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Lt. Mike Smith loves scouring the blocks around his Shaw apartment building in search of lawbreakers. Although the neighborhood has improved in recent years, there’s plenty of delinquency for an enterprising beat copdrinking in public, burglary, car break-ins, drug possession, prostitution.
He’s made his share of enemies on the street. One of them is a transvestite prostitute who goes by Andre.
Smith has been chasing Andre around the block for years. Andre makes her living in that floating zone of Shaw that cops on prostitution detail sometimes call “Jurassic Park”in derisive homage to the burly men who sell themselves as women there. By Smith’s count, he’s personally locked up Andre about four times. As Smith tells it, a typical late-night encounter goes like this:
Smith, either on his bike or in his cruiser, spots Andre, wearing a dress, standing on a corner in Shaw. Once Andre sees the lieutenant coming, she stoops over, takes off her slippers, and bolts. Then the chase is on.
Andre recently upped her getaway times when she traded the slippers for a pair of tennis shoes. The tennis shoes are really a problem. Andre is fast as hell barefoot, and the tennis shoes only help her run faster. In fact, Andre can smoke all of Smith’s officers in a foot race. She’ll outrun Smith, too, if Smith doesn’t have his bike with him.
On Oct. 9, Smith learned that Andre had filed a citizen’s complaint against him, alleging that the lieutenant singles her out on his patrols and harasses her. “I guess he thinks that every time he’s locked up, it’s because of me,” Smith rationalizes. (The Office of Citizen Complaint Review will not release documents on a pending case.) The complaint, Smith figures, probably stemmed from an incident in which Andre allegedly lifted her dress and asked a resident “if he wanted to party.” (He didn’t.)
If you break the law frequently in Shaw, Smith probably shares a long saga with you, as he does with Andre. He knows your name, alias, street address, family, personal history, and addictions (if applicable). Residents around the District are still demanding the intense “community policing” that Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Charles H. Ramsey promised when he accepted his position over five years ago. Lots of neighborhoods have never seen a trace of the plan, which calls for enforcement of quality-of-life crimes and extensive cooperation between cops and residents.
But the department has undoubtedly given it to Shaw residents, whether they wanted it or not, in the form of a live-in lieutenant, Mike Smith. He’s taken community policing to the extreme, and, in the process, has inspired glowing praise, a bit of protest, and two transfers.
On an October evening, Smith drops by the New Bethel Baptist Church on 9th Street NW. Tonight, the church basement is filled with convicts recently released from the D.C. Jail, who have gathered, along with city officials, for an “offender mass orientation.” City agencies see the confab as a chance to inform ex-offenders about the dangers of recidivism. Smith, however, says he has come to “eyeball” any bad guys who’ll be back on his turf.
“I live at 1203 7th St.,” he tells the dozen or so ex-convicts. “I tell everybody that: thugs, criminals, and citizens. Everyone knows I live there. The 7 and O Crew members knew I lived there. They’re gone; I’m still there. Somebody shot out my apartment window a few days ago. It didn’t wake me up. It didn’t even wake up my dogs. Some officers called and told me what happened, and I was pissed they woke me up for it.”
At 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, the 47-year-old Smith cuts an intimidating figure, especially when working his hardass routine. “If you get arrested in my PSA”that’s short for “police service area””the first thing I do is pull your file.”
Smith moved to the corner of 7th and M Streets NW, directly across from the new D.C. Convention Center, in January 2000, shortly after being assigned there. Other D.C. residents shouldn’t wait for their lieutenants to move in next door. Only 29 percent of D.C. police officers even live inside the District.
In exchange for his police presence, Smith would live in the apartment free of charge. (He now pays below-market rent.) At the time, gentrification had taken root in his neighborhood, pushing out longtime renters and outfitting moneyed folks with historic row houses. The community sees less violent crime than other parts of Shaw, especially to the east, but vice crime still holds ground. During the 2002 calendar year, for example, there were 45 robberies and 269 thefts-from-auto in Smith’s patrol area.
When Smith moved there with his wife, Colleen Smith, he made his presence known, introducing himself to just about everyone on the block. “There was friction right away,” remembers Smith. “You either loved me or hated me. I’d walk up to the thugs and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of me moving in next door?’” And he didn’t come alone, either. He convinced two of his fellow officers to move into the apartment complex with him.
