driver's license suspensded and points on the license.

Today, first-time violators who purchase a hands-free device do not face any fines; the bill would end that waiver.

Speakers at the hearing were broadly supportive. Many asked whether or not it went far enough. Both the District's Bicycle Advisory Council and Washington Area Bicyclist Association expressed interest in expanding a ban on driving while using a hands-free phone device (it's illegal for all road users to use a handheld phone). That ban now applies to school bus drivers and novice drivers; witnesses suggested adding drivers in school zones and construction zones, or preferably all drivers at all times.

Others asked that the bill include more provisions for education about distracted driving. (Disclosure: I am acting chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council and testified on its behalf for this bill.)

Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2015

Earlier this year, Mary Cheh, chair of the council's transportation committee, convened a working group of advocates to discuss potential changes to the law around road safety. The group reached consensus on a number of changes, which are in this bill. Some of the key provisions would:

  • Require the government to regularly publish data on crashes, sidewalk closures, citizen petitions for for traffic calming measures, dangerous intersections, and moving violations.
  • Instruct the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to create Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas (at least one per ward) with no right turns on red, lower speed limis, and more human and camera enforcement.
  • Let cyclists slow down and yield rather than stop fully at stop signs.
  • Write a Complete Streets policy into law. (DDOT has one today, but just as a directive of the DDOT Director which can be revoked at any time.)
  • Create a curriculum on safe cycling and walking for schools; require taxi and other for-hire drivers to go through training on bicycle and pedestrian safety.
  • Apply the laws for motor vehicle insurance to bicycle insurance, and allow bicycle insurance providers to require policyholders to register their bikes.
  • Impose larger fines on repeat violators (up to five times the fine for a fourth offense) for violations including speeding, blocking a crosswalk, and illegal stopping or standing including in a bike lane (sorry UPS!)
  • Allow aggressive driving citations for drivers who commit three or more or a set of violations (like speeding or improper lane changes). This which carries a penalty of $200 and 2 points and mandatory driver education.
  • Forbid using a phone in the car when not moving.
  • Require side under-run guards, reflective blind spot warning stickers, and either blind spot mirrors or cameras on all heavy-duty vehicles registered in DC. This is currently the law for District-owned vehicles.
  • Create a Major Crash Review Task Force to review major crashes and recommend changes to reduce the number of them.
You can read a complete list of changes here.

Much of the discussion for this bill focused on the fact that it does not lower the speed on residential streets, a proposal which the working group discussed but didn't reach consensus on. WABA had several proposals for ways the bill could go farther to create safer streets.

Some witnesses opposed pieces of the law. Several were uneasy about letting cyclists yield at stop signs.

The Metropolitan Police Department's representative argued that the law was primarily about convenience and might, in an urban environment, lead to more crashes. In response, Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked if there was any evidence that it might lead to more crashes, and MPD conceded that there was none. Mary Cheh cited a recent study showing that crashes dropped 13% in Boise following the passage of a similar law in Idaho.

Insurance industry representatives said that this law would need to be coupled with a dedicated education effort. One witness from the insurance industry also objected to regulating bicycle insurance.

Vision Zero Act of 2015

This bill comes from Mayor Bowser and is a companion to the forthcoming Vision Zero plan. Like the Safety Act, it would also mandate a Complete Streets system. Like the Distracted Driving Act, it would increase fines and add points for distracted driving violations.

In addition, it would enhance penalties for operating all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on District roads and require ignition interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders and high blood alcohol content (BAC) first-time offenders.

While supportive, WRAP, MADD and AAA all suggested that the bill instead require interlock devices for all DUI offenders, as 25 states do now.

Regulatory changes

In addition to the legislative changes mention above, both Cheh's working group report and the Vision Zero action plan recommended regulatory changes, some of which have been addressed by proposed rules that the Bowser administration proposed Friday.

These rules would:

  • Require side underrun guards for certain vehicles.
  • Require drivers to clear damaged but operational vehicles from the travel lanes.
  • Require drivers to yield to buses merging into traffic.
  • Designate certain streets as neighborhood slow zones with a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour (and near high-risk areas like playgrounds, as low as 15 mph).
  • Add points for several offenses such as overtaking another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk or intersection for a pedestrian.
  • Increase fines for infractions such as driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit (including possible jail time), running a stop sign, driving on the sidewalk, unsafely opening a door into traffic, or striking a cyclist.
  • Break the violation for parking in a bike lane into two categories, one for commercial vehicles and one for non-commercial vehicles, and raise the fine from $65 to $300 and $200 respectively.
Since these changes are coming in regulations from the Bowser administration and not a bill in the DC Council, there is some conflict about whether the increased fines will be effective, and whether they're even allowed.

