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POLICE DEPARTMENT CONTINUES TO RACK UP UNFAVORABLE PRESS

In November, 1998, four very different news stories brought the Metropolitan Police Department back into the public spotlight. At one extreme, the release of FBI crime statistics for the year 1996 indicate that DC police solve an extraordinarily low percentage of the many burglaries that plague the city. With a closure rate of only 5%, DC ranks way behind its neighboring counties of Fairfax, at 28%, and Montgomery, at 24%. The overall national average closure rate is 14%, but even some big cities like Boston do twice as well. The MPD hopes that Ramsey's recent move to decentralize all detectives and special units to the seven police districts "will hold detectives and officers more accountable". NARPAC still wonders what it will do for the burglars.

At the other extreme, the presence of a distraught citizen on the Wilson Bridge--the weakest link in the region's most important north-south thoroughfare--caused Chief Ramsey to close the bridge to all traffic in both directions for five and a half hours, for fear that the man might be armed and hurt someone passing by. Overruling the more seasoned advice of the Maryland and Virginia county police authorities to keep at least a few lanes open, Ramsey staunchly supports his position not to risk the lives in any of the 50,000 or more vehicles seriously inconvenienced in the resulting monumental traffic snafu. Finally, shot by a beanbag round, the man fell safely into the river where rescuers had waited for hours to fish him out, as it turned out, unarmed. NARPAC believes that any number of creative steps could have been taken much sooner to isolate the potential threat and keep traffic moving at minimal risk. We also believe that some form of ad-hoc emergency regional traffic-response team could have fashioned a much more intelligent solution, balancing the risk between the innocent and the guilty.

(By the end of March, 1999, the Wilson bridge jumper had been jailed for domestic violence (no charges had been filed for the bridge traffic disruption), and Maryland state police had resolved a similar problem with a would-be bridge jumper in ten minutes. And in April, 1999, the Wilson Bridge jumper wrote a letter of apology to the Washington Post claiming that he had not been armed, would not have jumped, but "is now seeing things more clearly".)

In yet another setback for Chief Ramsey, the Washington Post in November unveiled a major report on the DC Police Department's unenviable record of shootings by police in the course of making arrests. Although most of these statistics precede Ramsey's arrival, he will still bear the brunt of fixing the problems. DC cops have been shooting 6.3 suspects per 10,000 violent crimes, but 2 per 1000 arrests for violent crimes, or 2.3 shootings per 1000 police officers per year. These stats are from 2x to 4x higher than for other major cities.

November also brought news that it had taken a special inquiry from Congressman Taylor of the House DC Appropriations Subcommittee to the MPD for them to spend a $15M federal grant for new equipment provided to them in 1996.

Ramsey's list of problems also grew longer in December, 1998 when it came to light that the violence among DC felons housed in a Youngstown, Ohio prison arose because the prisoners had not been properly screened and classified. Two deaths and several serious injuries have resulted. Chairman Davis of the House DC Oversight Committee has asked the GSA to investigate.

Bad news struck nearby again in January, 1999, when a new investigation demonstrated that DC's ambulance service--a "step-child of the Fire Department", remains virtually unable to do its job. Instances have come to light recently where responses to 911 calls were made in 5-10 minutes by fire engines, only to have to wait up to an hour for the ambulance to find the same address and provide the authority to move the victim(s).

In March, 1999, the Washington Post uncovered some very unfavorable statistics on the number of traffic violations that were being dismissed by the failure of the arresting officer to show up in Court. The Post quite reasonably suggested that DC needs to follow the example of both Maryland and Virginia where that duty is shifted from police officers to civilian prosecutors.

In June, results of a national survey indicated that among 12 major US cities, DC's residents continue to give their police force a lower approval rating (78%) than any of the others. And in the following month, a rash of gang shootings in and near some of DC's troubled public housing projects left several innocent bystanders dead. Cries for better policing resounded through the city, but cries for greater blight-removal were not raised.

The third quarter of 1999 brought continued indication of a police department still working on way less than its full eight cylinders. In early September, the MPD began to enforce a late evening curfew for minors on DC's streets (passed earlier by the DC Council, and subjecting violators to both searches and background checks)--and adding yet another task for DC cops. The city also installed the first two of 40 planned cameras to catch red-light runners, and issued 2100 $75 tickets in the first month. Two weeks later, MPD announced a $50 million program to update its emergency communications systems, including adding 300 hi-tech computers to 300 of its squad cars. On the other hand, in early October, it came to light that considerable funds had been stolen from police safes--apparently inside jobs.

ln late September, Police Chief Ramsey announced that he was going to increase evening patrols since that is when most of the crimes are committed. It is difficult to believe that this is a novel concept, and not customary practice. It is also difficult to believe the reaction of the members of the DC police force. In fact, the disgruntled responses were so strong that Ramsey was forced three days later to back away from his plan, as officers (and their union) claimed that they are "being punished", and "treated like public slaves". Instead, Ramsey decided that such increased assignments to the "power shift" should be left up to his precinct commanders. By the end of November, some officers had apparently been found who were willing to accept the inconvenience, but there was no indication that the Chief's original targets had been reached.

