Policing Plan Ignites Crime Debate

Posted November 14, 2003 at 6:47pm

This article is one in an occasional series looking at issues facing Capitol Hill residents.

In the months since the Metropolitan Police Department announced it would overhaul its community policing program, an active debate has engulfed Capitol Hill residents over crime and the safety needs of their neighborhood.

As MPD moves ahead with a plan to consolidate its 83 Police Service Areas, the smallest divisions used by the law enforcement agency to patrol the District, residents have sought to gain assurances from MPD to maintain police presence in their neighborhoods while also continuing to be active in community programs they see as necessary to combat crime.

“We want more police, we want more patrols, we want to see murders go down,” said Joseph Fengler, a Capitol Hill resident and chairman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A. “One thing we can influence are our PSAs.”

Those concerns, which had existed long before the MPD unveiled its plans in May but erupted as residents push for a community policing plan they feel comfortable with, are often sparked by personal experiences. Many residents have first- or second-hand experience with crimes like muggings or burglaries — so-called “crimes of opportunity” — even in this neighborhood which is protected not only by MPD, but a number of federal police agencies, such as the Capitol Police Department and U.S. Park Police.

Still, in recent discussions about the safety of their neighborhood — located in an area of the city experiencing a 12 percent drop in crimes so far this year — many Hill residents acknowledged concern about crime but did not express fear for their safety.

Instead, residents, like Roger Mattioli, a 20-year Hill resident, explain it this way: “People feel safe, but you have to be aware that there’s still bad guys out there.”

‘Broken Windows’

While it is the significant crimes, ranging from auto theft to homicide — MPD statistics reports 12 murders in the First District through Oct. 31 — that tend to receive more attention, it is not unusual for residents in the Police Service Areas surrounding the Capitol to focus on “quality of life” issues, such as public urination, excessive alcohol consumption and aggressive panhandling.

“What we find is more people are concerned with the issues that affect them every single day,” said Metropolitan Police Inspector Keith Williams, who is assigned to the First District.

In fact, some law enforcement officials and residents believe that deterring smaller crimes can reduce crime rates overall. Mattioli, who serves as citizen coordinator of PSA 106, located north of the Capitol grounds, explained: “There are crimes in this PSA that are larger issues than qualify-of-life issues, although there are some that believe that when you clean up the quality-of-life issues that the crime statistics go downward as well.”

Others, like Mattioli himself, believe the focus should not narrow on such incidents.

“One may follow the other, but to me, I certainly like to combat both of them if possible,” Mattioli said. “I’m more concerned about those violent crimes or crimes of break-ins to cars or break-ins to homes than addressing the quality-of-life issues. My priority is more with the violent crimes.”

Still, residents seek to combat minor crimes through programs such as the “Orange Hats,” weekly neighborhood walks organized by PSAs to identify burned-out lights, needed tree trimming and other necessary maintenance. There is also the Capitol Hill Business Improvement District’s STARS program, whose “security ambassadors” monitor an 81-block area on foot or bicycle, while also serving as information guides.

Skip Coburn, who chairs the First District Citizens Advisory Council, said such programs help to circumvent what he refers to as the “broken-windows syndrome.”

“If you live on a block where people think they can sleep on the steps … if they can get by with all these little gray area crimes and nothing happens … that’s a broken-windows block,” Coburn explained. “The broken-windows syndrome makes criminals feel comfortable on that block.”

Despite community efforts, Coburn notes, prosecuting less violent criminal acts, from public urination to drug sales, can prove difficult.

“I see citizens much more concerned with a lot of these quality-of-life crimes, because there doesn’t seem to be an effective way to make a huge dent in fighting them,” he added.

Resolving quality-of-life issues can also requires significant commitment from residents. For example, PSA 106 is seeking to improve the area around Ludlow-Taylor Recreation Center, sometimes the site of public alcohol consumption as well as the alleged sales of illegal drugs.

“If the people that are immediately involved in the neighborhood are not concerned enough to volunteer to do a little something — we’re not asking anybody to do a lot, but if everybody takes one little item, makes a few phone calls or writes one letter or talks to one person — if the people are willing to do that, and show that they’re very concerned about it with that kind of participation we could do something about it, but if we don’t have that participation then it’s not going to work,” Mattioli said.

Prevention and Awareness

Since Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey declared a citywide “crime emergency” in mid-August, law enforcement officials in the First District — an area centered on the Capitol which extends north to Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street and south to the Anacostia River — have focused on reductions in three problem areas: robberies, thefts from automobiles and thefts of automobiles.