Mary Cheh told the Washington Post she wanted to make sure "the mayor has authority" to raise the fines and asked, "Is there data that supports that this is something that will deter people from speeding? Otherwise people would think this is just a money raiser."

What else could be done?

In addition to formal changes to the law and regulations, the working group recommends other steps District agencies could take to improve safety. Some of these recommendations include:

  • A universal street-safety education program for all elementary school students (which has already gone into effect).
  • More automated cameras for enforcement.
  • Greater "no right turn on red" restrictions in bike and pedestrian priority areas.
  • Distributing more free bicycle lights.
  • Equipping large District-owned vehicles with audible turn warnings.
  • Providing more information about bicyclist insurance.
After becoming a campaign issue in the last mayoral election, District leaders have been busy this year, through multiple efforts, in working towards that goal.


Letting cyclists yield at stop signs won't lead to chaos

An "Idaho Stop" is a law in some states that allows bicyclists to treat stop signs as if they were yield signs. DC Councilmember Mary Cheh recently proposed adopting the law in DC, but some people say it would turn traffic law on its head.

Photo by Shawn Hoke on Flickr.

There are a few reasons to support the Idaho Stop:

  1. It's important for cyclists to conserve momentum, since starting up a bike requires muscle power.
  2. The most dangerous place for bikes is at intersections with cars, so giving people on bikes permission to go through intersections when there are no cars nearby rather than forcing them wait (while one might pull up behind them) makes intersections safer for everyone. It also makes it less likely cars will get stuck behind bikes.
  3. Since bikes move at relatively slow speeds, people using them have plenty of time to gauge oncoming traffic. That means there's less need to stop and look around at every intersection; you can look around while moving slowly.
At yesterday's DC Council Transportation Committee hearing, in response to Cheh's proposal, police officers and representatives from the insurance industry said allowing Idaho Stops would lead to confusion. Specifically, DC Insurance Federation executive director Wayne McOwen said he thinks allowing Idaho Stops would confuse children.
We teach our children when the light is red we stop. We teach them when they see a sign that says stop to stop. We teach them to look both ways before they cross the street. We teach them to cross at the crosswalk. Now we are beginning to say follow those rules except if there's no one around, you can run across the street anyway.
Brian McEntee, a GGWash contributor who also writes the bike column Gear Prudence, explored McOwen's statement and the different situations that drivers face on the road.

Others pointed out that people walking don't have to stop at stop signs and that children aren't allowed to drive until they reach an age where they can think more critically. One Twitter commenter noted that the law already allows cyclists to proceed when the light is red and they are following the pedestrian signal.

Whether cyclists should have special rules is always a heated debate. For one, there are some cyclists who ride very fast and can keep up with drivers, while others tend to go at a slower pace.

At the hearing, cycling advocate David Cranor noted that allowing cyclists to yield at stop signs would send more cyclists on slower, safer, residential streets.

The Idaho Stop debate was only one part of the Transportation Committee hearing. If you want a good recap, Dave Salovesh live tweeted the hearing and posted a Storify of the twitter conversation.


Making this street more bike-friendly should be easy. Why isn't it?

A barrier meant to calm traffic doesn't need to also block bicyclists on an upper Northwest street. But even though Councilmember Mary Cheh and the local ANC support a cut-through, there had to be yet another hours-long community meeting and site visit in the pouring rain so nearby residents could express their concerns that accommodating bicyclists would result in mayhem and carnage.

Traffic diverter at 44th and Harrison NW

The proposal is to add bike cut-throughs to an existing traffic diverter at the intersection of 44th Street and Harrison Street NW. The traffic diverter blocks cars from passing through the intersection, which is meant to preclude the use of these residential streets as an alternative route for nearby Wisconsin Avenue and Western Avenue.

Bicyclists currently use these ramps to get around the diverter

Backers of the project believe that adding the cut-throughs would give people on bikes a more direct route from the neighborhood into Friendship Heights without disrupting the neighborhood itself.