In late summer, 1999, the Metro Police Department held two days of gun buy- backs to get guns off the streets. At $100 each, the police bought back 1164 the first day, and 1058 on the second. By mid-November, however, the Washington Post had discovered that the in earlier years, the MPD had sold 9000 police weapons to the general public, and 107 of them had been used in crimes, 8 in murders. In fairness, the suburban police departments had been following a similar practice. But to make matters worse, an analysis of the gun buy-back program was completed in mid-December, taking a lot of luster off what had been considered a worthwhile program. Most of the 2900 odd guns rebought were worth at best a third of the $100 paid for them. While cheap guns can kill as surely as expensive ones, it does make the operation look more like a charity program than safety enhancement. The number of new guns flowing into DC yearly is estimated by the Post to be "in the thousands".

A few days later, the Post also disclosed that a good 30% of DC's police cars (173) had expired inspection stickers, and that the police also frequently do not pay the tickets they are issued for one reason or another. The Department of Motor Vehicles stayed open late for the next few nights to bring the squad cars up to regulation condition, and two MPD administrators were suspended without pay. At about the same time two other administrators were demoted, one for doing little about the missing funds, the second for an altercation with a federal officer.

Not to be left out of the bad news, the Fire Chief was discovered to be maintaining an apartment in DC to meet District residency requirements, but that his wife lived in a very substantial home in the suburbs. The Chief refused to say where he sleeps nights, claiming that is his private business. He accepted retirement on November 30th, and Mayor Williams announced his interim replacement on the following day, December 1, 1999. 31-year veteran Deputy Chief Tippett said that he would make fast moves to improve city safety. By mid-January, Tippett--with the mayor's approval--carried out major staff changes, reshuffling virtually all the department's top management, and had procured used fire trucks from the city of Richmond to replace non-functioning DC equipment. A threatened protest by black firefighters over having a white interim chief fizzled.

In April of 2000, Interim Chief Tippett took further actions to revamp the EMS, and proposed making some firefighters into paramedics, noting that EMS response time remains twice the national average. He also took steps to add a "fifth man" to each ladder truck--with the approval of the Mayor--even though the $4M funding for such additional personnel costs was not in the budget. As a result, the Chair of the Control Board reversed the Mayor's approval, and Tippett felt obliged to resign. By June, the Mayor had found a new fire chief (from Augusta, Georgia) for the $130,000 per year job, but it soon transpired that Ronnie Few was, along with many other Augusta officials, involved in a probe of questionable practices. By October of 2000, Few was performing as Acting Chief over a staff six times larger than that in Augusta, but was not yet approved by the DC Council.

After several months out of the limelight, the MPD again. In July it was announced that DC's closure rate on homicides was still a disappointing 31%. Less notice was given to the continuing high rate of crime in DC compared to the neighboring states. The number of both murders and serious robberies in DC was 75% as large as for the entire state of Virginia with a population well over ten times as large. The city's homicide total remained about 50% higher than for all DC's suburbs. In August, the MPD announced they were having trouble working with the DC Public School System, claiming that the schools were "trying to hide things", "cover things up", and "keep the MPD out". Mistakes in handling a recent murder case were highlighted, and then the MPD was accused of 'misplacing' 30-40 fleet cars--some of which had been auctioned off for very discounted prices. It was also uncovered that DC has a backlog of 116 samples from drivers accused of driving while intoxicated because DC remains without a toxicologist.

Also in August, the Council insisted that MPD place more of their officers on street patrol in the high-crime areas, and in early September, Ramsey complied, placing some 80 more cops on the 'power shift'. By the end of the month there was no noticeable reduction in crime, but paperwork was piling up on the desks from which the street patrolmen had come. In yet another embarrassment, the MPD decided to withdraw their officers' gas credit cards after finding considerable evidence of misuse.

In October, 2000, it was discovered that $18 million appropriated to benefit the victims of crime had remained unspent and was in danger of being lost. In December, it was reported that many of the homicide cases had been closed with little firm evidence, asserting that the killers had themselves subsequently been killed.

In the first half of 2001, other shortcomings were publicized. Many sexual abuse cases had not been followed up at all, and missing person reports appear also to have been largely ignored. A big flap arose over the extensive use of crude and racial language on the MPD's new e-mail system, eventually resulting in the censure of more than a dozen officers. There were reports of uncontrolled overtime, with 57 police officers making over $50,000 in overtime in a single year. Reports surfaced of excessive police use of force dating back to the early '90s. And then there was a public clamor when unruly school kids were taken to see what awaited them in jail, and several kids were strip searched as a demonstration. Next came complaints that impounded vehicles were being parked randomly around the city and lost because a major impoundment lot had been sacrificed to economic development. And in August, 2001 other towing abuses came to light in which towed cars were "lost" for weeks and months until the storage charges became very large. Profits from the scam were apparently shared with some police officers.

