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When 7-Eleven last year announced the opening of Police Community Network Centers at its 18 District stores, the convenience chain held itself out as a selfless guarantor of the public interest. “[The centers] help build positive relationships between police and residents by allowing police officers the opportunity to interact face to face with the people in the neighborhood—a key component to effective community policing,” said Scot Lins, 7-Eleven’s manager of corporate security and loss prevention.

This week, the safety centers celebrate their one-year anniversary amid more plaudits from corporate executives. “They seem to be working,” says 7-Eleven spokesperson Margaret Chabris, who reports that one station has generated leads on drug dealing and another has made senior citizens feel more comfortable in their neighborhood.

7-Eleven has reason to be happy. For the price of a few pots of coffee, a podium, and a phone (red, of course), the chain has bought what other stores can’t get at any price: a private security force with guns, mace, real badges, and all the power that goes with them. Last Friday night, a crew of Washington City Paper reporters descended on local 7-Eleven outlets to see the community policing in action.

14th & Rhode Island Avenue NW

There’s a big, white Secret Service Uniformed Division van parked across Rhode Island Avenue from the 14th Street NW 7-Eleven. Inside the store, officer D.I. White, a third of the way through his 6:30 p.m.-6:30 a.m. night shift, is parked at the police minidesk, talking into its red phone.

“I just come in here to use the phone,” explains White. The staffers don’t seem to mind—they all say hey to White whenever they walk past him to the back room. That’s not very often, of course, since this 7-Eleven does a brisk Friday-night business. There’s a steady stream of customers, from haggard-looking yuppies buying milk to bicyclists in for a quart of Gatorade to adolescent doughnut-buyers from a preternaturally blond school group staying at a nearby hotel. None of them give the community police desk so much as a glance. And White doesn’t exactly give them the eagle eye in return.

“Most of the people here just come in to get their groceries,” says White. “We get some rowdy people sometimes, and I guess some criminals just don’t care. But you’d have to be pretty crazy to do something while I’m here.”

17th & R Streets NW

By 10:30, the 3rd District’s midnight shift has reported for duty, and the patrol cars have started to converge on the neighborhood substation.

For the next half-hour, no fewer than six cops (five Metropolitan Police Department [MPD], one Secret Service) check in at 7-Eleven. It’s a roll call of sorts. They pull up—in two cars, one van, and one motorcycle—double-park, and hit the flashers. Inside, under the fluorescents, they wheel behind the counter like pros. Some say hi to the two cashiers. Some don’t bother. They grab cups and then head for the beverage bar.

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Sipping at his Coke, one MPD officer says the free 7-Eleven drinks can’t compensate for the morale-destroying front-page stories. And it’s mostly Secret Service guys who hang out at 7-Elevens anyway, says the officer. “They’re not so busy,” he adds. Behind him, another MPD officer marches into the store and heads straight to the official police phone. (“The phone’s for personal use,” confirms the 7-Eleven guy.) When the cop dials, the digital 7-Eleven clock reads 10:30. By the time he hangs up, it’s 10:54.

Mount Pleasant & Kenyon Streets NW

“Would you like to see our complimentary cups?”

Abdul Hassan, manager of the 7-Eleven in the heart of Mount Pleasant, is playing the calm, gracious host tonight—even though outside his store all hell seems to be breaking loose. Ignoring the wail of yet another siren high-tailin’ it down Mount Pleasant Street, Hassan leads the way into his establishment’s supply room, leaving the register virtually unmanned.

“These are for the police, for their coffee,” the clerk says, gesturing to the ordinary sleeve of “free” paper cups as if he’s showcasing prizes on The Price Is Right. “But anything else the police have to pay for.”

Well, Hassan needn’t worry about running out of complimentary cups this Friday evening: There hasn’t been a uniform standing in or outside this 7-Eleven for almost a full hour—besides Hassan’s, that is. It seems that whatever evil is lurking down the road has kept the cops away.

“They are not around very much tonight,” Hassan says, pointing to the vacant MPD desk. “They are busy catching the bad people.” The merchant pauses, then adds enthusiastically, “But they’re usually here every minute!”

801 Maryland Ave. NE

Cashier Daud Hassan (no relation to Abdul) is sitting at the police podium filling out 7-Eleven paperwork. The store’s free coffee and papers buy Hassan police protection for eight of the 24 hours in a day, Hassan estimates. One cop will come for 15 minutes and leave, and another will follow. When the cops hang out, he says, “They read newspapers. They don’t do paperwork….The old ones, they buy [the papers]; the young ones, they don’t.”

Two Capitol Police officers arrive and make a mad dash for coffee. The officers decline to comment on their 7-Eleven routine, referring questions to a Capitol Police spokesperson. Displaying a sense of urgency rare among MPD officers, officer R.K. Kennedy quips, “I really don’t have time to talk to you, I have to get on the street.” Elapsed time for coffee stop: seven minutes.

Wisconsin Avenue, Tenleytown

MPD officer Antonio Cannon saunters in to an electric pulse of buzzing neon lights and a sharp techno beat. College kids swarm around him, stocking up for a Friday night of hard partying. Over by the refrigerated drinks, a kid reaches for a quart of OJ and then reconsiders, choosing a gallon instead. He and his boys have got a lot of vodka to drink tonight. The register rings with each new purchase of Marlboros, Newports, and Skoal. Cannon shakes his head and starts for the phone. It’s been a long night: a suspected burglary, speeding tickets, two arrests. But what really gets him is the illegal handicapped parking.

“Next time somebody parks in that handicapped spot, you better do something about it,” he barks at a girl behind the counter. Tenleytown is a prime spot for marijuana sales and teenage loitering, he says later, but one of the biggest complaints is about the kids and cabbies who park in the most sacred of spots. “I usually give two to three tickets a night,” he says. Tonight he’s feeling a bit more generous. A few verbal warnings, but no $100 citations. As he talks, a man in a sleek maroon Mazda starts for the handicapped spot. Cannon glares, and the man stops halfway, letting the car idle while his wife runs in for some cigarettes. He’s not really parked illegally, the guy suggests with a sheepish grin. Cannon looks at the man and shakes his head. He’ll let it slide.

CP

Reporting by Michael Schaffer, Amanda Ripley, Sean Daly, Julie Wakefield, and Laura Lang