Opponents, on the other hand, think changing the diverter will invite drivers to attempt to drive over the diverter and through the neighborhood. Some also believe that more bike traffic through the residential streets would be a bad thing.

Additionally, opponents believe that cyclists already have an adequate alternative by leaving the roadway, riding up the curb ramps and onto the sidewalk, to circumnavigate the diverter. Opponents believe that this practice is safer for everyone than any compromise to the integrity of the traffic diverter.

Following the meeting, representatives from DDOT said they would bring these concerns back to their agency to study possible design adjustments, further delaying a project that would make life easier on bicyclists.

This situation is a snapshot of a bigger story

Ultimately, this isn't a very substantial project and will not affect many residents or bicyclists. But it speaks to a few larger concerns about the process of adding additional bicycle accommodation to parts of the District that currently don't have many.

Anyone who has ever attended a public meeting knows that it can be very difficult to change the status quo. The resistance to make changes, regardless of how small those changes seem, exhibits itself in fierce resistance and the desire for an endless series of meetings, further discussion and design tweaks. While this project had been approved by the local ANC and is supported by Councilmember Mary Cheh, a committed group of opponents has managed to stall the process.

If this is the case for such small projects &emdash;the low-hanging fruit that cuts neither parking nor traffic lanes&emdash;what does this suggest about gaining any ground on larger ones? It's important to work with neighbors, but at a certain point it becomes necessary to reach a decision. If DDOT is expected to assuage every concern from every resident before moving forward with a project, it will never accomplish anything.

This meeting also raised concerns about the results of interrupting the public right of way. When the traffic diverter went in, residents of the nearby streets benefitted disproportionately. But the traffic didn't disappear, it just went somewhere else. And when breaking up a street favors some residents over others, it's no surprise that those who benefit want to preserve their advantage.

Even though this particular project would keep the diverter in place and simply add some small cut-throughs for bicyclists, the residents' attachment to their preferred status is so strong that they are worried about any action that might jeopardize it. DDOT needs to be mindful about the consequences of traffic decisions that have the potential to create this dynamic.

The overwhelming majority of opponents of these changes claimed that they support bicycling. However, they worried that changes to the road to accommodate bicyclists would unintentionally lead to more reckless driving, making everyone less safe.

This is similar to the concern about how installing bike lanes might degrade air quality due to more traffic from slowing moving cars. So long as meeting the needs of bicyclists are sublimated to larger concerns about how this might lead to even more negative externalities from driving, progress is unlikely.

Additionally, meetings like this always raise concerns about the division of public and private space. Both 44th Street and Harrison Street are public streets, open to all. While those who live nearby feel that they will be more affected by any changes to the intersection, DDOT needs to weigh their interests (and how reasonable their concerns are) against the larger goals of public mobility and bicycle accommodation.

You can't build a genuine bicycle network with a patchwork of compromises, where infrastructure appears or disappears based on block-by-block votes. If DC is committed to creating neighborhood bikeways and cross-town bike routes, like those laid out in the MoveDC plan, DDOT will need to find a way to address neighborhood concerns without sacrificing its larger goals.


Mary Cheh's annual joke budget memo mocks the streetcar, endless transportation studies, and more

Each year, as the DC Council considers the District's budget, Councilmember Mary Cheh and her staff issue fake recommendations that satirize recent news. This year's poke even sharper fun than usual at a number of issues around transportation, Eleanor Holmes Norton's parking, the Vince Gray prosecution, and many others.

Bookshelf image from Shutterstock.

On the streetcar, for instance, they "suggest,"

Transfer $500,000 million from the District Department of Transportation to the Commission on Arts and Humanities. This transfer will be used for an innovative, progressive, and transformative production of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire.
That wasn't even the harshest cut at DDOT, though. As we prepared to talk to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo, a lot of you suggested questions about DDOT's apparent habit of conducting a study, then conducting another one a couple of years later, and so on.

