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At an Adams Morgan community meeting last week, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey employed all the rhetorical parries of a great communicator:
Hear! Hear! When resident after resident expressed frustration with the department’s lack of responsiveness and visibility, Ramsey agreed that “everything I’m hearing out there is that the status quo is unacceptable.”
Good Cop, Bad Cop Whenever a resident hinted at any kind of police misconduct, Ramsey stressed that his job is to support good officers who put their lives on the line. “This isn’t television,” the chief reminded the crowd when a question arose about his department’s policy on chasing stolen vehicles. “In real life, people die in pursuits.”
Lover, Not a Fighter When leftist activist Adam Eidinger painted the chief as an enemy of the U.S. Constitution, Ramsey confessed to Eidinger, “I personally kind of like you.”
These techniques have earned Ramsey much goodwill over the past five years. But when pressed these days on the city’s premier public safety-issue911 logisticshe responds with a less endearing incarnation: Ass-Covering Bureaucrat.
D.C. police blogger John Aravosis questioned Ramsey that night about staffing issues at the department’s 911 call center, specifically asking how many call-takers were on duty and answering calls early Jan. 15. That morning, a fire on 21st Street NW took the life of 24-year-old Christopher Duncan-Smith. Aravosis wanted to know if Ramsey agreed with At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson’s contention that only four 911 employees were receiving calls at the time of the blaze. “We know how many exactly were on the phone, and Mr. Mendelson is wrong,” the chief blasted back.
“Mendelson is wrong,” he later repeated.
Does that make the chief right? Here’s a catalog of the claims that Ramsey & Co. have made about those same staffing issues:
* On Feb. 4, Ramsey wrote that “thirteen (13) call takers” were receiving calls the morning of the fire. This number came in response to a Jan. 16 letter from Mendelson asking for specifics about how many employees were on duty and answering calls.
* At a Feb. 13 press conference, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Margret Nedelkoff Kellems backed up Ramsey, citing a staff of 13 answering emergency calls. She remarked that staffing issues “did not in any way create a delay in the dispatching of this fire.”
* At a community meeting in Kalorama on Feb. 20, Ramsey upped his answer to 14 call-takers on duty. Still, the chief admitted that the first callers to 911 that morning were put on hold for two minutes and nine seconds. He also relented that not all call-takers were answering emergency calls: Two workers had “unplugged” early, two were on authorized breaks, and four were not taking calls and unaccounted for. That dropped the number to six call-takers receiving calls.
* On March 7, two days after he scolded Mendelson, Ramsey reduced his call-taker count in the Washington Post. He now asserted that “five operators” were answering phones when neighborhood residents dialed 911.
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Ever since he became chief in 1998, Ramsey has acknowledged problems with the city’s emergency-response system. Yet he pointed outside the department when information about staffing was contradictory and misleading. “I understand Mr. Mendelson’s frustration, but I do think that the fact that he’s pushing to get information very, very quickly can sometimes lead to information being a little less than accurate,” the chief told News Channel 8 on March 10.
Hmmm. The fire occurred Jan. 15. It is now mid-March. Just how long does it take police officials to investigate who answered phones and who didn’t? “The point is not whether it’s four or five [call-takers],” explains Mendelson. “It took seven weeks to get the truth out of him….How do we know as a council that future statements can be relied upon?”
Ramsey’s premier watchdog on the council says the department wasted too much time trying to cover its ass. “There was great fervor to disprove statements about the department made by residents. There was no fervor in looking in the mirror,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson, who chairs the council’s Judiciary Committee.
Patterson refers to a preliminary report on the Dupont Circle fire that mostly disputed claims by residents who complained about 911 response. A few residents claimed to have called 40 minutes before the first call was taken at the 911 center.
Last week, Ramsey pledged to dismiss seven employees over the 911 fiasco.
“It has become a hallmark of Chief Ramsey to deny problems exist until he cannot hide them any longer,” testified Gregory Greene, acting chair of the Metropolitan Police Labor Committee of the Fraternal Order of Police, before the council on Tuesday. “Then, he orders an investigation, that invariably finds rank-and-file officers responsible. Finally, he declares his disgust and promises to fire them.”
Ramsey has also been at odds with the council over the staffing of the city’s patrol service areas (PSAs). Earlier this year, the council required the mayor to re-evaluate the city’s approach to community policing. Ramsey submitted a preliminary report to the mayor last week.
In it, the chief recommends reducing the number of PSAs from 83 to 37. “It’s a better concentration of resources,” says Ramsey. “I think what it does more than anything is align us with neighborhood services.”
Even without seeing the report, councilmembers question how the community policing concept improves when the patrol boundaries expand. “The whole point was that we were getting more police on the street,” says Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen. “I do not see this as the answer. How do people get to know their police officers?”
