themail.gif (3487 bytes)

June 15, 2008

The Problem with Safety

Dear Problem Solvers:

The problem with the Fenty administration is that it still doesn’t recognize that there is a problem. The administration had to cancel its “Safe Homes Initiative,” under which police officers were going to knock on doors and ask to be let in search the homes of District residents. Vehement and widespread opposition by a broad coalition of citizens, not just traditional civil liberties groups, made it too embarrassing to implement the initiative. The city council hit back hard at the administration’s “Video Interoperability for Public Safety” program, which would tie together thousands of city-run spy cameras in a single network without any guidelines or safeguards to protect citizens’ privacy. The administration’s “Neighborhood Safety Zone Initiative” has been halted, at least temporarily, by the fact that the program to blockade neighborhoods and deny citizens the right to travel on public streets is clearly unconstitutional and by the refusal of the residents of the Trinidad neighborhood to allow their constitutional rights to be sacrificed for the illusion of greater safety.

The administration thinks that if it uses “safe” or “safety” in the name of a program, that program must be good and in the interests of the citizens. It thinks that it should end any discussion or questioning of its initiatives if it claims — without any evidence or logical arguments to prove it — that the initiatives will actually increase public safety. It doesn’t value the civil liberties and civil rights of Washingtonians, and it doesn’t think we do either. It thinks that we will be glad to surrender our civil liberties if it merely tells us that we’ll be safer without them. Acting Attorney General Peter Nickles and Mayor Fenty look for loopholes in the Bill of Rights rather than honoring, guarding, and protecting citizens’ rights. Nickles taunts those who would protect our civil liberties by telling them to take the city to court for violating them, and in the “Neighborhood Safety Zone” case he bases his position on one outlier court decision in New York, rather than on controlling decisions in the local circuit and in the Supreme Court.

With regards to the “Neighborhood Safety Zone” Initiative, the administration continues to claim that the Trinidad blockade worked. But what evidence does it have that flooding the neighborhood with patrol officers and community policing efforts would have been any less effective than what it has done: cordon off the neighborhood, force citizens to show identity documents to the police and explain to the police why they want to travel on a public street, and deny entry to honest citizens? The administration continues to claim that the residents of Trinidad support the blockades, when it knows that with few exceptions they don’t. And the administration continues to claim that what it is doing is constitutional, when it knows that it doesn’t have a case that will stand up in court.

The problem with the administration is that after three initiatives in a row that pose serious civil liberties problems, it still doesn’t recognize that there is any problem with any of them. I am sure that it is even now looking for other ways, other initiatives, to push beyond the limits and violate our civil liberties and civil rights. The problem is that we have three people designing these programs — Mayor Fenty, MPD Chief Lanier, and Acting Attorney General Nickles — who believe that freedom and safety are antithetical, that restricting freedom is the best way to increase safety. They are wrong, but these three failures over the past few months have still not taught them that they are wrong. Therefore, it is up to the city council to explain to them exactly how and where they made their mistakes. Because if it does not, Fenty, Lanier, and Nickles will continue to push more initiatives and programs exactly like these, justifying them with a false appeal to “safety.”

Gary Imhoff


How Prepared Are We Really?
Dorothy Brizill,

On Friday morning, during the height of the rush hour, a power outage covering a large section of downtown Washington, from F Street to U Street, 3rd Street to 17th, left more than twelve thousand PEPCO customers without electrical power for nearly three hours. At the same time, Metro service in downtown was disrupted until midday, both by the power outage and by two fires on the Red Line rail tracks. As Saturday’s Washington Post notes (, the electrical failure cut “power to the heart of the nation’s capital, including the White House and downtown offices, . . . shut down Metro stations, threw rush hour traffic into a state of bedlam and highlighted how vulnerable the city can be.” Even the normally timid Post editorial board opined that “authorities stumbled badly as they sought to handle the challenges posed by a power outage and Metro track fires. The shortcomings give rise, yet again, to questions of what would happen in a far more serious emergency” (

Like most citizens, when I awoke on Friday I heard the initial radio and television reports about a delay on Metro’s Red Line. Soon afterwards, press reports indicated that there was a power outage in downtown DC, boundaries unknown, as well as at least two fires on Metro rail tracks. Seeking more information, I searched the Internet. WMATA’s web site provided some information. However, at no time did the District government’s web site, either the DC government home page or the web page for the DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency) post any information at all.