This has been a particular source of ire for Capitol Hill residents who have been waiting years for traffic calming on Maryland Avenue, or supporters of a bus lane who wonder why there has to be another study this year to implement a bus lane that was the subject of at least two earlier studies. Commenter Jimmy, for instance, wrote:

Some of us actually refer to his agency as DDOTS (District Department of Transportation Studies). While some study is necessary to avoid ready-fire-aim debacles like the streetcar, use of "further study" (on bike lanes, bus lanes, bus signal priority, and pretty much everything else that doesn't move more cars faster or provide more parking for private automobiles) has clearly become a delaying tactic. What can be done about this? How can we move forward on things that have already been studied to death?
Cheh and her staff feel your pain. Their budget "recommendation":
Transfer $1.5 million from the Department of General Services—what's another million and a half, anyway—to the District Department of Transportation to conduct a study. It has recently come to the Committee's attention that DDOT has had issues in implementing previously conducted studies. Despite extensive work being done to study traffic calming measures on Maryland Avenue, the agency is about to initiate another study. Additionally, despite conducting a study in 2013 on a 16th Street Bus Lane, DDOT will shortly begin a new study on the topic.

To assist in reducing redundant redundancies, the Committee recommends that the funds be used for DDOT to study these studies. This endeavor will help keep the agency busy because the Committee has no doubt that two years from now they will scrap the study on studies and conduct a new study that studies the study on studies in a rather studious manner.


Eleanor Holmes Norton does not get off lightly. A video surfaced in March showing the Congresswoman trying to park between two other cars and somehow managing to end up diagonally in her space. Cheh and her staff "propose" a new Eleanor Holmes Norton Office of Parking and Driving to provide free taxi service for elected officials.

And speaking of federal activities, remember how US Attorney Ron Machen was looking into alleged campaign finance misdeeds from the 2010 Vincent Gray mayoral campaign? Machen charged a number of Gray staffers, but never seemed to find any evidence linking the mayor himself. Yet Machen, in an unusual step for a prosecutor, publicly said "there's there there," saying in essence that he was sure Gray was involved.

Gray lost the primary election, in large part because many people believed Machen, but nothing has happened since. Cheh and her staff caustically "suggest" funding a dictionary and a map for the US Attorney's Office so it can "determine where exactly is the there."

Other biting critiques in the memo include:

  • A recommendation about the DC Board of Elections printed entirely upside-down, a reference to the upside-down DC flag on the 2014 voter guide which BOE first pretended was intentional, then admitted had been a mistake.
  • That upside-down proposal suggests a primary date based on the lunar calendar to "enhance voter turnout and continue to make elections a part of the news cycle." DC had shifted its primary from September to April due to federal laws about getting absentee ballots to servicemembers overseas. But the turnout in 2014 hit record lows, so the council moved it back.
  • A budget allocation to make space for "all of Mayor Bowser's former staff and campaign aides" on the council. Bowser staffers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May won the two recent special elections, in Wards 4 and 8 respectively. Todd said he would be independent of Bowser and even, while campaigning, opposed her controversial DC Jail healthcare contract which Bowser had been pushing; days after winning, he decided he would support his former boss after all.
  • A new job training program for councilmembers forced out of office due to corruption.
  • Body cameras for councilmembers whose footage will be televised on a reality show, "Keeping Up with the Kouncilmembers."
  • A staffer to submit "all office supply orders" to Congress, given that Congress is so eager to get involved in DC's local affairs.
Cheh and her staff conclude with a suggestion that if you don't find her memo funny, you "participate in some recently-legalized activities" (i.e. smoke marijuana) and then you will "find it to be, like, totally the funniest thing ever."

Public Safety

Mary Cheh wants to change the definition of assaulting a police officer. Here's why that's important.

On Tuesday, Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced a bill to reform some elements of criminal justice procedure. It would change the law around "assaulting a police officer," strengthen prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence to defendants, and other things. Why does Cheh feel these laws need reforming, and what will her bill do?

Image by chriswhite313 on YouTube.

First, a quick quiz: Which of the following would be considered "assaulting a police officer"?

  1. Punching a police officer in the face.
  2. Standing behind a gate holding it closed while an officer tries to push it open.
  3. Sitting in your car grabbing the steering wheel while an officer tries to drag you out of your car.
  4. Standing at a Metro station with your hands in your pockets, refusing to take them out of your pockets when an officer commands you to.
  5. Being a Metro passenger and having transit police drag you from your wheelchair and smash your face into the ground.

If you guessed just #1, you are wrong.

All of these are cases which happened in recent years and where people were charged with Assaulting a Police Officer (APO). The DC Court of Appeals upheld APO convictions in #1, #2, and #3. The US Attorney argued #4 was APO, but the appeals court said no. In #5, charges were dropped after the incident was caught on video.

This post revises and expands on one from 2011 on this issue, when incident #5, above, was in the news.