He made his first neighborhood arrest shortly thereafter. Smith says a hallmate’s friend was drinking a bottle of champagne in the stairwell and mouthed off when he was told to take it inside. When the man stepped out of the building, Smith, who was off duty, arrested him for an open container. He performed an hour’s worth of paperwork and gave the man a $10 fine.
“He’s a really nice person and a genuine guy,” says Traneka Parker, the hallmate. “He’s not a bad cop. It’s just that sometimes he goes overboard.”
Smith then launched, as he describes it, a quiet war of attrition against vice crime near his apartment complex. Once he got rolling, he estimates, he made about three arrests per week near his apartment, the majority of them while he was off duty. The charges ranged from drinking in public to gun possession. He learned every crack in the pavement, electric box, and hole in the wall where a neighborhood drug dealer could stash dope. “I wouldn’t get an arrest, but I’d get the drugs,” he says. He’d have dealers’ cars towed if they were parked illegally.
Dexter Malloy, one of the officers who moved into Smith’s complex, remembers a time he got a radio call to back up the lieutenant on an alleged drinking-in-public incident. Smith was walking his two dogs when he spotted a man with a beer. As Malloy recalls, the man fled when confronted, so Smith dropped his leashes and pursued. The dogs scattered. “He comes back and he’s all breathing hard,” says Malloy. “He says, ‘I think the guy was drinking a beer.’ One dog was running down O Street; the other was on 8th. I’m like, ‘Lieu, you gotta take it easy….Maybe you could’ve just told him to put the beer down.’”
He gives everyone his cell number. “He’s on my speed dial,” says 27-year-old neighbor Chasta Jones. “I don’t even call 911.” Smith keeps his police radio on at home, so long as it doesn’t annoy his wife. He’ll answer a call while “sitting on the john,” and even make runs that interrupt his JAG reruns. Colleen Smith remembers when he made three arrests on the way to a movie. “We missed two showings,” she laments. “About half of our dates end in an arrest.”
Smith’s aggressiveness and particular brand of vigilance have brought him trouble throughout his 22-year careertrouble that often comes in the form of citizen complaints and official reprimands. In 1994, he served 11 months of administrative leave, prompted by a rash of reprimands issued by his supervisor, then-Capt. Glenn Hoppert.
The pair had just started working together when Smith, against Hoppert’s orders, started pursuing Capitol Hill peddlers who sold bootleg videos. “He likes to set his own agenda,” says Hoppert, who is living in Connecticut and was surprised to hear Smith is still with the department. “If you have a child going up and pulling on a coattail, you say, ‘Don’t do that any more.’ Or they go near the stove and you say, ‘Don’t go near the stoveit’s hot.’ Next thing you know, they’re going near the china closet.”
Smith has also kicked up at least five lawsuits against the department. The suit brought by former District resident Kamal Attia King-Gore, asking for $1.5 million in damages for an April 14, 2002, incident, narrates how Smith finds trouble. According to Smith himself and the suit, Smith was: (1) off duty at the time of the incident, (2) on his bicycle, (3) behind his own apartment, and (4) tipped off by his wife.
Colleen Smith was walking along N Street NW with a friend when they smelled marijuana smoke wafting from a group of about eight people. When Lt. Smith, informed when his wife returned to the apartment, approached the group on his bike, he says, King-Gore tried to make a break. The two scuffled, and Smith arrested him for drug possession. Smith, according to the suit filed by King-Gore nearly a year after the incident, “repeatedly dragged plaintiff against the concrete without provocation, cause, justification and/or fear of his life.” According to his rap sheet, King-Gore has had various misdemeanor and felony drug charges over the years. His lawyer declined to comment for this story.
Zero-tolerance policing has netted Smith some neighborhood enemies. “I worry about him more than I worry about myself,” says Malloy. “He’s real aggressive, and those guys will come back at you.” On April 13, 2002, as Smith was out processing a neighbor on a drinking-in-public charge, Colleen Smith and her friend Joyce Singer heard one of the Smiths’ dogs barking in a frenzy at the front door.