On March 3, as nonprofit advocates and city bureaucrats testified before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Human Services, some of those seated on the dais heard a strange noise. Click, click. Click. A distracting noise. Click. Click. The nonrhythmic din came from within the Wilson Building’s fifth-floor council chamber.
After some investigation, council staff pinpointed the problem: First Mother Virginia E. Hayes Williams, who was sitting in the audience clipping her fingernails.
A council staffer politely approached the mayor’s mom and asked her to refrain from the activity. Williams obliged and listened to much of the dialogue involving oversight of the Department of Human Services.
LL could not reach Williams for comment.
* Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P. Chavous has been caught flat-footed on his own turf. Busy with his law practice and his bickering with School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz, Chavous last week failed to contest a challenge mounted by Covenant House Executive Director Vincent C. Gray for control of the Ward 7 Democrats.
Gray, who for years has been quietly critical of Chavous’ leadership, carefully plotted his ascension. In the week before last Saturday’s election, he mailed an impressive color flier to Ward 7 Democrats, encouraging them to back the “Team 7” slate, which included Gray himself as the candidate for Ward 7 Dems chair.
Chavous got involved too late to respond via the U.S. Postal Service. A day or two before the vote, some party activists received phone calls from Chavous and H.R. Crawford. The current and former Ward 7 councilmembers, respectively, reached out and touched their neighbors on behalf of Jeri Washington, who was opposing Gray as part of the “7 Up Dems” slate. In the end, Gray clobbered Washington practically 2 to 1256 votes to 134 votes. In fact, Gray’s “Team 7” slate swept all seven elected offices in the party organization.
The outcome most likely sets up a Gray vs. Chavous showdown in 2004. Yet Chavous cautioned LL against reading too much into Saturday’s results: “They didn’t see [Gray] fighting me,” insisted Chavous, who said that he endorsed Washington three days before the election after she called and asked for his help. “I didn’t aggressively get involved at all.”
Now that’s hardball politics.
Chavous’ absenteeism in ward politics was cited by many Ward 7 Dems as one of the reasons they cast their ballot for Team 7. Gray’s challenge put Chavous in a no-win situation: If he sat out the Ward 7 Dems race, he’d seem even more out of touch with the party faithful. So he made calls and came out on Saturday for Washington, who was seen by many in the ward as a feeble candidate.
“Frankly, those people who voted for him are my supporters,” added Chavous.
LL’s point exactly.
Then Chavous hinted at a possible east-of-the-river conspiracy: “There were so many Ward 8 residents involved in making phone calls [for Gray],” Chavous remarked. (Gray’s Covenant House has a large facility in Ward 8.) On Saturday, LL couldn’t help but notice a large Ward 8 presence, too: Election officials included Ward 8 Democratic State Committee members Wanda Lockridge and Mary Parham Wolfe as well as Ward 8 Dems First Vice President Jacque Patterson. Ward 8 pol Eugene Dewitt Kinlow stopped by and offered a little color commentary, as well.
Chavous, though, was referring to a less-visible presence: Ward 8 Dems President Philip Pannell, who acted as a campaign manager of sorts for Gray and the Team 7 slate. The controversial local pol told LL that he stayed behind the scenes Saturday to work the phones and get out the vote.
“Vince’s ties are more in Ward 8 than in Ward 7,” Chavous concluded.
LL decided to ask others about that analysis. “But who voted?” responded Ward 8 Councilmember Allen, who was one of the few Ward 8 potentates not to show up Saturday. “Ward 8 people could not vote.”
* Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty is the council’s premier provincialist, with his Ward 1 colleague Jim Graham a close second. So the introduction of the Georgia Avenue Investment Now Amendment Act of 2003 took both by surprise last week.
The legislation, introduced by At-Large Councilmembers David Catania and Carol Schwartz, creates special tax incentives for businesses located along the distressed commercial corridor that weaves through Wards 1 and 4. It also aims to create a business improvement district for Georgia Avenue. “Certainly most times when you do legislation specific to an area of the city, you run it by the ward councilmemberand if you don’t run it by a councilmember, you certainly run it by the community,” says Fenty. “I didn’t know about the legislation until they introduced it.”
Catania explains that he and Schwartz decided that they were fed up with all the lost potential of Georgia Avenue. “Carol and I felt very strongly that 35 years of neglect and broken promises had been enough,” says Catania.
The Georgia Avenue end-around wasn’t Fenty’s only recent frustration. For months, the young councilmember has been looking to lay claim to some legislative turf. Council Chair Linda W. Cropp passed Fenty over for a committee chairmanship but entertained the idea of having him chair a joint task force on housing. That legislation was supposed to be introduced last Tuesday. But it was withdrawn after talks broke down.
According to sources, Committee on Economic Development Chair Harold Brazil refused to give up a committee staffer to the effort.
Brazil did not return LL’s calls for comment. CP
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