When assault means assault

#1 is obvious. If you do that you can be charged with a felony APO. DC law § 22-405, "Assault on member of police force, campus or university special police, or fire department," reads:

(c) A person who violates subsection (b) of this section and causes significant bodily injury to the law enforcement officer, or commits a violent act that creates a grave risk of causing significant bodily injury to the officer, shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $10,000, or both.
But the law contains another kind of APO, a misdemeanor, which most of us would probably not consider "assaulting" a police officer. It's more like what we think of as "resisting arrest."
(b) Whoever without justifiable and excusable cause, assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer on account of, or while that law enforcement officer is engaged in the performance of his or her official duties shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and, upon conviction, shall be imprisoned not more than 180 days or fined not more than $1,000, or both.
To be guilty of misdemeanor APO, someone might need to only "oppose" a law enforcement officer without cause. Courts have drawn a distinction between "passive" resistance, like slumping to the ground when being arrested in a protest, versus "active" resistance against the officer's actions. That's why the court overturned a conviction in Ava Howard v. United States (#4 in the quiz), where a trial court only found Howard guilty of refusing to sit down and take her hands out of her pockets.

Riot image from 1000 Words /

When it's really just resisting arrest

But in other cases, the Court of Appeals has upheld APO convictions even without evidence of actions that the average person might consider "assault." In Dolson v. United States, Dolson ran from police and went to his own house, where he went inside a chain link fence. Dolson pushed the gate closed while the officer tried to push it open. The Court of Appeals upheld Dolson's conviction just based on this action, finding it constituted misdemeanor APO.

In Coghill v. United States, the court upheld a conviction for misdemeanor APO. Coghill was stopped by police while driving a car and refused to let police search it. He got out of the car at their instruction, but at some point got back in. Officers tried to drag him out of the car, but he braced himself against the floorboards and gripped the steering wheel.

The court held that it counts as "assaulting a police officer" just to be "actively interposing some obstacle that precluded the officer from questioning him or attempting to arrest him" and upheld Coghill's conviction.

Why does this matter?

If someone is convicted of misdemeanor APO, a future employer might look at their record and think they're quite a violent person if they assaulted a police officer. But they might have just panicked and resisted, without even touching or hitting an officer.

If the police respond to someone resisting arrest by savagely beating him or her on the ground, as has happened in some places, it can be very difficult to file a civil rights lawsuit with a conviction for "assaulting a police officer," even if it's again not really what most people consider "assaulting."

In one incident, New Jersey police beat a Rutgers student who was lying on the ground, all the while yelling "stop resisting." And in 2011, a shocking video showed transit police roughly dragging Dwight Harris, a homeless man in a wheelchair, out of his chair. They charged him with APO, but dropped the charges after the video surfaced.

It's important to keep in mind that some people really do hit police officers, and many who do should be prosecuted. Legally, "assault" also covers more than just physically punching; it includes spitting on someone or threatening to cause physical injury, for example.

Dolson, for instance, did end up hitting an officer in the face and breaking his nose later on, after the chain link fence shoving match. Neighbors say this was self-defense and the officer was choking Dolson. Without video, we can't really know.

If there hadn't been video of Dwight Harris, the charges might have stuck, too. This is the same pattern we've been seeing in high-profile cases around the country, where the presence of bystanders with camera phones belies a police claim of why they had to hit, shoot, or even kill someone.

(Disclosure: My wife works for the DC Public Defender Service. She did not work on any of the cases listed in this article, and nothing here represents the official opinion of the Public Defender Service.)

Cheh's bill makes APO into two offenses

Among other changes, Mary Cheh's bill deletes the "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer" language. Instead, it creates two, separate misdemeanor offenses, both punishable to the same degree (up to $1,000 or six months in prison).

One, Assaulting a Police Officer, would get narrower. Instead of "assaults, resists, opposes, impedes, intimidates, or interferes with a law enforcement officer..." the law would read just "knowingly assaults a law enforcement officer." Someone accused of this would also have the right to a jury trial.

But the bill also adds language saying, "A person may not intentionally resist a lawful arrest; or prevent an individual who the person has reason to know is a law enforcement officer from making or attempting to make a lawful arrest or detention of another person."

It'd still be illegal, and a misdemeanor, to resist arrest. However, this would only apply while an officer is trying to make a "lawful arrest," not at any time whatsoever as under current law.

