Credit: (Illustration by Greg Houston)

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In the late morning of March 15, Haregewine Messert was perched behind the counter of Chez Hareg, the pastry shop she’d opened at 1915 9th St. NW just two weeks before. Peering over a case of ginger cookies and croissants, she watched a team of D.C. officials fan out along the block. There were about a dozen of them, she estimates; a couple of police officers, a fire inspector, and other D.C. regulators. They climbed the stairs to Expo Restaurant and Nightclub and walked into La Carbonara, an Italian restaurant next door. Then, at Ras Dashen Ethiopian Cuisine, owner Kifle Ayele blocked the regulators from entering. “I see him fighting with them and [saying] ‘You’re not coming into my restaurant during lunchtime,’ ” Messert remembers. “I thought they did something wrong. I did not think it was an inspection.”

What Messert witnessed that day was more than a routine inspection. It was Operation Fight Back, a multi-agency sweep designed to ensure that District neighborhoods are code-compliant and crime-free. Mayor Anthony Williams introduced Fight Backs in 2003. Now, they take place every month in police districts across the city. The goal is to “help people feel that the city is on your side,” says Carlson Klapthor, who during the Williams administration was a neighborhood services coordinator and leader of Ward 2’s “Core Team,” what the city calls its groups of regulators drawn from multiple agencies who meet weekly and work with cops on the sweeps.

Many 9th Street business owners, however, were disturbed by the scale and suddenness of the March 15 sweep. Amanuel Abraham, whose father, Abraham Tekle, owns Expo Restaurant and Nightclub, says, “We felt like we were being bullied. We felt like they were looking for a reason to shut us down.” He worries that the 9th Street businesses, which are primarily owned by Ethiopians, were “targeted because we’re foreigners, we’re weak.” Messert, who worked at the Ritz Carlton before opening her pastry shop, says she can’t imagine regulators swarming the kitchens at her old job. “I’ve had 12 years in the restaurant business,” she says, “and I’ve never, never seen that kind of inspection.”

Typically, MPD, in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Community Relations and Services (OCRS), decides where Fight Backs take place by looking at a combination of social and environmental factors, says 2nd Police District Commander Andrew Solberg. If there are a lot of people “drinking beer out of paper bags” in a given area, Solberg says, MPD might suggest having a Fight Back to deal with problems. “Maybe the streetlights are out,” he says, so a Fight Back could be as simple as fixing those lights. Or a Fight Back could be much broader, with regulators inspecting all the businesses in a given block or two for compliance with health codes, fire codes, occupancy, alcohol licenses, business licenses, and trash disposal. Fight Backs are designed “to prevent loss of life, injury, or illness” and to make sure businesses “are clean and safe,” says Merrit Drucker, director of OCRS under Adrian Fenty. Drucker served as Ward 4 neighborhood services coordinator during the Williams administration.

But whatever Fight Backs aim to do, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham doesn’t like the way they’re operating now. A few weeks ago, OCRS planned to initiate after-hours Fight Backs at Ward 1 businesses that are open late at night—establishments like restaurants, bars, and clubs. The first after-hours Fight Back was planned for March 9, but when Graham got wind of it, he was concerned enough to contact Attorney General Linda Singer and inquire about the justification for the sweep. Singer told him to take the issue up with Drucker and OCRS, which is what Graham’s staff did.

Ultimately, Drucker decided to postpone the late-night Fight Backs. “I want to do more research,” Drucker says. “I want a little bit more time to plan them and organize them.”

Daytime Fight Backs, however, continued, and on March 20, the day before a Fight Back was scheduled in Mount Pleasant, Graham circulated an e-mail distancing himself from the sweep. “I have disassociated myself from these enforcement driven dragnets on Ward One businesses,” he wrote. Noting a procedural shift under the new neighborhood services director, he said, “the Fight Backs, as they are being carried out under the new leadership of the Office of Neighborhood Services, represent a radical departure from past Ward One Core Team efforts to educate and work with businesses to come into compliance with regulations.”

Graham wrote he had expressed his concerns to Drucker and Core Team members but had not received a response he considered adequate. “In those meetings, I have stated clearly that it is imperative regularly scheduled D.C. Fire Inspections are held. However, I have yet to see a plan or criteria explaining the rationale for interrupting the business day of Ward 1 businesses to do the type of random and exhaustive inspections that the ‘Fight Backs’ are now implementing.”

In an interview, Graham says that the recent Fight Backs seem to favor a “blanket” approach. In the past, he says, Fight Backs focused on empty alleys and nuisance properties. Now, he says, they’re targeting “marginal, struggling” businesses without sufficient justification. “My position is where there is a need for concern or a suggestion that there should be concern…we should have [regulatory enforcement]. This is something different.”

It’s not that citations weren’t written for regulatory infractions during the Williams administration, Klapthor says. “It was just not a priority, unless it was an issue of safety.” The early Fight Backs emphasized helping businesses come into compliance, he says, and he discouraged inspectors from entering establishments “all at once.” If a business was in violation of code, he says, it was typical for inspectors to give owners a period of time to come into compliance.

Drucker says his office works hard to be “very, very careful about equity, fairness, the fact that we’re not targeting anyone specifically,” and that his staff is sensitive to business owners’ needs. “The objective of all this is not to harass, punish, slow down, or humiliate businesses or to detract from their profits.” After all, he says, “It’s a pretty serious thing. We want to be minimally intrusive.”

Carrie Brooks, Fenty’s spokesperson, says the mayor has made some structural changes to OCRS. For instance, neighborhood service coordinators, who help manage the Fight Backs, now maintain offices at the Wilson Building instead of out in the communities, and the mayor’s office has also kick-started “Fix-Its,” multi-agency efforts that are similar to Fight Backs but tend to focus more on quality of life issues like rat abatement and sign enforcement.

As for Operation Fight Back, Brooks says she has not heard criticisms but that allegations of discrimination are misguided. “I can tell you for sure that the mayor does not have the intention of any sort of discriminatory practices at the core of this effort.…If there has been some overly zealous activity, I think it has been because people are excited to go out and do a good job.” She says any kinks in the system will probably resolve themselves eventually. “No matter who the incoming administration is, there’s going to be some shifting…and I think all of that balances itself out over time.”

It turns out that shifting also involves some major personnel changes. On Wednesday, Brooks confirmed Drucker had resigned.

Asked whether his resignation—effective Friday—was connected to his aggressive record on regulatory enforcement, Drucker responded, “Yes.” (More on Drucker’s resignation at City Desk.)

Additional reporting by James Jones

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