The crowd outside Covenant Baptist Church in Congress Heights last night seemed none too friendly toward Councilmember Phil Mendelson, organizer of the evening’s community meeting on public safety.

Clark Ray, who is challenging Mendelson for his at-large council seat, and his campaign team greeted all of the meeting’s attendees with a targeted flier: “Another election year meeting in Ward 8. We Deserve Better: Communities need to be involved every day to solve the issue of crime, not just during an election.”

The crowd inside was scarcely more welcoming toward Mendelson, who chairs the Council’s committee on public safety and the judiciary, or the other panel members he brought with him, including representatives from the Office of the D.C. Attorney General, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the Office of the U.S. Attorney General for D.C., and the D.C. Superior Court. 

Gathered just a block away from site of the March 30 shooting that left four dead, the group of roughly 70 victims’ relatives, concerned community members, and anti-violence activists voiced tremendous frustration with how they’ve seen the D.C. government deal with violent crime.

Patricia Jefferies, the grandmother of 16-year-old shooting victim Brishell Jones, asked why Attorney General Peter Nickles had the time to look into Councilmember and mayoral hopeful Vincent Gray’s controversial fence but was too busy to meet with family members of those killed on March 30. Another Congress Heights resident wanted to know why another murder she witnessed firsthand was still an open case.

Naturally, the most vocal audience member was Peaceoholics co-founder Ronald Moten, who railed against Mendelson’s harsh policies regarding PCP and his lenient stance on curfews. But what he seemed most peeved about was Councilmember Gray and Harry Thomas Jr. doling out money for anti-violence initiatives in what he described as an unethical manner.

When Moten called for him to launch an investigation into the nonprofit allocations, Mendelson attempted to diffuse the issue by telling him the U.S. Attorney’s Office would be in charge of investigating such claims. That prompted Moten to remind him the Council had no problem investigating the Dominican firetruck donation on its own.

“When are you going to stop these dog and pony show hearings?” Moten asked. “All y’all doing is playing political games. And because we speak out about it, we get punished.”

Much of the meeting focused on how the D.C. government treats youth offenders. There was one agency conspicuously absent from the panel: the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS). Mendelson was quick to announce that representatives from DYRS were slated to attend, but sent an “interesting” email that afternoon that “suggested they were told not to come,” he said.

Despite being stood up by DYRS, the group discussed youth issues at length, particularly the problem of truancy and how it contributes to high levels of violent crime.  According to Second Seventh District Commander Joel Maupin, MPD picked up 7,000 truants last year, including over 1,000 in Ward 8.

“If the kids aren’t in school, they’re not going to get employment,” said Lee Satterfield, the chief judge of the D.C. Superior Court. “It’s not rocket science in terms of where you need to start.”

When Mendelson asked why youngsters who went on to be involved in shootings were let out of juvenile supervision, however, he found the heat turned back on himself and his Council colleagues. Because of the District’s strict juvenile confidentiality laws, Deputy D.C. Attorney General for Public Safety Robert Hildum said government officials cannot share that kind of information with the public.

“In my experience, [the confidentially laws] don’t protect the child as much as the agencies in charge of that child,” Hildum said. “It’s within the Council’s power to change that.”

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