That's not all

APO and resisting arrest represent just one of the sections of the bill. Another would codify and expand prosecutors' duty to turn over evidence, especially evidence that could help the defendant. One section would make more information available to the Office of Police Complaints, which handles—you guessed it—complaints against police.

Another would set stricter standards for how police get eyewitnesses to make identifications, ensuring that if the witness is looking at a set of photos, for instance, the process doesn't unfairly bias the witness toward picking out the person the police have in mind.

This bill is just one of many that councilmembers introduced at the latest legislative session. Kenyan McDuffie (Ward 5) now chairs the judiciary committee and will decide whether to hold a hearing on the bill. If he does (and he ought to), prosecutors and/or police may oppose some provisions, and the legislative process will determine what, if anything, becomes law.


What's behind the budget cuts at Wilson High School

DC Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has defended her plan to cut Wilson High School's budget by over 10% per student next year, citing a DC law that requires DCPS to redirect funds to at-risk students. But most of the cut isn't required by that law.

Photo of desk and scissors from Shutterstock.

DCPS plans to spend $8,300 on each student at Wilson, the lowest amount it has allocated to any school on a per-pupil basis for next year.

Designed to accommodate 1550 students, Wilson will serve almost 1800 next year, according to DCPS projections. That's an increase of 170 students over this year's enrollment. Nonetheless, DCPS wants to cut the school's budget by about $300,000.

The Wilson community has protested that class sizes, already high, could climb to 40, and that the cut will hurt the school's efforts to support its lower-income students. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh has argued that the planned cut could "dramatically shake" the confidence parents across the District have begun to feel in the relatively high-performing school.

While Wilson is located in Ward 3, its attendance zone extends into other wards. And 43% of its students live outside that zone.

At some other schools, the overall per-pupil spending will be almost twice what DCPS has allocated to Wilson. This interactive graphic, produced by a new coalition of DC education advocates with the help of Code for DC, shows the range of budget allocations for all DCPS schools.

Henderson's justification for the cut in funds

Henderson has argued that Wilson is losing funds because it has a lower concentration of at-risk students than many other DCPS schools. Two years ago, the DC Council passed legislation providing that DC schools spend an additional $2,000 on each at-risk student, a category that includes those who are homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

DCPS projects that Wilson will have 582 at-risk students next year, a number that makes up 31% of its student body. That's a large increase over this year's figure of 343, and 582 is greater than the total number of students at some other high schools. But at many DCPS schools, 70% or more students are at-risk.

As an example of how the new at-risk allocations will affect Wilson, Henderson cited a DCPS program that awards money for projects proposed by individual schools. Beginning next year, the funding for that program will be tied to the number of at-risk students a school has, a change that Henderson said will result in a loss of $140,000 at Wilson.

DCPS chose to fund other priorities rather than Wilson

But that explains only a fraction of the cut to Wilson's budget. The remainder does have something to do with at-risk funding, but the connection is indirect.

Last year, DCPS officials said they didn't have time to allocate the $40 million they got in at-risk funds in direct proportion to the number of at-risk students at each school, as the law required. Instead, they pooled the money and used it to fund priorities they had already set for the current school year, such as improving middle schools. They argued those priorities primarily benefited schools with high at-risk populations.

For next year, the DCPS budget does distribute at-risk funding proportionally. But school officials didn't want to pull the plug on initiatives they started last year with the at-risk funds they had pooled. So, Henderson explained in a letter to Cheh, they "identified acceptable cuts elsewhere" in order to continue to fund them. They also wanted to focus on schools with at-risk students and the priority DCPS has set for this year, high schools.

In a heated exchange with Cheh at a DC Council hearing yesterday, Henderson elaborated on her view of what the at-risk legislation requires. (The exchange begins at about an hour and 12 minutes into the hearing.)

"Those funds were to be distributed proportionally," Henderson told Cheh. "It didn't say what number do you have, it's what proportion. I don't know how we distribute proportionally and not have loss at schools that have lower proportions. That's the law."

But in fact, the legislation says nothing about targeting schools with high proportions of at-risk students. It requires DCPS to direct at-risk funds "to schools proportionally based upon the number of at-risk students within each school's projected student count." And in apparent accordance with that reading of the law, DCPS did allocate at-risk funds to Wilson for next year based on the number of at-risk students it's projected to have.

