Straight talk from the D.C. Auditor

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Police-involved fatalities, COVID-19, and statehood for D.C.

D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson's take on all three

Published April 4, 2022

The remarks below are from a presentation by D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson before the American Accounting Association Government and Nonprofit Section (GNP) on March 11, 2022. Kathy shared her thoughts on DC’s fight for statehood, and ODCA’s recent work on COVID-19 and police-involved fatalities.

I am curious to know … for how many of you is this the first time out in the wider world in the last two years? Like a lot of you, my last “normal” day in the office was on Friday the 13th of March 2020. My staff has been working remotely since that time–everyone has had permission to return to the office, with COVID protocols in place–but no one has been required to and as a result very few of us have spent much time in the office over the last two years. So, it is a little bit weird to be here, as well as a welcome invitation!  I hope I remember how to behave in this large a group of people! Thank you for luring me out of my comfort zone, which has mostly consisted of sitting at a laptop at my dining room table!

I’m going to start by sharing another weirdness, which is working for a local government in a political environment that sometimes doesn’t give the local government a whole lot of respect. Washington, D.C. has more than 700,000 residents, a larger population than the states of Vermont and Wyoming. But we are not, yet, a state, and so live and work without the rights and privileges other U.S. residents enjoy like a vote in Congress. Even within those constraints it’s possible and it’s necessary to work on topics that are highly relevant and, because relevant, also highly useful. And so, the major focus of my remarks today will be two areas in the news and on which the Office of the D.C. Auditor has been making contributions: COVID data and transparency and the use of force by our police department.

Who’s in charge?

First, though, I want to point out that Washington, D.C., is the Rodney Dangerfield of cities and states: We don’t get no respect. The legislature that I served in–the Council of the District of –Columbia, handles every issue managed by cities, counties, and states — we do it all, with the exception of national defense. And even there we do our part – District residents fight and die in wars and District residents pay more in federal taxes than 22 states—and more per capita than residents of ANY state.

For most federal funding programs, the District is considered a state: We get our portion of federal Title I education dollars based on population and we get a hefty amount in federal transportation dollars. And we pay our local taxes for the DC National Guard, but we can’t call up the DC National Guard without the White House weighing in. This is because for these purposes we are NOT considered a state.

This lack of appropriate authority to call out the Guard was evident on January 6 a year ago. We needed the DC National Guard on Capitol Hill during the insurrection, but it took hours to go through a chain of command at the U.S. Department of Defense. We, the District, have asked for the same call-up authority states have through their governor’s office and a provision was included in last year’s federal Defense Authorization bill, but was dropped in final negotiations. And we will raise it again. In the meantime, please feel free to weigh in with your own elected representatives in Congress so that the next time you are in the nation’s capital you are not running the risk of an event where the DC National Guard is needed but slow to arrive!

We are also subject to Congress enacting laws specifically for the District. Our own legislation goes through the Congress—both House and Senate—for a passive approval process. This is virtually always pro forma but Congress can reverse policies that are enacted by duly elected legislators in the District. In the past they have withheld local funds for needle exchange programs and for implementing our law legalizing marijuana use. While no state can spend federal dollars for abortions for low-income women with very few exceptions since the Hyde Amendment in 1976, Congress has felt it necessary to prohibit us from using District tax dollars to that purpose.

On occasion the Congress enacts legislation specifically for the District of Columbia and in 1995 they did so to authorize public charter schools here. The D.C. Council also passed legislation authorizing charter schools in the same period of time and where the local and the Congressional bills differed, the Congressionally enacted law won out. The local law, for instance, had a limit on the number of new charters that could be approved each year. The Congressional law did not, so there has never been a numerical limit on new charters. Today roughly half of the District’s public school students attend one of 60-some public charter schools while the other half attend traditional public schools.

When Congress enacts something that is uniquely applicable to the District of Columbia they are sitting as a local legislature, and the other local legislature–the D.C. Council–can amend the laws they enact. And the Council has done so many times on funding allocations and other issues.

The latest threat from Capitol Hill has been a couple of Republican members suggesting that they might take away the self-government that the District does have – and return some kind of direct management of the District by federal officials.