Mayor Fenty, rather than monitoring and managing the situation at either the Wilson Building or the HSEMA offices, and rather than holding a press conference on the situation, held a morning press conference at Smothers Elementary School in northeast to tout his summer school repair initiative and to show off the new Smart car that the city bought for his use. Like many District residents, I hope there is a post mortem evaluation of how the District government responded to Friday’s emergencies, and a clear plan for how the District will respond to a genuine terrorist attack that would cause similar, but worse, disruptions.


Just for Comparison
Ed T Barron,edtb1@macdotcom

There are three new stadiums/arenas being built in New York City. The two new baseball stadiums, one for the Yankees and one for the Mets, will open next season. The new Yankee Stadium will cost some $1.3 billion, with the city and state coughing up about two hundred million dollars. The new basketball arena for the Nets will cost about six hundred million dollars, with the city spending about eighty-five million dollars to help. The new Mets Stadium will cost about eight hundred million dollars, with the city and state helping to the tune of about two hundred million dollars. So, New York City gets three new major sports facilities for less than the taxpayers of DC spent to get one new ball park.


Comcast Bills
Laurie Collins,

Maybe I’m out of the loop and missed this one, but why on earth did the Comcast bill’s taxes, surcharges, and fees, specifically the gross receipts tax and franchise fees, more than double this month? I went from paying $19.51 to $40.50 per month.


Mendelson Solving the Gun Problem
Steve Lanning,

Harry Jaffe’s opinion piece in the Washingtonian and Matt Foreman’s subsequent post in themail [June 11] contain a number of errors and oversimplifications regarding the District’s gun laws and the efforts of council to reduce crime in the District. The council, and specifically Phil Mendelson as Chair of the Council’s Judiciary Committee, has moved a number of pieces of legislation to get tough on crime. These included the Omnibus Public Safety Bill (DC Law 16-306), which took components of seven different bills and rolled them into one comprehensive bill that, among other things: criminalized the recruitment for, membership in, and criminal activity of criminal street gangs; increased penalties for convicted felons who illegally possess a pistol; increased penalties for possession of illegal firearms ammunition; and enhanced penalties for certain crimes targeted at children or seniors because of their vulnerability. This complicated legislation was moved within a year (not years), and over that year Mendelson had three public hearings and required a very rare three readings before the Council.

If, as Mr. Forman writes, that the problem is “the city’s lack of enforcement” then why blame the council? It seems like it’s the MPD and the prosecutors who might be held accountable for not enforcing the law, not those who makes the laws to enforce. Many of these crimes are prosecuted by the US Attorney’s Office — the District has no control over that. As far as removing the law to prove operability of a gun, Councilmember Mendelson has actually introduced legislation to do just that. I believe a hearing was scheduled and canceled at the request of the mayor and the US Attorney because of the impending Heller decision.

Councilmember Mendelson moved on B16-895, “Rebuttable Presumption to Detain Robbery and Handgun Violation Suspects Amendment Act of 2007,” which strengthened pretrial detention of adults and certain juveniles when their alleged offenses involved robberies and guns. The councilmember also recommended funding additional police officers in his FY 2007 committee budget report; the council put in an more than two hundred additional officers. People are entitled to their perception and opinion, but the facts in this case are pretty clear.


The Next Step
Peter Orvetti,

“To protect the health and safety of young people and our communities,” (,a,1237,Q,547375,mpdcNav_GID,1549,mpdcNav,%7C,.asp), the District of Columbia government prohibits certain citizens from leaving their homes at certain times of the day. Now, the District government prohibits citizens from using public roads to travel into or through certain sections of the city. Neither of these measures has any real impact on public safety — especially in a city where law-abiding residents are forbidden from arming themselves to defend themselves, their families, and their homes against criminals.

The next logical step for those in government who want to protect citizens by restricting their movement is simply to impose a twenty-four-hour curfew on all residents. This will not prevent Chief Lanier from doing her job, since she doesn’t live here anyway.


Working Together and Handguns
Gregory Mize,

Speaking about working together and about handguns, you may have missed this piece published on June 1, [This link is to Judge Mize’s “Close to Home” article, “A Blooming Arms Race in DC.”