When they put their ears to the door, they could make out a strange hissing sound on the other side. Singer, thinking it could be a bomb, urged Colleen not to open the door. “Right away, my first thought was, Someone is getting back at Mike,” remembers Singer. Colleen opened the door and found a light show going on in the hallway. Someone had set off a flare and tried to jam it under their door. Colleen put out the blaze with a bucket of water. The perp had apparently escaped through the building’s laundry room.
Around 2 a.m. on a Friday morning, Smith finishes his administrative duties early and decides, as he says, “to come out and play.”
His first tip of the night comes from a local restaurateur: “Hey, sucky-sucky back in alley,” says the man, a neighbor of Smith’s.
The street-level intelligence leads nowhere, so Smith goes proactive. He takes his mountain bike down from the rack on his cruiserthe trademark rack that lets neighbors know it’s Smithand heads off to search the alleys and back lots near the convention center.
He rides through the posterior nooks of the 900 block of L Street NW, peering around building corners, checking between cars in dark lots. The prostitutes around here, he says, work in curious places. He stops his bike and peeks down a long, dark alley, where he sees a green Jeep Cherokee with Virginia tags. Through the steamy rear window, which shows a James Madison University sticker, Smith sees shadowy movement. He’s been on the bike less than four minutes.
Smith creeps up and leers into the bed of the SUV. His flashlight illuminates a young man’s white ass, rising and falling. “I think we’ve got a problem here!” shouts Smith. After some fumbling, the man makes his way into the driver’s seat, as ordered. Smith barks at him to keep his hands out of his pockets.
With his hands on the wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock, and his pants around his ankles, the man pleads with Smith to “just relax.” Smith asks a variation on the question he asks all his johns: “You think you could just have sex in my alley?” This time, he gets a truthful answer: “Well…yeah.” In the back, a half-naked young woman has pulled her knees up to her chest.
“How come you don’t have ID, buddy?” Smith shouts at him. “And how ’bout you, sweet pea?” Smith asks the young woman. “I’ve dealt with you before, haven’t I?”
Backup units handcuff the perps, who will be charged with indecent exposure. The lieutenant then decides to enlist the prostitute in a little pre-emptive policing: “Tell your pals not to bring sex into my PSA,” though it’s doubtful she’s familiar with the acronym.
A long-standing prostitution market still thrives near the convention center, in spite of the increased police scrutiny that has come with redevelopment. Frank Morgan, former head of the department’s prostitution unit, says the area’s history of blighted properties and proximity to downtown make it a natural for the industry. “It’s big there. They’re all over the place,” says Morgan, adding that the majority of prostitutes are men. “If you get one in your [patrol] car, you’ve got a fight on your hands…. But Smitty stays on their ass.” Smith says about 50 percent of his arrests on the midnight tour are prostitution-relatedeither illicit sex or drug or alcohol charges stemming from sex. When he arrests a prostitute, he takes away her condoms as “implements of crime.” “I must have 10,000 rubbers,” he says. “I could start a rubber factory tomorrow.”
And he doesn’t have to catch perps in the act. If Smith pulls you over with a known prostitute in your car, you’ll be shocked to learn about all the obscure auto laws on the books: Didn’t turn your wheels to the curb when you parked? Sorry, that’s a fine. You didn’t set your parking brake, either. That air freshener is obstructing your windshield. The brackets around your tags are covering the state name. And you have a mutilated inspection sticker. “With prostitution, you can lay so much paper on that car,” says Smith. “I can run up $1,000 easy.”
“It’s sad when you have a lieutenant who makes more lockups than the majority of his officers,” says Sgt. Joe Perren, who works under Smith, adding that most lieutenants work strictly in an administrative capacity. “Some lieutenants haven’t made a lockup in 20 fucking years. [Smith is] on a freaking crusade.” Capt. Willie Smith, Mike Smith’s supervisor, says only two names on Mike Smith’s 12- to 15-officer roster actually make more lockups than he does. Mike Smith made seven arrests in Septemberfive of them felonies, all of them when he was technically off duty.