The lack of authority over the DC National Guard and the wrong-headed belief that local officials don’t have full authority over charter schools are just two of the odd circumstances we face living side by side with the national government. There can also be an advantage in doing the performance auditing work we do in the fishbowl of the federal government: sometimes it brings visibility to our work. We are mindful that from time to time we can actually set an example that might be picked up by others.

ODCA’s response to COVID-19

COVID-19 has been a challenge for each of us, personally and professionally. At ODCA we approached the pandemic by asking: given who we are and what we do, how can we be of most assistance? Our first step was to create what was essentially a baseline of federal COVID funding, then we focused on data, transparency, and mitigation policies. Now we are turning our attention to the huge infusion of federal funds to assess how they’ve been spent and what we can learn from those decisions.

We published our first COVID report in May 2020. COVID-19 Federal Funding Streams Available to the District of Columbia was a detailed description of all of the federal funding coming to the District of Columbia presented in both text and a spreadsheet. We thought the D.C. Council, our principal target audience, would be able to use this information in their oversight of expenditures.

The report described each of the major sources of funding including the total amount available, the agency or funding source, the general purpose for the funding, and other characteristics, including whether it was based on a formula or a reimbursement or a competitive application. We focused on funding that would be part of the District’s budget and did not include federal relief designed to assist individuals directly, such as the $1,200 checks mailed to individuals, or the significant additional benefits available through the federal-state Unemployment Insurance program for individuals who lost their jobs, or benefits for the airlines, or the Paycheck Protection Program.

In most instances the emergency federal funding was additional money added to preexisting funding streams. In some cases, the legislation gave federal agencies great latitude in how funds are apportioned, and a persistent issue initially was whether funds should be allocated per capita or based on differing circumstances. After 9/11 the District and New York City received major infusions of cash reflecting the damage and the needs in the two regions. The CARES Act funding for states and the more recent American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 stayed with the formula funding, or funding to states based on population.

From providing a baseline of federal funding to the D.C. Council we turned our attention to COVID-19 data. We joined a multi-state effort initiated by the Delaware state auditor and the National State Auditors Association to gather information on data collection, data reporting, and data monitoring to promote a more consistent approach for comparing results nationwide.

Our first in-house data report in November 2020 looked at what data the public needed compared with what was actually being reported by our local government health department, known as DC Health. To do this we turned to the national public health organization, Resolve to Save Lives, set up by former CDC Director Thomas Frieden. At that time the federal government had not developed a standardized, national set of data indicators to be collected and shared. Nor were there in the early days any such standards for state, county and city-level public reporting. In that vacuum, Resolve to Save Lives developed a set of 15 essential indicators for an effective COVID response, things such as per capita rate of new confirmed cases, hospitalization rates, and outbreaks in congregate facilities.  We compared what the Frieden organization said should be reported with what DC was actually reporting.

The title of the report was a good summary: The District’s COVID-19 Data Reporting is Strong but Opportunities Exist for Improvement and Increased Transparency. What was the most exciting and validating aspect of this project was that throughout our audit period, DC Health made continuous improvements in their data collection and reporting. While our research and reporting were underway they adopted many of the recommendations we were going to make, and over time continued with the improvements. This was gratifying even though it meant we were constantly updating our report!

We developed a collaborative relationship with the agency staff who were, as you might imagine, doing their very best to respond to a once-in-a-lifetime circumstance. The District agency leadership had participated in devising the metrics used by the Frieden organization and in one of their own reports, Resolve to Save Lives placed Washington, D.C., among the top four states in COVID-19 data collection and reporting.

We got good press coverage of this initial COVID data report, and one point I made talking with reporters was the public part of public health versus the health part of public health. It was clear that our own health officials were on top of the science of the virus, but it was an ongoing challenge to collect and share information in a way that it was understandable and usable.

Working on COVID data put us in touch with national data analytics consulting firm Talus Analytics, that works with the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Security. Early in the pandemic Talus and the Georgetown Center developed an international database of public policies designed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. We partnered with Talus in the fall of 2020 to assess the policies implemented by the District and its neighboring states. We produced a series of four reports on COVID-related policies and mitigation strategies and the titles again tell the story: Mitigation Policy During the Pandemic, School Closures as a Pandemic Mitigation Policy, Analysis of Demographics and Mobility Across DC During COVID-19 and a final report, Bending the Curve: Policies to Mitigate COVID-19 in DC and the Region.