In a recent letter to area residents, MPD First District Commander Thomas McGuire labeled the program, formally known as the First District Crime Initiative Plan, a “tremendous success,” noting an average drop of approximately four crimes per day.

Despite the program’s apparent success, though, one MPD official acknowledges these problem areas — notably auto theft — will require continued attention.

According to statistics provided by the Metropolitan Police, auto theft is up 10 percent for the first 10 months of the year, compared to the same period in 2002; through Oct. 31, 879 vehicles were reported stolen, an increase from 795 through Oct. 31, 2002.

“It’s not for profit,” noted Williams, the police inspector. Many of the vehicles which are stolen are being used by the suspects, Williams said, and not necessarily sold for parts: “These are standard cars.”

Among the difficulties faced by law enforcement officials in curbing theft is that many of the vehicles are being stolen by juvenile offenders.

“Typically they’re much more mobile and willing to take chances than more seasoned adult criminals,” Williams explained.

Initial statistics from the crime initiative plan, however, show a 19 percent drop in the first two-month period of the plan: 166 vehicles were reported stolen between Aug. 28 and Nov. 2, a decrease from the 206 between June 22 and Aug. 27.

Similarly, MPD’s increased focus on reducing theft from automobiles saw success during the same time period, dropping nearly 21 percent, from 313 reports by late August to 248 in early November. During the first 10 months of 2003, auto theft was down almost 37 percent, to 1,214 reports, from the same period in 2002, with 1,920 incidents.

“We’re really trying hard to combat [auto theft] from the standpoint of prevention and community awareness,” Williams said.

Although the crime emergency period expires Dec. 1, Williams noted, the First District’s crime initiative program will be extended: “Crime never stops,” he said.

‘Crimes of Opportunity’

While Capitol Hill residents purport safety in their neighborhoods — “I think the Capitol Hill citizens recognize that they’re in one of the better kept-up, lower crime rate areas of the First District,” Coburn notes — robberies and break-ins are still a conscious concern for many.

In PSA 108, due east of the Capitol and home to Members and Congressional staff, crime seems to be equally split between a combination of robberies and home break-ins and auto-related crimes, according to Bill Eaton, editor of the PSA’s e-mail newsletter.

But, he notes, auto-related crime, “while a concern, is less pressing” because victims are less often directly involved.

Much of the concern about muggings or robberies is related to the safety of residents using public transportation to get to or from work, said Fengler, the ANC 6A chairman.

Echoing those sentiments, Mattioli noted: “There’s a path going from Union Station out into the Capitol neighborhoods here, and people traditionally follow those paths … and occasionally there are muggings.

“It’s a place that people go to and come from, and the bad guys know that,” he adds.

MPD statistics show robberies down about 8 percent for the current year, a drop from 612 crimes through October 2002 to 561 so far in 2003.

In part, MPD must learn to balance keeping officers in neighborhoods with higher rates of robberies, without creating security gaps in other areas, Williams explained.

“The hardest part of it is trying to break the patterns before they become full-fledged serial crimes,” Williams said. Through the crime initiative plan, MPD focused on “flooding” certain areas with officers at different times of day, forcing would-be criminals to alter their routines. “Now they’re out of their realm of the way they like to act. … Once they get something that works for them crime-wise, they try to stick with that.”

MPD also seeks to circumvent such “opportunistic” crime, Williams said, through the use of bicycle police and plain-clothes officers, the latter of whom not only observe suspects but sometimes follow residents to ensure their safety.

During a series of meetings with First District residents this year, MPD officials have stressed that the revised PSA system would have a similar effect by providing greater flexibility in scheduling officers.

Some residents, however, have questioned whether the plan would actually diminish community involvement in neighborhood policing. “It doesn’t seem like a great idea, from our PSA standpoint,” said Eaton, who noted that PSA 108 has one of the lowest crime rates within the First District. “It would take ‘our’ police to areas where there are higher crimes.”

Based on suggestions from Hill residents, MPD has significantly revised its plan for the First District service areas, recently unveiling modifications that include a realignment of the seven PSAs along a north-south orientation and alterations to some boundary lines.

The changes, however, have raised new questions from residents, as the boundary changes affected portions of commercial areas.

Concerned about the H Street Northeast corridor, on the Hill’s northern end, Fengler noted residents want to see safety — including crimes of opportunity — addressed in the area.

“When I walk around my neighborhood, everyone mentions that it’s crazy that the murder rate is going up. But what influences people most, is when they hear their neighbor was mugged and when their neighbor is robbed,” said Fengler, a federal employee. “Most people are being touched by these crimes of opportunity. … Those are the things I think by far the average citizen who commutes by foot and by car experiences.”