A lot of cops call Smith the hardest-working lieutenant in the department. Those same cops also call him crazy. Some say it endearingly, with a bit of sarcasm, and others say it earnestly. “He’s so smart sometimes it’s scary,” says Sgt. Brett Parson, who’s worked occasionally with Smith over the past 10 years. “On the other hand, he’s an absolute nutjob. I don’t know if he plays the role or what.” It goes back to his officer days in the ’80s, when Smith was always the first to run through the dark alley or confront the lunatic. “I’ll say this in a good way: He had a reckless disregard for his own safety,” says Ray Dyer, Smith’s sergeant then. “It scared me at times. I always made sure he wore a [bulletproof] vest.”
Dyer remembers a time he and Smith, riding in a cruiser, came upon a beast of a man, raging on PCP and completely naked, wielding a two-by-four with nails in it near the corner of 58th and East Capitol Streets NE. Before Dyer could develop a plan, Smith charged the man with an aluminum bat he had been carrying in the back of the cruiser. The man dropped his two-by-four, and Smith covered him with a blanket. “The guy saw Mike and he said, ‘This guy is crazy,’” says Dyer. Such antics got Smith a nickname among his fellow cops: “M.O.,” short for “Mental Observation.”
Along with being gung-ho on the street, Smith is known to be abrasive in the station. His police bio, which goes back only to 2001, lists one commendation and nine reprimands. When he came to the 3rd District in the mid-’90s, he became notorious for ticketing the personal vehicles of other officers who parked illegally near the station. “They were too lazy to park where they were supposed to,” he explains.
In 1992, when he was a sergeant, he got into an argument with a captain at a crime scene. According to Smith, the captain tossed a soda bottle on the ground as he lefta grape Nehi, Smith remembersso Smith wrote him up for littering when they returned to the station. The captain blew up. Smith brought in a voodoo doll he’d received as a gag gift and dressed it up as a little captain. “Everybody was so mad at me about that,” he recalls. “They seized my voodoo doll.”
He says his most self-destructive days are behind him now. “I realized I’m no use to anybody suspended,” he says. But his street-cop intensity and eccentric drive haven’t waned in the least. Despite his rank, Smith has never cared to grow out of the mentality of a patrol officer. He has no ambition to be promoted and says he tears up the application card for the captain’s test when he’s given it. It would only put him further from the street, he says.
“I have to mind my store because nobody else will,” says Smith of his PSA. He rides his officers who head outside their designated neighborhoodusually east toward North Capitol Street, where there’s more violent crimeto make their big arrests. He has developed a term for them: “poachers.” “I tell them, ‘Here are the hot spotshere’s where I want you to go,’” says Smith. “But they want to drive all over the fucking District of Columbia.” Evaluating his squad in early October, Smith gave two officers “above average” for making drinking- and
urinating-in-public arrests. Two officers who made gun and drug arrests only received “average.” They made them outside the patrol area.
He parks his take-home cruiser on random streets in Shaw to intimidate would-be lawbreakers.
Civic types in the area like those tactics. “If I were a burglar, I’d pick up and go to Cleveland Park,” says Bob Hinterlong, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “I think he leads the MPD in how police work should be done and could be done in this city,” says Ed Horvath, a Blagden Alley community activist. “We’d pay more taxes if we knew they’d give us more Mike Smiths,” says Sherri Kimbel, vice president of the Logan Circle Community Association.
Less impressed with Smith’s focus on his neighborhood is his supervisor, Capt. Willie Smith, who says he questions his lieutenant’s unusual concentration on his own community. The captain spelled this out clearly in an undated, internal “early-warning tracking memo,” issued because Smith had accumulated so many reprimands within a three-year period:
“CONDUCT: Lieutenant Smith lives in his PSA. The majority of his off duty time is spent either in court or his PSA. While on duty Lieutenant Smith spends the lion’s share of his time on the street. Lieutenant Smith has developed a system whereby he can handle any administrative function he needs to on a computer in his patrol car. Lieutenant Smith should spend more of his time developing the attitude skills and abilities of his subordinates rather than doing their job for them.”
Capt. Smith still believes his lieutenant spends too much time on the street. “At some point he needs to focus on the big picture,” he says. “His focus is just on his PSA, but we have the whole 3rd District to worry about. We have to concern ourselves with what’s going on in other areas.”
Mike Smith doesn’t like the idea of spreading his policing powers. “I’ve got other lieutenants watching TV,” he says. “Why should I tend to his PSA?”