The analysis showed the relative impact of the pandemic on different populations across the District to identify those most affected by cases and deaths. And we looked at employment—who could work from home and who could not. We found that essential and frontline workers were more mobile, and live primarily in four out of the eight wards in the District, areas that are the most disproportionately low-income and home to individuals of color. These geographical areas were the most impacted by COVID-19. The major way in which the studies measured mobility was by cell phone data, and we published charts and graphs that showed where the mobile phones moved with greater frequency versus those that stayed at home. While there were good social distancing policies in place, and other efforts to promote work at home, those policies did not increase stay-at-home behavior evenly across the city.

When you moved from larger wards down to the neighborhood level, the inability of residents to work from home also aligned with other social and economic risk factors, including lower income, lower high school graduation rates, and higher indexed measures of social vulnerability. And why is all of this important? It provides documented data on health disparities. The data suggest that future policy aimed at protecting frontline and essential workers will also be helping protect those who are most vulnerable for social and economic factors.

One goal of publishing this kind of analysis in the midst of a pandemic was to help improve and refine policies, including plans for routine testing and vaccine distribution and administration. The research underscored the importance of testing essential workers and then making it a priority to provide the vaccine early to high-risk essential workers.

The fourth report this partnership produced, called Bending the Curve, looked at how the District’s mitigation policies affected the fall 2020 and winter 2021 COVID surge. We found that the District saw fewer cases and deaths than much of the country during that surge. We had among the earliest and most comprehensive policies in place. Our consultants mapped the type and the timing of the mitigation polices against case outcomes and ranked the District sixth among states in having lessened the severity of the fall surge of COVID-19.

We found that the District’s “enabling and relief policies” such as foreclosure delays and leave entitlements combined with early mask mandates and measured reopening policies contributed to the District’s success in “bending the curve” of cases. A major caveat we had to note was the country’s failure, the fact that the United States had among the worst records in COVID cases and loss of life. Within that, with regard to Washington and the region, we were able to conclude that early action increased the success of policy interventions that slow disease spread and therefore save lives.

We published our final COVID data report last August as part of the multi-state effort I mentioned, along with Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Ohio, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. The report was positive about the District system of collecting, reporting and monitoring COVID data, but it also identified additional information that could and should be gathered and shared.

One innovation here was that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner took a lead role from the beginning of the pandemic by choosing to certify all COVID-19 deaths. We found this single point of certification brought consistency and accuracy to the District’s COVID-19 mortality data. OCME had contingency plans in place and the agency was able to quickly gear up to handle the high number of deaths. Across the country many state death numbers were challenged for being overcounted while at the same time experts concluded that deaths were likely undercounted. In DC the advance planning and resource allocations helped ensure that the COVID-19 death counts for the District were as accurate as possible.

We also found that the Medical Examiner collected a robust set of data on COVID deaths, but only shared internally and did not release the information publicly. We urged city leadership to begin publishing the data which included statistics on comorbidities – circumstances when victims suffered from more than a single diagnosis.

A final major recommendation in that last COVID data report was that the District undertake a comprehensive “after-action” report on how we handled the pandemic to inform future emergency response across all public health and safety systems and amend the District’s Emergency Response Plan in accord with such a report.

The takeaways from our COVID work: The importance of after-action reporting and evaluation, so we will keep pushing for an evaluation of the District’s response to COVID-19 and lessons learned for the next pandemic or other citywide if not national crisis. The work underscored the real and enduring challenges of health disparities shown in the disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color that need not wait for another pandemic to be addressed but urgently need action now. The importance of the PUBLIC in public health. The value of data in evaluation, mitigation and planning. Not exhaustive but a starting list on next steps.

Police officer-involved fatalities in D.C.

