These clashing visions became apparent recently at a meeting of the district's new police reform commission set up by the DC Council to rethink what district policing should look like after violent and sometimes fatal encounters with law enforcement in cities around the country.
Before Kay was killed, the panel's 20 members had met once, long enough to introduce themselves and set up committees to report by the end of the year. The kay shoot on September 2nd gave the members a new focus and urgency.
They called an emergency meeting on September 4 with DC Police Chief Peter Newsham and Deputy Interim Mayor for Public Safety Robert Mitchell Jr., who is also the district chief medical officer. Members urged them to understand why officers had to confront Kay so quickly after suspecting that he and another man had firearms in a vehicle.
However, these discussions also included broader questions that challenge some of the main tenants of policing. For example, could officials have seized the firearms in some other, safer way, such as obtaining an arrest warrant and later arresting them?
"I believe that if officials had given themselves more time and space, we wouldn't be having this conversation now," said one of the commissioners, Rev. Delonte Gholston, senior pastor of the Peace Fellowship Church. "We would be talking about a different kind of policing that costs no life."
Police said officers saw a video streamed live on social media of Kay and at least one other man brandishing firearms in a parked Dodge Caliber. They recognized the men and followed them to a parking lot in the River Hill Apartments.
A car chase followed before Kay met officer Alexander Alvarez, police said. Video from Alvarez's body camera shows Kay turning to face the officer while holding a pistol in his right hand that has been extended. Alvarez ran up to Kay, shot once, and hit him a split second before, during, or after the young woman threw the gun in the chest.
Kay's aunt Marie Kay said during a protest that she believes her nephew threw the gun before the officer fired and was therefore unarmed when he was shot. The gun landed on a grassy hill 98 feet away.
The fatal shots – the first of this year by DC police – sparked anger and demonstrations.
Hundreds of people gathered for a vigil on Saturday, during which the young man was shot dead on Orange Street SE in Congress Heights. They went to the 7th District Police Station, where Alvarez is being used, and asked him and the police chief to resign.
"Why are you shooting my son?" Kay's mother yelled at officers.
Newsham warned members at the commission's latest meeting that investigators have just begun investigating Kay's shots. When asked by a commissioner whether the shooting was justified, Newsham said: "We are far from making that decision." Newsham said the release of the body camera footage allowed "people to watch the video and choose how they feel about it."
As with other reform commissions across the country, the DC council created the panel at a time of growing frustration with law enforcement that has boiled over in recent months in places like Minneapolis, Portland, Oregon, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, Council Chairman, Phil have Mendelson (D) selected the commissioners and said in an interview that it was up to the panel to recommend broad or narrow changes or any changes at all.
"It could lead to training being considered or alternatives to police officers showing up in certain incidents," Mendelson said. "In theory, it could even go so far as to say that we shouldn't have any police at all."
The commission is chaired by Robert Bobb, a former DC government city administrator, and Christy Lopez, professor and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law. She previously worked for the Department of Justice, leading teams investigating suspected abuse and racial prejudice in police departments including Ferguson, Missouri, Chicago and Newark.
Members include an expert in juvenile justice, a director of a behavioral health company, the executive director of the Greater Washington Urban League, a retired DC police officer, a teacher, the director of a substance abuse program, and an attorney for the Children's Law Center and a representative from the Attorney General's Office DC.
Mendelson said the council listed categories from which it selected members and that active law enforcement was not among them. He defended the expulsion, saying that many members have extensive police and community investigation experience, including Gholston, the DC pastor who helped bridge the gaps between residents and police in Los Angeles.
DC Police Union chairman Gregg Pemberton said the working group supported the commission. But he said it appears "the voices of the hard-working men and women of the MPD grassroots are an undesirable addition to the deliberations of the commission."
Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said the redesign of policing has been a vague concept. He said activists tend to ignore a reality that some find difficult to accept: "There is an element of oppression" in the job.
"The police are telling people that there is something they cannot do," said Moskos. "The job involves violence, or at least the threat."
Moskos said he feared police commissions in the district and other cities were "doomed".
"When they get what they want, more people die," he said. "If they don't get what they want, reform is a failure."
Newsham told the DC Commission that the confiscation of illegal firearms – the police seize around 2,000 annually – is a priority in the district. The boss said 633 people had been shot in the city by September 3, 40 percent more than the previous year. Gun murders have increased by 30 percent.
Meanwhile, DC police shootings have declined significantly since the 1990s when the Washington Post found officials in the district shot more people per capita than any other major city. Over a five-year period in that decade, police killed 57 people with 640 shooting incidents. From 2015 to 2019, DC police shot and killed 11 people, including 114 incidents.
Commissioner Patrice Sulton, director of DC Justice Lab, a group working to change the city's criminal justice system to give residents a voice and to make it racially fair, said at the meeting that Newsham and Mayor Muriel E Bowser (D) failed to adequately respond to community concerns regarding the shooting.
"The public statements you have made about Deon and the evidence you have disclosed so far have largely emphasized why the shooting was warranted, not whether it was preventable," Sulton told Newsham. "They focused on whether it was legal, not if it was right. You focused on whether it was necessary in the moment rather than whether it was necessary at all."
Newsham said the district has complied with new laws passed by the council in June requiring body camera videos of officers using lethal force to be posted with the names of officers within five days of the incident.
"We will be as transparent as possible," said Newsham.
After some debate, Mitchell, the interim deputy mayor, said he would inquire if the commission, along with Alvarez 'disciplinary records, could privately view body camera videos of other officials for a fuller picture of the shooting.
Naïké Savain, a senior attorney at the Children's Rights Center, asked if there was any special urgency that required the police to confront Kay as quickly as: "Was there any information or evidence that he was going to shoot someone?"
If not, Savain said, "Wouldn't it be safer to find him later and speak to him in a less urgent situation?"
Newsham simply said the officials "went there to ban these firearms".
Mitchell said the government supported the search for alternatives to the police in some cases, such as dealing with people suffering from mental health problems.
"We need to get involved in a way that ensures law enforcement works with the community," Mitchell said.
But he doesn't agree to defuse the police.
"We'll always need law enforcement to respond when we're in danger," he said. "Refreshing, upgrading – it looks a bit different, but not abolishing."