In 2000, Smith found out about a problem at the Giant supermarket at 7th and O Streets NW. That particular Giant, at the time, lost more money to shoplifting than nearly any other of the franchise’s stores. The shoplifting also annoyed Smith, who saw the merchandiseeverything from meats and cheeses to skin-care productspouring out of the store and onto his streets, where it was sold for cash or pawned for drugs.
So Smith and Giant’s theft-prevention unit teamed up to send a message to shoplifters.
The police department fashioned a small station in a room at the back of the store. Members of the Giant team would nab pilferers right in the aisle and quietly escort them to the rear, where they would be arrested and eventually given stay-away orders.
“We might have caught about 15 a day,” says Malloy. Over the course of about four weeks, the operation led to well over 100 arrests. Shoplifting dropped precipitously.
The sting at Giant rankled some community members, including Mary Newell, who helps run the New Covenant Evangelistic Center on New Jersey Avenue NW. “It’s insensitive,” says Newell. “A couple of parents came up to me because their sons and daughters were locked up. They didn’t have to do that with them.” Some of Shaw’s youth wish Smith would back off, too. “He’s outta hand,” says one teenager who likes to hang out behind Smith’s building. “I’d like to tell the mayor to come over here with his shirt and tie and try to chill.”
Comparing him to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, Newell says that Smith, who is white, comes on too strong and can’t communicate with the Shaw demographic. (The overall Shaw community, according to the 2000 census, is about 57 percent African-American). “You have African-Americans, and you have to know how to interact with them,” she says. “When people are on different levels, you have to know your approaches and techniques right. You’re entering a zone of hostility, and you don’t want to escalate things. He’s like a tyrant.”
By 2001, Smith had started to realize that a small contingent of his residents had turned against himjust enough to mount a small campaign for his removal. He was used to pissing off other cops, but rarely law-abiding citizens.
The movement to push Smith out of Shaw was led by Leroy Thorpe Jr., a longtime Shaw resident and contentious local politician. Thorpe is fond of filing civilian complaints against police officers, and he’s also one of the few community members with the power to influence department policy in Shaw.
Thorpe’s onslaught came to a head in May 2001, when he organized a protest at the front steps of the 3rd District station house on V Street NW. As a video of the protest shows, Thorpe, bullhorn in hand, led a group of about a dozen Shaw residents, mostly African-American, as they marched in a small circle to bring attention to what they described as a lack of police service in their neighborhood.
“We came down here today to let the 3rd District police know that we’re not getting
any types of services for the African-American Shaw community,” said Thorpe, who declined to comment for this article. At the protest, he said of Smith: “Here’s a man that wants to be a politician. He goes to more community meetings than the politicians themselves. Here’s a man that lives right in the African-American community, but has no type of relationship with the African-American community.”
Smith, not to be outdone by Thorpe, happened to be the cameraman filming the show. He’d picked up his video camera, taken two hours’ leave, and changed into civilian clothes so it would be clear that he was off duty. “You need to take that camera to 5th and O Street, where black kids are getting shot on a daily basis,” Thorpe bellowed to Smith. “You need to take it to 7th and O Street, where there are drugs being sold on a daily basis, in your PSA, lieutenant.” Smith, said Thorpe, “hobnobs with the white citizens” and doesn’t have “one African-American supporter.”
Smith was transferred within a week.
He was relocated to lower Adams Morgan, but the move served only to ignite a much larger firestorm. After hearing of the transfer, Smith’s legion of fans mobilized.
“The hue and cry was unstoppable,” recalls Hinterlong. “People went crazy. They were pulling out all the stops to get him back, calling everyone they knewcalling [Ward 2 Councilmember] Jack Evans’ office, the chief’s office. You’re not gonna let someone like that go, because you’ll never see another one again.” Smith supporters inundated the department with letters and e-mails.
It worked. Smith was transferred back to Shaw, into an adjacent PSA, just days after the uproar. The move placated both his admirers and his enemies: He remained in Shaw but was no longer in Thorpe’s community. “Many people in [Smith’s previous PSA] still bemoan the fact that he’s not there,” says Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. “It’s kind of pitiful when you have MPD commanders who allow themselves to be bullied by someone like Thorpe.”
