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Shortly after taking office in January 1991, Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon promised frightened District residents a new style of policing, one in which cops would walk beats, communicate with neighbors, and stop crime before it happened.
You know the rest of the story.
By the time Mayor-for-Life Marion S. Barry Jr. began his fourth term in 1995, the law enforcement methods promised by his predecessor had acquired a national coinage—“community policing”—and an eager follower in Hizzoner’s police chief, Larry Soulsby. Of course, Soulsby had no experience in community policing, and he had little experience in management. As Soulsby’s 1997 downfall showed, he was rather more keen on covering up his official misdeeds.
Chief Charles Ramsey, installed last year by a high-powered selection panel, was to write a new final chapter in the city’s community policing saga. Ramsey, after all, had tamed the streets of Chicago with his crime-fighting formula, which emphasized citizens’ identifying problems for officers, who confined their patrols to assigned neighborhoods. “When they get me, they get community policing,” Ramsey told the Washington Post before taking his job. “That goes without question.”
Perhaps the chief hadn’t consulted other control board–designated saviors, like Chief Management Officer Camille Cates Barnett and schools boss Gen. Julius Becton: No reform program ever just sails through the District government. After a year of so-so performance atop the Metropolitan Police Department, Ramsey is now watching his defining program get redefined by Mayor Anthony A. Williams. Anxious to look active, Williams has wound up forsaking community policing’s small-scale battles for the kinds of dramatic law enforcement spectacles—big drug busts, nocturnal sweeps—that make for good TV.
The upshot is a postponement of the crime-prevention tactics that Ramsey promised a year ago and sagging support for the chief among the people he needs most—public safety advocates. “How many times can they take us to the well?” asks community policing supporter Sally Byington.
As Ramsey is discovering, access to that well is closely tied to the mayor’s political machinations. In late January, Williams declared a set of public safety priorities as part of his “short-term action” agenda. Along with reopening the Thomas Circle underpass and selling off abandoned properties, he promised a police sweep through six open-air drug markets across the city, in Shaw, on Capitol Hill, on West Virginia Avenue NE, in Columbia Heights, around the Nannie Helen Burroughs complex in Deanwood, and along a troubled corridor in Southwest. The sweeps would be completed by Aug. 31, the mayor said.
The initiative was vintage Barry-in-a-bow-tie: Send your officers into a troubled neighborhood, arrest a bunch of ne’er-do-wells, get the hell out of Dodge, and proclaim victory. Never mind that the bad guys will set up shop a few blocks over—where they’ll be good fodder for the next sweep. Williams simply wanted to make good on his pledge of “visible, short-term service improvements.”
In recent weeks, the department has decided it can’t accommodate both Ramsey’s long-term plans and the mayor’s short-term ones. The casualty of this quickie retreat to the telegenic sweeps of yesteryear is a series of summer training sessions for cops and citizens that were designed to cement community policing as the primary citywide crime-fighting strategy by this fall. The training was supposed to teach citizens in each police service area (PSA) to identify the sources of crime and disorder and team up with the cops to combat them. Now the sessions will have to wait until fall, at the earliest. “They only have the staff and resources to do the mayor’s plan,” says Byington.
“All that’s being reflected [in the delay] is the complexity of getting a project like this going,” says Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer. At this rate, Pristina will probably see community policing before D.C. does.
The mayor’s short-term priorities are truncating a community policing program in which the department has already made a serious investment. Community Policing Director Ann Russell held workshops with community types in March and April to sketch out the preliminary stages of the assault on neighborhood crime. But mayoral foot-dragging isn’t the only challenge facing D.C.’s $80,000-a-year community police salesperson. The postponement of Russell’s training sessions is small change compared with citywide skepticism that the whole scheme is nothing more than an elaborate PR campaign issuing from Indiana Avenue fax machines.
To disprove that suspicion, Russell and her soulmates have thus far cobbled together the beginnings of a community policing glossary, plus some other materials on state-of-the-art law enforcement. Unfortunately, the corny, jargon-choked text of the community cop bible makes it hard to go out on a limb to defend the program.
Take, for instance, the glossary definition of what the “partnership” is all about: “Problem-Solving: A strategic process in which community stakeholders, police officers and others prioritize crime and disorder problems, assess their causes and develop strategies to solve them. The method is based upon a common understanding of the process and a shared language.” It also defines such abstruse terms as “implement,” “goal,” and “action plan.” If police department honchos want politicians to choose community policing over Lethal Weapon–style drama, maybe they ought to put their goals in plain English.
“All this is is common sense encoded in 15 layers of psychobabble,” says police watchdog Carl Rowan Jr. “You have officers spending an inordinate amount of time sitting in a room with the same citizens month after month singing ‘Kumbayah.’”