Don’t Make Me Come Over There
Star Lawrence,

When I read about those neighborhood checkpoints, I was shocked. I used to live behind “police lines” that were set up during the demos of the early 1970s on the mall. We had to show ID to get home. This is not a pleasant memory, to say the least. Are you guys willing to give up your freedoms or is what left of them for some illusion of safety? Say the cops are sitting right there at their little checkpoint and someone sticks you up — are they even allowed to help you? The police can tell you to detour around an accident or something, but they can’t check and see if you are entitled to get to your house. And don’t bring out the argument that if you aren’t doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear. That way, you are giving away my rights as a citizen when I don’t want them given away. I left DC a dozen years ago. We have intrusive cops in Arizona, too. Don’t make me stop this car and come back there! Cops need warrants and they can’t tell you where you can go.


Police Working Together
Ron Linton,

The suggestions to coworkers for improved policing in Working Together [themail, June 11] are certainly valid and would be helpful, but they are nibbling at the edge. The crime problem in Washington is not new to our city or to this generation. It is historical where you have social and economic conditions that breed defiance born from hopelessness and fed by easy money. Yes, police have a responsibility for prevention and apprehension but under the current social and economic conditions, without massive intervention by non-police government agencies and non-government organizations, especially from the religious and cultural sector of the community, it is a slippery slope. Having said that, lets look at some things that can be done.

One of those most effective policing mechanisms is response time. The faster police reach a crime scene the more likely it is that an apprehension can be made. But there are three elements that come into play here. First, citizens calling 911 have to know what to say but too often from excitement give wrong addresses or bad information. Police need to interact with the community with workshops and meetings to teach people how to communicate in an emergency. It could be the difference between life and death. Second, several decades ago police managers decided that too many accidents were occurring when police responded using lights and sirens. So, instead of improving driver training, they ordered a cutback in the use of lights and sirens, thus slowing response time. Third, patrol units need to have a plan on how they are going to respond to a variety of emergencies, just as they need a plan for patrolling.

Equally as important is recognizing that experience and maturity are the most important elements of police effectiveness. The MPD needs to provide incentives and rewards to keep top investigators in their assignments for their entire career. This will improve case closure and evidence preparation that allow prosecutors to win cases. (But then what? Incarceration is but a limited answer to crime reduction.) The same is true for street officers. They reach the height of their proficiency after twenty years and retire. There should be incentives to induce them to remain with the department another ten years. And to really achieve community policing there should be incentives and rewards to induce officers to move in and live in the neighborhoods they are policing, not for two years or three but for a career. Police officers need to become a part of their community and know their people, know their problems, hopes, and aspirations. Police are not social workers and can’t be. But that doesn’t mean that their education can’t include learning how to read the demographics of their community and understand the social psychology of the people living there.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix for stemming crime or improving a department. But the sooner we start raising the average of officers on the force, getting them to be residents in their neighborhoods and keep them at the jobs they are good at, the sooner we may see some change. That is, if the rest of the government and society does its job.


Let’s Put Checkpoint Fenty Where It Belongs!
Peter Tucker,

In my apartment there’s a big window overlooking Georgia Avenue. When I come home late, I enjoy looking out it, blinds up, lights out, watching the-normally-chaotic Georgia Ave in the calm and quiet. Thursday, June 12, I arrived home a little before 1:00 a.m., and at the very moment I looked out, I saw a cop car roll out of a parking lot onto Georgia. It seemed like perfect timing, and I continued to watch the cop car and the calm. All of the sudden it wasn’t calm any longer, as the cop car was shining its strong spotlight directly on me, three stories up and a half-block off the street. I froze and thought, “Maybe they think I’m a robber.” Finally unfrozen, I turned on a light, the blinds still up, and hoped the cop would realize I was just a person acting normally (or trying to) in his own apartment. But the spotlight remained. I couldn’t take it any longer and went to the bedroom, and when I returned to the window the spotlight was off and the cop car was heading south on Georgia Ave.