DCPS eliminated Wilson's per-pupil funding minimum

What DCPS chose to cut was Wilson's "per-pupil funding minimum," or PPFM. DCPS came up with the PPFM three years ago to make sure schools with larger enrollments weren't getting shortchanged. The problem stems from the fact that DCPS doesn't allocate money to individual schools on a per-pupil basis. Instead, it gives each school funds for a certain set of staff positions.

DCPS generally funds those positions at the same amount, regardless of how many students attend the school. At large schools, costs like the principal's salary are spread over a greater number of students, resulting in lower funding per pupil than at small schools. To offset that effect, DCPS decided to ensure that per-pupil funding at larger schools wouldn't fall below about $9,000.

But, Henderson said, that policy cost the school system about $9 million this year, including $3 million at Wilson alone. Many of the schools receiving PPFM funds have relatively low concentrations of at-risk students. So DCPS officials decided to cut the PPFM payments for all schools other than Wilson. There, it eliminated the PPFM altogether.

That $3 million PPFM cut explains why Wilson's funding for next year is so low. As the budget data tool shows, the funds Wilson will get in other categories, including at-risk, have actually increased.

Henderson says the cuts at Wilson will be "mostly" offset by new investments that all high schools will get next year, such as a new athletics and extracurricular coordinator. But Wilson parents say that change will actually result in the elimination of one of two current staff positions, and that the overall effect of the new investments on Wilson's budget is nil.

Overcrowding at Wilson is the basic problem

The basic problem is that Wilson has too many students, while other neighborhood high schools are underenrolled. In her letter, Henderson also outlined several plans for decreasing Wilson's population next year.

For example, she pointed to over 100 out-of-bounds students there who have more than ten unexcused absences. DCPS will start enforcing an existing policy that would send such students back to their zoned schools, she said.

But Wilson parent leaders say measures like that won't make up for the cuts. And education activist Matt Frumin, a former Wilson parent, argues that enforcing the attendance policy could have harsh results. DCPS defines "unexcused absence" to include instances when a student is late, perhaps because she had to accompany a younger sibling to another school.

As a longer-term solution, Henderson pointed to the new school boundary plan that will shrink Wilson's attendance zone. But because most students are grandfathered in to their current feeder patterns, the effect on Wilson's population is years away. And Frumin, who was a member of the committee that drew up the new boundaries, says the changes will prevent Wilson's overcrowding from getting worse but won't solve the problem.

Frumin and others arguing on Wilson's behalf are asking that the school get an additional $900,000 next year. Henderson says she's already cut her administrative budget by $15 million, and there's no way to find money for Wilson without inflicting harm on other schools.

No one, including advocates for Wilson, wants that to happen. It's possible that the DC Council will appropriate additional money for the school. But one way or another, DCPS should at least treat Wilson the way it's treating other large schools that have benefited from the PPFM in the past: by reducing that allotment rather than eliminating it entirely.

Henderson may be right in feeling that schools with higher proportions of at-risk students need additional help. But she's mistaken in claiming that the law requires her to divert as much funding as she has from Wilson. And that claim doesn't accord with the clearly discretionary decision-making process she described in her letter to Cheh.

Even as a matter of policy, depriving Wilson of the funds it needs to succeed, and to help its nearly 600 at-risk students succeed, doesn't make sense.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.


DCPS plans to give Wilson High School less money to serve more students

DC Public Schools plans to cut Wilson High School's budget next year by 10%, even though the student body is expected to grow by 10%. Parent groups and the school's principal are protesting, arguing that the cuts will hurt the most vulnerable students at the relatively affluent school.

Photo of Wilson High School from DCPS website.

Next year's proposed budget will effectively reduce the school's allocation by $1.8 million, according to Interim Principal Gregory Bargeman. He and parents at Wilson warn that the cut will mean larger class sizes, decreased security, and less support for struggling students, many of whom travel to the Ward 3 school from other parts of the District.

Bargeman recently told parents and students that DCPS plans to reduce Wilson's per-student allocation from $9,276 this year to $8,306 next year, an amount he said was the lowest allocated to any neighborhood school in the District. According to Ward 3 DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, other high schools are receiving an average of close to $14,000 per student.

At the same time, the Wilson student body is growing even faster than expected. This year's budget was based on a projected enrollment of 1708, but the actual enrollment is almost 1800. That resulted in a shortfall of almost $790,000 this year.