Average citizens may not be aware of PR-dictated police tactics or Indiana Avenue bureaucratese, but neighborhood crime watchers have obviously noticed a third impediment to Ramsey’s oft-stated goal of community policing: not enough cops. “When Ramsey first started community policing, our PSA had 17 officers,” says Roland Chavez, a resident of Near Northeast. “Now our PSA has 13 officers. We doubt the chief’s commitment to community policing.”
Chavez’s councilmember, Ward 6’s Sharon Ambrose, has demanded a report from the chief this summer on the progress of community policing in the District and is in no mood to hear about delays and detours. “We have been hearing the rumors about the cancellation of training for about a week now,” says Ambrose. “I would be very, very unhappy if the chief abandoned the community policing model, because it is very important in Ward 6 communities.”
The official line downtown is that community policing hasn’t taken a hit with the cancellation of Russell’s seminars. Instead, the theory goes, community policing concepts can be applied to Williams’ campaign against the open-air drug markets. Monty Wilkenson, the mayor’s aide to the police department, demonstrates that at least the jargon of the two initiatives is compatible.
“A lot of these markets have been in existence for years. We want to try a new approach…based on partnerships and problem solving,” says Wilkenson.
That may work just fine. However, residents of the city’s 114 non-open-air-drug-market neighborhoods will still be waiting for guidance from the mayor and his cops on how to prevent crime. LL hates to be judgmental, but the department may be violating one of the principles outlined in its community policing manual on “How to Facilitate the Problem-Solving Process”:
“Be self motivated. Do what you agreed to do. Get out there and walk the talk.”
When he served as the Ward 5 representative on the D.C. Council, Harry Thomas loved to glad-hand at the Florida Avenue Market. The gritty collection of wholesalers, butchers, and produce stands was a perfect spot for Thomas to chat up his working-class base and patronize the merchants who would chip in for his re-election campaigns. And as chair of the council’s Public Works Committee, Thomas had a lot to offer in return—like repaved alleys, gleaming street signs, and perhaps the odd fixed parking ticket.
These days, Thomas still frequents the market. “I go for the produce, and I get my meats at Harvey’s,” said the former councilmember. But, as he discovered last week, he can’t pull strings for his buddies as he once did.
On May 10, a phalanx of city inspectors descended on the market under the banner of Williams’ “Rid-a-Rat” program. By mayoral edict, the squadron must hit sanitation-challenged spots in every ward, and the Florida Market is a top candidate for a raid. For years, the bile and blubber excreted by the various wholesalers have spilled out into the streets and the gutters, clogging up nearby sewers. Rats love the area.
The inspectors found enough filth to close nine shops—a sight that saddened Thomas, who, according to a merchant, witnessed the enforcement operation. “He stayed in the street and never came in the building,” says George Lesznar, manager of Harvey’s Market. “He didn’t do a thing.”
Oh, yes he did. Working from his makeshift offices at his Northeast home, Thomas dialed up Department of Public Works officials with a proposal: Give the embattled merchants a week or so to clean up; if they fail to comply, then shut them down. Although Thomas reportedly made several calls, he would confirm only one: “I called the girl at Public Works—Leslie [Hotaling],” Thomas told LL.
Hotaling declined comment on Thomas’ call but noted that the authorities have been trying to improve sanitation around the Florida Avenue Market “for years.” “The whole Rid-a-Rat program is intended to focus people on what it is they do that contributes to rats,” says Hotaling.
In the end, Thomas had about as much impact as, well, the average citizen. And that’s just fine with current Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, who knocked off Thomas in a close primary last September. Orange busied himself last week in figuring out whether his predecessor was usurping his market authority. “I was just making sure that no one was doing Harry a favor,” says Orange, another Everyman’s Ward-5er who shops at the market.
“Harry may be having a hard time letting go,” says Orange. Not so, says Thomas: “I don’t need another story about me. I didn’t protest nothing.”
Vernell Jessie, public outreach coordinator for the D.C. public schools, left her post last Friday after three months of service to Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “I resigned for personal reasons,” Jessie told LL from the home of emergency trustees board Chair Maudine Cooper, where she has been staying. An acclaimed schools professional from Houston, Jessie came on board to correct Ackerman’s tendency to freeze parents out of key decisions on the schools. Schools watchdogs say she bagged the job because Ackerman was reportedly freezing her out of key decisions.
“She wasn’t getting any information to bring to the parents,” says schools crusader Susan Gushue, who spoke regularly with Jessie.
Never ones to discriminate, Ackerman’s minions are now freezing LL out. Schools spokesperson Denise Tann acknowledges no change in Jessie’s employment status. “She’s still here, but she’s just not in her office right now,” Tann says.
Tann and others should stop waiting for her return. “No, I’m not going back to the office,” says Jessie, who says she will remain on the payroll until June 11. CP
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