NEAR Act Needed in D.C.

Preventing Crime

by: Aya Elamroussi Special to the AFRO
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Even though crime rates have decreased in Washington, D.C. with a 24 percent drop in total violent crime, from 5,143 in 2016 to 3,883 as of Nov. 14, certain areas of the city are still experiencing high homicide numbers.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department, Wards 5, 7 and 8 continue to have the highest homicide rates within the past year. Ward 8 leads with 45 homicides, while Ward 7 reports 22 homicides and Ward 5 at 21 all within the past year. The demographics of Wards 5, 7 and 8 is 69 percent, 94 percent and 92 percent of the population identify as Black, respectively, according to censusreporter.org. As of Nov. 15 there were a total of 100 homicides in the District with Wards 5, 7 and 8 responsible for the vast majority of them.

The Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act in 2016, or NEAR Act was passed by the D.C. Council unanimously in March of 2016 “to reduce crime and increase access to social services.” The NEAR Act provides resources to anyone involved in a crime.

One resource the NEAR Act established is the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE). The purpose of the office is to engage individuals determined to be at high risk of participating in, or being a victim of, violent criminal activity.

The NEAR Act also established the Office of Violence Prevention and Health Equity (OVPHE) within the Department of Health, which aims to conduct a public information campaign and place social workers in hospital emergency rooms to offer counseling and mediation.

But the NEAR Act was not fully funded when it passed in 2016. In turn, Stop Police Terror Project DC (SPTP DC), an organization that advocates for non-violent policing, holds community meetings called Ambassador Training to educate District citizens about the NEAR Act and what they can do to push for its funding.

The meetings are held in different wards. The meetings begin with SPTP DC members explaining the NEAR Act and answering questions. Then, community members separate into small groups based on their Advisory Neighborhood Commissions to meet one another and organize.

“The intent behind this is to build more momentum about the intricacies of what people can do,” said Hasan Bhatti, the meeting facilitator.

“The Act has been passed, and this is more about…following up with government saying, ‘The citizens are interested in this.’ Kinda pushing that into the agenda in a way that will be able to get them to understand how much we care about this thing succeeding.” Bhatti told the AFRO.

Bhatti, 29, said that community building is important because movements may begin large, “but they continue with the micro.”

Greg Montross, a White D.C. organizer, said that he first learned about the NEAR Act when SPTP DC began their grassroots efforts to inform people about the NEAR Act and its lack of funding by canvassing, petitioning and leading a public education campaign about the legislation.

“I learned more about the bill, and thought it was a really promising policy and was really disappointed to see that it hadn’t been funded or implemented,” Montross said.

Now a volunteer member of SPTP DC, Montross said he decided to get involved and do what he could to make sure that the NEAR Act’s promise was fulfilled.

Sarko Sarkodie, a Black Ward 4 resident, said she has been following the campaign for the NEAR Act for about a year.

“I think policing in this country generally is just really problematic and certainly in D.C.,” Sarkodie said. “I think I was inspired largely by policing in this country. But if you address one of these big issues, you start locally.”

But the work behind the scenes isn’t easy.

“We all have other jobs. We’re doing this on the side. We’re volunteers. This isn’t our day job. So time and coordination [have] been a challenge,” Montross said. “But that said, it’s been fun and it’s a great way to build a community.”

Sarkodie, 27, said that she attended multiple meetings and saw familiar faces every time.  “It’s good to be involved in this camp it really requires that. We’re talking about community control of the police. We need to have this engagement going,” she said.

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