Two-and-a-half years later, the whole ordeal still galls Smith. Making his rounds and chatting with neighbors, he indirectly mentions the saga on an almost daily basis. “That was before Leroy ran me out of there,” he’ll say, after recounting an old foot chase or big lockup. His imbroglios with co-workers, he admits, have been far more detrimental to his career, but the protest business stings most, precisely because his own citizens were behind it. “It was like there were these people in the desert, and you knew they were dying,” says Smith. “And I went out there with a bottle of water, gave them a drink, and they spit it in my face.”
But the clamor raised by his devotees was vindicating. Smith’s almost immediate transfer back into Shaw verified a theory he’d developed years earlier: Fostering close, personal ties with your citizens makes you a well-liked cop, and being a well-liked cop gives you power”like protection from the department,” he says. By that logic, the brand of immersion policing that Smith launched in Shaw was just as shrewd as it was foolhardy.
The 24-7 cop routine, however, hasn’t always played well with family. While on indefinite administrative leave in 1994, Smith fought for his job and fell into about $16,000 in credit-card debt due to legal fees, alienating his first wife in the process. “My problem now is my outspoken nature,” says Smith. “And I think my outspoken nature is the result of how I was treated back then [by the department].”
When the case was settled and Smith returned to work, he decided to climb his way out of debt by working overtime. He made so many arrests and spent so much time in court that he became even more of a stranger in his own home. “It tore the family apart,” he says. His wife filed for divorce. Smith lost his house in Upper Marlboro, Md., but kept custody of his son, Mike Jr. After the split, he moved to Chapin Street NW and launched his brand of community policing there.
While separated, he met Colleen, his current wife, who says she needed to date him for four years before deciding she could handle being married to him and his crusade. “I’m still learning to live with him,” Colleen Smith says. “Some people love their jobs. But Mike is his job.” She says she hates living in Washington, because “mostly I just see the bad part,” but she doesn’t plan on moving anywhere soon. She doesn’t imagine she could pull her husband out of Shaw.
Colleen calls her husband at about 4:30 p.m. to find out why he hasn’t come home with the dog food yet. Today is Sunday, one of his two days off, but he’s driving around Shaw in his take-home cruiser with the police radio on. “She’s fussing at me for answering calls,” he says. After working out at the gym, he was supposed to pick up some dog food at the Giant and head right home. But a call came in for an assault in progress, and he felt compelled to go to the scene.
At 5 o’clock, he still hasn’t picked up the dog food. A dispatcher informs him that a large apartment complex near 10th and L Streets NW has lost its heat. He stops by the address and talks with the first officer on the scene, then heads to the Giant. The market is known for its intolerably long lines, he admits, but “it’s the one near my PSA,” he says.
Smith takes his personal radio with him into the supermarket. It’s hard for him to turn it off. He even carries it with him into restaurants and keeps it on during dinner, Colleen says. “You never know what’s going to happen,” he explains. “There could be an officer in trouble or a robbery in progress, right around the corner.” Walking through Giant, he’s wearing a jean jacket and department-issue bike-cop pants, and he has his radio fixed to his waist and the microphone strapped to his chest.
His distracting conversation with the
dispatcherhe’s telling her to send a Spanish-speaking officer to that apartment complexis making it difficult to locate the pet-food aisle. He walks past the aisle a few times before finding the five boxes of Pedigree Little Champions.
It’s almost 6 o’clock when he stops by the heatless apartment complex again to make sure somebody has control of the situation. But just when he looks to be home free, a call comes in for a drunk-and-disorderly at 14th and N. Apparently the guy threatened an officer. Smith really needs to go. It’s the third call he’s answered since leaving the gym. He insists it’s not some neurotic compulsion. “Being a policeman is my life,” he says.
At 6:15, Smith takes yet another callthis one from Colleen on his cell phone. “Hey, sweetie!” he answers, in the faux-cheerful voice of a husband who knows he’s in trouble. His voice drops to a defensive pitch. “No, no. I did. I picked up the dog food.” As he talks, he competes with the dispatcher’s voice and the intermittent bleeps of the police radio. Somebody could use some backup somewhere. With Colleen in one ear and his dispatcher in the other, Smith tells his wife what he can only half-believe himself: “I’m coming home. I’ll come meet you right now.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.