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On the night of June 30, Anna Crawford, a special police officer (SPO) for the D.C. Housing Authority (DCHA), was working her post at the public housing development at 1430 L St. SE. When she finished her shift, Crawford found her blue Geo Metro in rough shape. “BITCH!” was scratched into the passenger door, and “FUCK ROBO 1430 L” was scratched into the back. The vandal had shattered her driver-side side-view mirror and pocked the car with a half-dozen or so dents. A body shop assessed the damage at $2,300.
Crawford was less concerned with repair costs than with the cost of inaction. “Robo” is the street word for DCHA police, and that piece of vandalism marks Crawford’s car as a target, she says. “You never know what’s going to happen,” she says. “That means if I go to Safeway and some deranged person sees that my car’s a police car, who knows? They might attack me.” She won’t allow either of her teenage kids to drive the car, and the profanity of the etchings has kept her from attending church.
Crawford had driven her Geo Metro to work because DCHA’s office of public safety doesn’t allow its 71 SPOs to drive D.C. housing police cruisers. But when Crawford as well as two other SPOs whose cars had been vandalized on the job asked DCHA to pay for damages, they were told to pay themselves. “That’s why they have insurance, I believe,” says DCHA Police Capt. Madison Jenkins.
Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) President Lou Cannon disagrees: “It’s silly to expect a police officer to take his car into one of the most dangerous areas of the city where he’s going to work, and leave it unprotected, and then say that you’re not gonna have responsibility for it,” Cannon says.
DCHA’s refusal to compensate SPOs for on-the-job hazards jibes with its policy of hiring rent-a-cops to do the job of professional police officers. Whether it’s training, pay, respect, or equipment, SPOs are special in name only. However, much as Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers grouse about their working conditions, they can take solace in having it better than SPOs. “Yeah, they’re more fucked-up than we are,” says an MPD officer who patrols Southeast.
That’s an assessment that resonates with Crawford. After she cooperated with Washington City Paper to bring some of these issues to light, Housing Receiver David Gilmore promptly fired her.
SPOs are the designated B-leaguers of DCHA’s police department, according to Jenkins. After all, he says, SPOs attend police academy for only 11 weeks, as opposed to the 26 weeks that DCHA and MPD officers get. Jenkins says SPOs are often officers who were eliminated when they took the written test to get into the academy.
Which brings up the question: If the SPOs aren’t good enough to be legitimate DCHA police officers, why are they assigned one of the toughest police jobs around?
“I’ve made multiple domestic-violence lockups, several gun lockups, drug lockups…disorderly fights we have a lot of fights in housing,” says an SPO who requested anonymity. “We just had a homicide at Potomac Gardens [a housing project at 1225 G St. SE]. You name it, we got it.”
And public housing residents who’ve got a beef with an SPO know right where to find their target. After MPD officers make an arrest, says an SPO, “they get to get in their police cars and drive off. We don’t. We have to handle the situation, and then we’re still in the immediate area.”
Although Crawford spent much of her youth in a D.C. public housing project, she was unprepared for the daily scene at 1430 L St. SE. “‘How can they live like this?’” she says she asked herself. “I never knew it could be like that for people.”
FOP traditionally refused to represent SPOs. However, the union’s attorneys recently decided that DCHA’s SPOs are bona fide police officers, and it has been admitting them as members since May. “I have to question whether they’re ‘special’ police officers or not,” says Cannon. “The job that they’re performing is a police function. They’re carrying
9 mms….They should be compensated for their job.”
According to Jenkins, starting salary for an SPO is $25,061 or about $7,000 less than a rookie MPD officer or a fully trained DCHA cop. Cannon says the SPO designation is an unfair way for DCHA to staff its police force hiring men and women to do hard-core cop work while refusing to pay them or treat them accordingly.
Cannon says that the job is more difficult than other tours on other forces because so many of the SPOs stand on their posts alone, making them even more isolated and vulnerable. DCHA sprinkles its 71 SPOs throughout the public housing complexes under its jurisdiction. “If [the SPOs] are as ill-qualified as they say, why are they putting them out there on those one-man posts?” asks Cannon. “Wouldn’t that raise a liability issue?”
Jenkins trashes the whole notion of safety in numbers. “A police officer’s job is dangerous even if you have 100 officers standing on the post,” he says.
Jenkins also argues that the SPOs have no right to be compensated for the damage done to their cars. “Do you know of any other [public or private security] agency in the District of Columbia that, if something happens to their car, the agency pays for it?” Jenkins asks.
Wendell Jackson, senior administrator of Unlimited Security Inc. in Washington, says that in the one instance of on-the-job car vandalism in his company’s history, management compensated the worker for damages. Jackson says Unlimited Security avoids this problem by giving its security officers company cars. “If something happens to their cars, our insurance will pick it up,” says Jackson. “I think most security companies offer company vehicles.”
When Crawford’s request for compensation was denied, she tried to meet with DCHA Receiver David Gilmore to appeal the decision. But she says she was told by DCHA Police Lt. Jesse Millhouse that Gilmore wouldn’t meet with her. “We can’t tell Receiver Gilmore who to talk to,” says Jenkins.
After a reporter requested an interview with Gilmore, Crawford was granted an audience with him last Friday. The meeting didn’t go exactly as Crawford had hoped. Since she had only two-and-a-half hours’ notice, she wasn’t able to secure legal or union representation. She showed up with a reporter instead which clearly made Gilmore unhappy. He told the reporter to wait outside while he talked to Crawford.
In the meeting, according to Crawford, Gilmore cursed at her, said she had “no rights,” and fired her for speaking to the press. After she was fired, according to her account, she cursed at him, prompting him to announce that she was now fired for insubordination. Minutes later, DCHA officials escorted Crawford to her Fort Washington home to take her gun from her, as is procedure with any police termination.
“How can you fire someone for freedom of speech?” asks FOP’s Cannon. “I have the attorneys looking at the whistle-blower statute and other violations in regard to her employment.” Gilmore didn’t respond to numerous phone calls requesting comment.CP