The spotlight was on me for no more than two minutes. It took only one more minute after the event before I questioned whether this was a message from the MPD. This event took place just two days after I was the guest-host for Spirit in Action (for Faye Williams of Sisterspace and Books, who continues to recover from a stroke) on WPFW 89.3FM. The second-half of the hour-long show was a heated debate over the police checkpoints in the Trinidad community. The guests included Johnny Barnes of the ACLU, Gary Imhoff of, and Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas (whose ward includes Trinidad). (You can listen to the show at

I’m a believer in the power of independent media, but sometimes I wonder how much of a difference it really makes. Judging by the police tactics, it makes quite a difference. We spent a mere half-hour openly and honestly discussing the pros and cons of the police actions. The result has been the police finding out where I live, having a cop car wait for me to get home, and then lighting up my world. (It may also be worth noting that WPFW consistently and courageously covered the police checkpoints and then went off the air for several days beginning Wednesday, June 11).

The MPD used a strong spotlight to shine into my apartment, and now the spotlight needs to be turned on them. Without this spotlight there will continue to be no accountability. No one has been held accountable for the killing of DeOnte Rawlings (a fourteen-year-old boy shot in the back of the head when two off-duty police officers went joy riding to find a stolen mini-bike). No one has been held accountable for the police going after City Paper reporter Jason Cherkis (a cop posted the following on the Internet about the reporter, “target the individual for law enforcement”). No one has been held accountable for other offenses such as (from the Washington Post): “lying about when they were on the clock, falsifying documents, and looking the other way when another off-duty officer got into fistfights.” This is but a small sampling of the police crimes that have resulted in the loss of not a single career, nor even the loss of a single paycheck. Instead we see the MPD rewarded with five hundred assault rifles straight from Iraq to better “protect (what?) and serve (whom?).”

And now we have the recently (and only temporarily, it seems) halted Checkpoint Fenty, where the police stop and harass citizens without a “legitimate reason” for being in Trinidad (and, before long, other neighborhoods-soon-to-be-gentrified). Under the “legitimate reason” criteria can we expect the police to arrest themselves at the next checkpoint (what a welcomed development this would be), or the Police Chief (who doesn’t even live in the District, as her job requires), or the mayor (who has stolen hundreds of millions of valuable taxpayer dollars to build a lavish stadium — with another one on the way — while starving public schools, libraries, hospitals, the water system and everything else that would benefit the people he’s getting rid of).

If the police are serious about rounding up murderers, how about setting up a checkpoint in front of 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue? This is where the mayor and the city council do their (not our) thing. And the policies they put in place are responsible for the destruction of lives all over this city. If the police won’t set up a checkpoint at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave, we the people should do it. Does Monday, June 23, at 9:00 a.m., work for folks? This is the same morning the incredible grassroots group Empower DC will have a hearing on legislation that would make it oh-so-difficult for the mayor and city council to give away our public property to their elite backers. June 23, let’s put Checkpoint Fenty where it belongs.



The Alternative Housing Pilot Program, June 19
Jazmine Zick,

Thursday, June 19, 6:30-8:00 p.m., Community in The Aftermath: The Alternative Housing Pilot Program: a Framework for Future Disaster Recovery. The Alternative Housing Pilot Program (AHPP), funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is a grant competition to develop more useful, readily available, and culturally appropriate post-disaster housing for Hurricane Katrina-ravaged areas. The inaugural program of this new, three-year lecture series explores the AHPP’s critical issues and objectives. Free. Registration required. At the National Building Museum, 401 F Street, NW, Judiciary Square stop, Metro Red Line. Register for events at


Quilting Circle at the Historical Society, June 21
Ed Bruske,

Saturday, June 21, 1-3:30 p.m. Family series. Quilting Circle at the Historical Society of Washington, DC, 801 K Street, NW. Bring the entire family and learn to quilt. Beginners and returning quilters welcome. Washington’s Daughters of Dorcas (quilting guild) will teach participants the history and art of quilting. Each participant will learn basic quilting techniques and receive a startup quilting kit to take home. Participants will also learn how to start a quilting circle. (Ages 8 to adults) Limit thirty. or 383-1828. Registration is required: 383-1828.


themail@dcwatch is an E-mail discussion forum that is published every Wednesday and Sunday. To change the E-mail address for your subscription to themail, use the Update Profile/Email address link below in the E-mail edition. To unsubscribe, use the Safe Unsubscribe link in the E-mail edition. An archive of all past issues is available at


Send mail with questions or comments to
Web site copyright ©DCWatch (ISSN 1546-4296)