Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The crisp morning air induces goosebumps as Investigator Paul Kurgan and Inspector Anita Chavis step out of their unmarked blue Ford Crown Victoria at the corner of Benning Road and Minnesota Avenue NE. It may be chilly, but the partners are hot on the trail of wrongdoing. They quickly survey the seemingly abandoned lot before them. A burned-out building formerly known as the Classic Clothing Surplus Store and a number of beaten-up storage trailers litter the property.

Behind the trailers, Kurgan and Chavis spot piles of trash, including beer bottles, soiled rugs, a tattered mattress, old clothes, and a dented plastic Sprite bottle. Crumpled books, various furniture pieces, and a broken football trophy top one of the piles. Kurgan takes in the lot slowly and methodically. “That’s fresh,” Kurgan says, pointing to tire impressions in the damp mud. “Must’ve been since [we] came in this morning.” The tracks lead to another trash-filled puddle.

Kurgan slips on a pair of white rubber gloves. He picks through the pile slowly, looking for clues. “This is a new-style floor tile…out only in the ’90s,” he says, lifting a chunk of green flooring. He inspects a cardboard box still bearing the building supply store’s Maryland address and sets it aside as possible evidence. He wades deeper into the pile, lifts a can of paint thinner, and points to a shiny, greenish sheen on the puddle. Bingo!

“This is technically now a felony,” Kurgan says energetically. “It’s just gone from a misdemeanor, because of nonhazardous waste, to a felony, because of hazardous waste….This is a crime scene now.”

In fact, this is more than a crime scene—it’s a five-crime scene, at least: one case of arson, a few illegal dumpings, and a hazardous waste drop-off. The Metropolitan Police Department’s Kurgan and the Department of Public Works’ (DPW) Chavis track down these crimes and their perpetrators as one of the city’s four new teams in the Environmental Crimes Unit (ECU). The teams, which officially hit D.C. streets last July, invoke both civil and criminal penalties to protect D.C. citizens against an array of environmental hazards, foremost among them illegal dumping. Their motto: “If you pollute, we’ll prosecute.”

The ECU owes much of its overall philosophy to the broken-window theory: Small, nuisance crimes open the door to more nefarious criminal activities. According to Kevin Morison, director of corporate communications for the District police, neighborhood neglect extends a welcome mat for criminals. It’s a slippery slope from there—a broken window invites vandalism, which then encourages burglary, theft, and an array of other felonies. “In essence, it drives residents inside, so they end up ceding the neighborhood to criminals,” Morison says.

Or, put another way: “Trash attracts trash,” argues DPW Solid Waste Administrator Leslie Hotaling. “[A]ll of a sudden it’s an illegal dump spot…and that’s what leads to degradation of neighborhoods,” she says. Repairing broken windows and cleaning up illegal dump sites sends a clear message to potential lawbreakers that such behaviors will not be tolerated.

That’s why the two city departments decided to tag-team to fight such crimes. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship: DPW inspectors like Chavis can issue only civil violations, which can range from $1,000 to $5,000. But the long arm of the law allows ECU police officers such as Kurgan to slap felony-level offenders with a minimum $1,000 fine and up to five years in jail, and it gives them the authority to confiscate dumpers’ vehicles. Environmental crimes considered felonies include the dumping of hazardous and medical waste, and dumping that results in commercial profit.

Kurgan and Chavis’ Benning Road search turns up other goodies: a bunch of baby clothes, a collection of music, and a business stamp with the manufacturer’s name on it.

“To dump this at a legal site would’ve cost them 20 bucks,” Kurgan explains. “Now they’re looking at a fine of up to $25,000…and a possibility of five years in jail maximum.” He whips out his cell phone to track the stamp manufacturer, which he believes will lead him to the dumper.

“For every [investigation] that we ever do, it leads us to two,” Kurgan adds. The statement soon proves prescient. Standing at the lot, Kurgan looks up to see an uncovered trash truck zipping along the Benning Road overpass, paper and cardboard brimming from its top. He hollers to Chavis, who hurries to the car and fires up the engine. Within seconds, the team is racing down Benning Road in the unmarked car, siren screaming, gumdrop light spinning.

“Bad boyz, bad boyz, what we gonna do?” Kurgan sings.

Chavis catches the hauler a few blocks later and signals him to the shoulder. An elderly man descends from the cab and walks sheepishly back toward the police car. “Do you know why I stopped you?” asks Kurgan, as Chavis checks out the truck’s plates. “Your load’s not covered.”

The man mutters something about how they get you for everything in this city, but his plates and license are in order, so he gets off with a slap on the wrist. “I’ll get it straightened out today,” he promises.

Half a block later, his truck clips a tree branch, knocking cardboard boxes out onto the sidewalk. Kurgan and Chavis snap their police light back on and pull him over to scold him once more. “Please clean that up, and get your stuff covered,” Kurgan says.

It might not make next week’s story line on Law and Order, but Kurgan and Chavis take their responsibilities very seriously. “We consider this to be as bad as a rape, a homicide, a burglary,” says Kurgan.

And the type of crimes that Kurgan and Chavis investigate could have as much of an impact, if not more, on D.C.’s quality of life as a robbery or an assault. Back in August, the ECU answered an emergency call to investigate two 55-gallon drums of liquid that had been abandoned in a back alley at 60th and Blaine Streets NE. The drums turned out to contain hydrofluoric acid, a highly volatile and corrosive substance. ECU investigators had to don chemical suits with breathing apparatus to contain the barrels and move them out of the neighborhood. They are still hunting down the culprit.

In November, Kurgan and Chavis tracked down a privately hired painting company that had dumped 5 gallons of paint thinner and oil-based paint down an Upper Northwest storm drain. The pollutants emptied into Rock Creek Park, leaving a milky sheen on the creek’s surface. The company was fined $5,000 and paid an additional $4,600 to clean up the discharge.

Beyond the District’s long tradition of illegal dumping, mainly from Virginia and Maryland haulers, the biggest problem the ECU faces is its size. “[T]he demand for their services far exceeds what four teams can handle,” says Hotaling, noting that ECU calls run the gamut of environmental offenses. “You can’t not be responsive. On the other hand, I think we need to focus on the neighborhood nuisances that have been there for years.”

Some offenders become ECU helpers. While investigating a case on a sunny Saturday last August, Kurgan and Chavis watched a brand-new Dodge Ram back into an abandoned building at 50th and Hayes Streets NE and dump a load of construction materials. The investigators slammed all three offenders—two adults and one juvenile—into jail for the weekend and confiscated their truck, which had been purchased only five days before. In addition to about $2,000 in clean-up costs, $1,500 in fines, and the cost of repossessing their truck, both adult dumpers were required to put in 200 hours of community service.

Appropriately, they’ll be on the job sweeping up the detritus of other illegal dumpers. “When they come to work for us, they get a brown-paper bag, a rake, and a shovel, and they start cleaning our city streets,” says Kurgan. CP