Summit Focuses on Youths

Hill Residents Want to Give Area’s Young More Services

Posted February 5, 2007 at 3:53pm

More than 100 government agencies, resident activists and 1st district police officers crowded into a church in Northeast Washington, D.C., on Saturday for a five-hour powwow on how to cut crime on Capitol Hill. The 1st District Crime Summit beget dozens of ideas and solutions, but participants repeatedly returned to one topic: children.

Many agreed that Capitol Hill needs more facilities and social services for its troubled youths. Selling drugs, gang violence, petty theft — all begin with bored teens without alternative activities, they said.

“There’s no place for them to go,” one officer told a group of 50 considering the neighborhood’s drug problem. “There’s no place to go for role models, so they make role models out of each other.”

In a surprise visit halfway through the summit, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) praised the group for its ideas. He also has made children the focus of his first 100 days in power; his biggest push is to put the power over the District’s public schools directly under his office. But while participants discussed after-school programs and social services, Fenty said he thinks engaging children begins at school.

“That’s why we’re focusing so aggressively on schools,” he said. “If we can get kids to focus” on their careers and ambitions, they will stay out of trouble.

The focus on children isn’t surprising: Many residents regularly gripe about teenagers sneaking into their backyards, doings drugs in local alleys and hanging out suspiciously on street corners. Just last week, a 17-year-old led police on a car chase throughout a Northeast neighborhood, hitting a bicyclist on the way and finally surrendering after barricading himself in a couple’s town house.

But usually the solution discussed is punishment. Police remind residents to be their eyes and ears, and citizen activists share information on how to get enough evidence for suspects to be sufficiently disciplined.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Stephanie Nixon planned the crime summit to be different. It involved the usual roster of citizens and officials: advisory neighborhood commissioners, police service area coordinators and City Councilmembers Tommy Wells and Phil Mendelson all participated. But also in attendance were more than a dozen government agencies, including the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration and District of Columbia Housing Authority. And a handful of students from nearby Eastern High School volunteered to tell their side of the story.

Altogether, the group was tasked with finding long-term solutions beyond police punishment — a fact stressed by 1st District Police Commander Diane Groomes, who told the group that police officers provided only a temporary fix.

“I’m not going to lie to you,” she said. “We are a Band-Aid … Who’s the surgeon?”

So in small rooms amid the wooden altars, religious paintings and inspirational posters of Mount Moriah Baptist Church, uniformed cops and casually dressed residents sat in close circles and set about finding those solutions. Each one-hour session focused on one of four issues: narcotics, property crimes, quality of life and youth involvement in crime. The ideas varied widely — one group suggested requiring liquor stores to replace paper bags with transparent ones, while another recommended creating a watchdog group to oversee local judges.

And while many were accustomed to their monthly police service area meetings, where a few residents give specifics on that month’s crimes and generally talk for as long as they wish, moderators kept the summit’s pace swift, forcing each group to come up with three problems and three workable solutions.

Organization and funding made the top of every group’s list, along with concerns over what to do about the neighborhood youths. While many participants came up with ideas, others would question whether that after-school program or task force already existed. Those in the narcotics group suggested consolidating all local nonprofits into one directory, making it easier to find the right program and giving the organizations an opportunity to work together.

Flanked by a close circle of residents in the quality of life session, Fenty was grilled on neighborhood issues from traffic calming to noise complaints. Always with a smile, he stressed the need for the group to criticize the city’s government and tell him what needed to be fixed.

“That’s the reason we’re here, so you can hold our feet to the fire,” he said. “We know there [are] a lot of things that need to be done.”

And participants did just that, Groomes and Nixon said. Residents were able to ask government agencies for information, and agencies heard about how the community viewed their job. Groomes said the summit will be held at least once a year — if not more often. Solutions will come slowly but steadily, she said. First on the list: a youth summit.

“Let’s see if we can make sure these kids are our future and not have any more victims,” Nixon said.