DCPS projects that next year's enrollment will be 1878, but parents say recent trends indicate it will be at least 85 more than that. Even assuming DCPS's figure is correct, Bargeman says the school system is asking Wilson to serve 170 more students than last year with less money—$309,600 less, to be exact.

Wilson's Parent Teacher Student Organization and Local School Advisory Team (LSAT) have sent a letter to Mayor Bowser and other DC officials asking that Wilson get an additional $900,000 for next year. They plan to hold a meeting at the school tonight, and are asking residents, especially those who live outside Ward 3, to contact their DC Councilmembers.

Cheh has already sent DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson a letter protesting the budget cut. "To parents across the District who send their children to Wilson," she wrote, "Wilson is a model and restores confidence in DCPS. With this budget, however, you will dramatically shake that confidence."

Wilson draws students from every one of DC's 22 zip codes, according to school parents. And 44% of its students come from beyond its boundaries.

In Wilson's weekly bulletin last week, Principal Bargeman said he had spent much of the previous week "trying to persuade DCPS to reconsider the proposed cut. To date, DCPS has been unwilling to make changes."

Funding and at-risk students

Henderson told the Washington Post that the school system is reducing Wilson's funding because it has to target funds to schools with large concentrations of at-risk students. DC law requires that each school get an additional $2,000 for each student who is homeless, in foster care, on welfare or food stamps, or a year or more behind in high school.

But as Cheh points out, Wilson does have a substantial number of at-risk students. According to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, at-risk students make up 31% of its student body. True, many other DCPS schools have at-risk concentrations of 70% or more. But because Wilson has such a large student body, that 31% translates into 550 students, which is greater than the number of at-risk students at several other high schools—and greater than the entire enrollment at two of those schools.

Beyond that, DCPS isn't just decreasing Wilson's additional funding for at-risk students. It's decreasing the minimum amount the school is supposed to get to provide basic services to all its students, in order to provide additional funds to other schools.

Last year, DCPS didn't allocate the at-risk funds proportionally as the law required. Because of time constraints, it used the money to help fund initiatives it had already planned.

A guide to the school budget posted on the DCPS website explains that in allocating at-risk funds for next year, officials decided they couldn't "in good conscience" take money away from worthy initiatives that are getting the funds this year. So, among other cost-saving measures, they "examined the budgets of schools with smaller numbers of at-risk students" and reduced per-pupil funding for next year on the theory that it was "the least harmful way of freeing up funds."

All students at Wilson will suffer from the planned cuts, but at-risk and low-income students there will suffer the most, says Jeffrey Kovar, a Wilson parent and chair of its LSAT.

For example, Wilson will no longer have a full-time college counselor. Middle-class students whose parents went to college themselves will still be able to navigate the college application process, but low-income first-generation college applicants will be at a serious disadvantage.

Kovar, one of the authors of the letter calling on residents to protest the cuts, also says Wilson will lack money to support minority students taking challenging AP classes and struggling to pass 9th grade.

Class sizes will climb to 30 for regular classes, he predicts, and AP classes, already averaging 30 students, could go as high as 40. A lack of staff to monitor behavior in a building designed for only 1550 students could also pose a threat to safety.

The year of the high school and Wilson's achievement gap

Kovar finds it particularly ironic that Henderson is planning to cut Wilson's funding in what she has declared "the year of the high school." Just as last year DCPS focused on improving middle schools, next year it will concentrate on improving high school quality, especially for low-income and struggling students.

Wilson has long had an achievement gap between its wealthier and lower-income students, and the apparent reason the school's principal was fired earlier this school year was his failure to make enough progress closing it. Now, says Kovar, the school will have an even harder time doing so.

DCPS presumably feels that affluent families within Wilson's boundaries will continue to flock to the school despite the cuts. And perhaps it hopes that allocating more money to schools in poorer neighborhoods will lure students into remaining there rather than traveling across town. Certainly it would make sense to try to fill the gleaming but half-empty high schools that DC has spent many millions building or renovating in recent years.

But it will take a while before those other schools achieve Wilson's drawing power, whether that power is justified or not. No doubt poorer DCPS schools desperately need funds, and there seems to be an assumption that Wilson will be okay no matter what. But that may not be true. Wilson is the one neighborhood high school in DC that holds the promise of being both diverse and high-performing. It would be a shame if DCPS made that promise impossible to fulfill.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

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