D.C. swarms with cops. The District may host a notorious crime rate, but it is also the most excessively policed jurisdiction in the country. Or at least the most excessively police-departmented: According to the D.C. government’s statistical almanac, no fewer than 24 different law enforcement agencies eat their doughnuts in Washington. Forces on the beat range from the mightythe FBIto the cuddlythe Zoo Police. And this being Washington, class divisions are always in play: The Capitol Police have all sorts of crack specialty teams
and keen gadgets while the Metropolitan
Police Department (MPD) makes due with a tin cup and a fleet of junkers. Depending on who’s doing the counting, more than 7,000 copsone for every 79 citizenscan flag you down for
“Washington probably has more law enforcement agencies than the [entire] West Coast,” points out Mike Gills of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. And beyond the raw numbers, the overlap in jurisdictions and responsibilities creates a situation where a set of cherries in the rearview could mean that you bunny-hopped that last stop sign or are under suspicion of plotting to assassinate the Bulgarian ambassador. So who’s who? And more importantly, what exactly can they do to you if you find yourself outside the bounds of the law?
To start with, most of the agencies don’t wear uniforms. The U.S. Marshal’s Service has neato windbreakers that its officers put on as needed, but by and large, D.C.’s badge-wearers go incognito. Some of the ones who are in uniform might never even leave a tiny fiefdom. But if you think this means go ahead with that illegal left turn if the cop has an obscure acronym on the side of his car, think again. Many of the uniformed police forces in D.C. are empowered to enforce the laws of the city. And a number of themPark, Capitol, and Secret Service Uniformeddo so zealously. As the District has slid deeper into anarchy over the past few years, various federal and local agencies have stepped into the breach.
The territorial mishmash can be confusing. Take the White House as an example. The property is technically a National Park, but due to the necessity of protecting the president, the Secret Service patrols everything from the fence on in. Meanwhile, the Park Service has responsibility for the sidewalk. Ten yards further back, Pennsylvania Avenuelack of traffic notwithstandingis city property and technically under MPD. Cross the street and you’re in Lafayette Park, the province, yet again, of the Park Service.
All three forces will bust you for breaking the law, but sometimes the technicalities can get downright surreal. When Washington City Paper’s photographer was setting up a tripod to photograph a Secret Service Uniformed Division officer in front of the White House, the shoot was stymied by the Park Police. The Park Police demanded he go through their bureaucracy, despite having a Secret Service press guy to vouch for him. The photographer ended up resolving the jurisdictional quandary by backing up five steps into the street, where no MPD officer was there to stop him.
So in front of whom do you flout the law? Our advice: Don’t bother. With a crisscross of jurisdictions and more cops per square block than almost anywhere in the universe, getting away with it in D.C. is harder than you might guess. But if you do chose to throw caution to the wind and jaywalk Constitution Avenue, the following field guide to 10 of D.C.’s myriad uniformed police forces might help you out.
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.