Firefighters got into the news by refusing to cut their hair for religious reasons, and embarrassing the new Fire Chief who had hoped to achieve a greater level of professional grooming. And in August it came top light that millions of dollars worth of newly provided computers had gone "missing". To top it all off, reports of unsatisfactory conditions at DC's Oak Hill youth detention facility resulted in a recommendation from an ad hoc commission to raze the facility completely and start over again. Unfortunately, there is certain to be more discouraging news ahead.

Improving Justice in DC

A New US Attorney

The highly respected Eric Holder has now been formally replaced by Wilma Lewis as the new US Attorney for DC. In an acting capacity, Lewis has overseen and increase in the size of this office to some 350 lawyers who, along with an equal number of staffers, prosecute both local and federal crimes. Lewis, a native of the US Virgin Islands, and Harvard Law School graduate has held several positions in private practice and the federal government.

In the words of the Washington Post, Lewis " is part of a new generation of leaders guiding Washington law enforcement agencies." Others include the new DC police chief and the new Inspector General, as well a new FBI supervisor, DC Corporation Council, and Medical Examiner, all with broad professional experience.

Stronger law enforcement efforts should further accentuate the significant drop in serious crimes in DC of almost 20% in 1997. In fact, according to the MWCOG's annual report released in June, 1998, DC's 1997 regional crime index has dropped below 100 to 93.8 crimes per 1000 residents (!) for the first time in years, and is now only twice that of 47.4 for the region as a whole. In the more rural counties, of course, that rate drops below 10.

Unfortunately, in April, 1999, the highly respected John Ferren announced his desire to leave the post of DC Corporation Counsel and return to the bench. Unbeknownst to most, the single largest function in the Corporation Counsel's office (200 of the 500 employees) is chasing DC's 100,000 deadbeat Dads -- of whom only 10% are apparently brought to task for their parental irresponsibilities. The Corporation Counsel also bears the responsibility for paying lawyers involved in getting DC kids admitted into welfare and special ed categories: the high costs of these fees became a source of controversy with Congress, that wished to establish maximum hourly fees.

Troubles in the DC Superior Court

Meanwhile, the DC Superior Court was showing that financial responsibility does not come easy in the District. The court essentially overran its 1998 budget of $108 million by some $5.6 million and was unable to pay hundreds of lawyers representing neglected children and impoverished defendants. To make $4 million in back payments to court-associated vendors, it proposed dipping into fees that would otherwise go to DC crime victims. Questions remain about the adequacy of the federal funds made available during the transition to federal control of court funding. Clearly, the DC has yet to fully accommodate the financial disciplines required to evidence stable local governance.

Furthermore, the GAO undertook an investigation of the financial management within the DC Superior Court system which has been accused of poor accounting practices (see above), and a lack of openness in their dealings, and in late in October, '99, Federal auditors blasted the DC Court bookkeeping system, accusing them of playing shell games, and not balancing the books in 14 months. In April of 2000, Chief Judge Hamilton retired early--to the relief of many who believed he had not been up to his job over the past seven years. Considerable lobbying was undertaken by judges anxious to replace him

More Signs of Problems in DC's Justice System

The beginning of 1999 brought other bad news for the DC justice system. The DC parole system was blamed for a 1995 murder by a criminal mistakenly released from prison, producing a 'searing indictment' from the DC Inspector General, and a blistering editorial from the Washington Post over the 'sad, sordid story of DC's dysfunctional parole system.' (It was not until July of 2000, however, that the Chief of DC's Parole Agency was ousted by Dept of Justice officials--and on the eve of the introduction of new sentencing guidelines which bring DC practices up to national standards and generally abolish parole as it has been known and used.)

Both of these embarrassments come on top of a major fiasco for the Corrections Department Only a few days earlier, it was reported that almost one third of the 1135 prisonersbeing held in half-way houses (!) prior to their trials has escaped, and that most of them still remained at large, many of them to be tried for murder. Yet another study (10/30) released in October, '99 asserts that the DC Corrections system still has serious problems in case and records management, and in the all-important prisoner classification.

In March of 2000, a judge excoriated the Corrections Dept for failing to provide proper medication to a convicted felon. The DC Jail was faulted for a failing management system which resulted in the release of the wrong inmates, bringing promises of reform in August. In September, inspections uncovered 'chronic health threats' due to malfunctioning plumbing, and the Washington Post noted that such troubles have remain uncorrected since the first lawsuit over jail conditions in 1971. On the positive side of the ledger, however, a federal judge ended the receivership of the DC Jail medical services, returning it to DC control and leaving only two receiverships.


This item was archived in April, 2004

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