A second issue “ripped from the headlines” that we’ve done considerable work on is helping rethink how our police department works, prompted in large part by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis in May 2020. This work involves a set of issues that have carried over, for me, from my time as a D.C. Councilmember. I spent four years chairing the committee that oversees public safety, including the District’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).  Some background here: in 1999 the Washington Post ran a series that labeled our police department as having used their guns more often than any other comparable department. In response a fairly-new police chief, Charles Ramsey, invited the Department of Justice to review MPD’s use of force. What resulted from that invitation was a Memorandum of Agreement between the District and the DOJ, the first time the federal department was actually invited in to work on use of force without a consent decree initiated through the courts. DOJ and MPD hired a monitor, Michael Bromwich, who had been a DOJ inspector general.

For eight years, from 2000 through 2008 the monitor’s team worked with the department on policy, training, and internal oversight of use of force by MPD. When the MOA ended in 2008 the attorney general said the District police force was best in class on policy and practice of use of force. I took this job at the end of 2014 and decided to hire Mr. Bromwich and his team to do an update: to see what the status of the earlier reforms were as of 2016. We issued a report that was largely positive, but with red flags. What had been a separate internal unit to investigate uses of force had been folded into Internal Affairs, and there were a few other lapses that needed correcting.

Fast forward to 2020. In the wake of the defund-the-police debate we brought the Bromwich Group back to work with my office and look very specifically at officer involved fatalities that had occurred in 2018 and 2019, and how MPD had handled those death investigations. There were four such deaths, and we issued a report a year ago finding that while in three of the four instances the officer was justified in the moment of using lethal force, it was also the case that that moment ought not to have arrived–police could and should have de-escalated each situation before shots were fired. As that work was underway in fall 2020 there were two additional officer-involved fatalities. And we were asked by a new Police Reform Commission set up by the D.C. Council to add these two deaths to our review, which we did.

A second report on the death of Deon Kay was issued a few months ago. And with similar findings: The young man had a gun in his hand when he faced an officer and was shot and killed by the police officer.  The internal investigation, and ours, concluded that the use of force was justified. But we also concluded, again, that that moment of confrontation should not have arrived.

The circumstance was this: officers at the police station saw on social media that four young men in a car were brandishing a handgun. They identified the location from the social media footage, and four officers piled into a squad car and drove to the parking lot where the young men were parked. One young man got out and ran and an officer ran after him but did not catch him and turned back to the two cars. At that moment Mr. Kay got out of the car with the gun in his hand – my own assumption is he planned to get rid of the gun but was confronted by the officer. He raised his arm and the officer fired.

Mr. Kay threw the gun, fell to the ground and died. In those seconds the officer feared for his life but many questions remain unanswered: why four officers in a car? Why not two or more cars to provide a larger presence if an illegal firearm was suspected? Why were the other officers still in the car?

Our audit of policy and practice included several important recommendations for improved training and restoring the expert unit to investigate uses of force. Most important: we have recommended that the internal investigation reports be made public. There has been resistance on that policy, but the department leadership insist they will move in that direction.

What I have learned from my time as a legislator doing police oversight and my work now as an auditor leading such reviews is that government agencies including police departments can be reformed. And reforms can stick. But it is never one and done. The reforms completed in 2008 should have been the subject of oversight hearings every year or two. The report we issued in 2016 should have been the subject of ongoing questions. And the training and the leadership that constitute effective police department use of force policy don’t happen by accident. They happen through joint efforts of police, elected leaders and a community that has a voice in decisions. So next on the DC agenda for police will be public release of internal reports on use of force. Stay tuned.

I’d like to conclude by sharing something I have learned over the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. I am a part of – and all of you are also a part of–a robust accountability community. In the wake of COVID-19 the Government Accountability Office and the National State Auditors Association created the COVID Accountability Working Group which meets monthly. It’s made up of federal inspectors general, representatives of the GAO and Office of Management and Budget, and the major national auditing organizations, the state auditors and Association of Local Government Auditors and the private sector auditors. At these monthly meetings speakers share the work they are doing keeping track of COVID-19 expenditures, national, state and local–sharing resources and ideas and best practices. I mention this because sometimes sitting at one’s own desk–or in more recent months at one’s own dining room table–ours sometimes seems like lonely work but we are a community. And for that same reason I am grateful to have been invited to join you today, to share, and to also learn more about the work that you do!

Thank you.

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