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The Unlimited Promise of Community Policing Has Yet to be Fulfilled in DC, Residents Claim

Accompanying images can be viewed in the October 2016 issue pdf

By Larry Ray*

In the early 1990s, neighbors and businesses surrounding the 18th and T Streets intersection formed the 18th Street Neighborhood and Business Association. Residents were surprised that more than 100 businesses were located in this area. A vital component of this program was linking with the police. An officer attended the bi-monthly meetings and got to know the participants. Accompanied by participants, the police officer went on neighborhood walks. The officer served as a link to city agencies when there were vacant property, vandalism, drinking, drugging, homeless issues. This was effective community policing.

For the past 30 years, DC residents have dreamed of community policing. They desire for police to exit their patrol cars and walk the beat. They desire ongoing communication with the local officers for crime prevention as well as crime solving.

More than 30 InTowner readers were interviewed and they saw no evidence of community policing, whether they lived in Columbia Heights, Dupont Circle or Capitol Hill. Most have no idea as to their neighborhood patrol police.

Most barely know where their police substation is. Sporadically, residents see police walking the sidewalks, but there is little stopping and talking with either the business operators or neighbors. Police seem to be basically talking to other police.

The top echelon of the Metropolitan  Police Department (MPD), such as former Chief of Police Cathy Lanier, seem to understand the concept and promote community policing. Implementation by the officers, however, seems to be the issue. Often, when police are asked about community policing they make references to their monthly police community meetings. Those evening meetings are usually poorly attended, and mostly always by the same handful of neighbors. Neither is much is accomplished. While these kinds of meetings may be related to community policing, they are far from what is understood by the professionals as being the bedrock of community policing.

One anonymous patrol police officer put it like this: “The top police brass love the idea of community policing but they don’t have to do it. We police would rather stay safely in our cars using our computers and phones. In fact, community policing is antithetical to how we were trained as police. We were trained in apprehension, not prevention. We were trained in gun use, investigation and fast, but safe car driving.”

During an interview on Diane Rehm’s September 12, 2018 WAMU interview show, Georgetown Law Professor and former prosecutor Paul Butler gave another perspective. He asserted that he has known many police and in his view, people become police because they want to apprehend “ the bad guys.” On one hand, this sounds good, but on the other, this is contrary to community policing which is about prevention rather than apprehension.

This statement proves to be true. The Columbia Heights 11th Street Neighborhood and Business Association begged for community policing when the businesses there were working to get established. Police assignments were completely inconsistent. The group was assigned a community police officer for about six months until the officer was transferred. Then another officer was assigned until she retired five months later. One business owner simply called it, “disheartening.”

Some might confuse the concept of community policing with that of “broken windows” policing or nuisance policing that became popular in the 1990s. They are very different. The broken windows approach was celebrated by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. This approach directs patrol police to watch out for the little things that may set the stage for more serious crimes — loitering, littering, graffiti, marijuana smoking, minor vandalism, etc. Pursuant to this policy, journalist Samantha Sunne was arrested and placed on probation for having putting her feet on a New York subway car seat. This policy supposedly creates a semblance of neighborhood order which in turn lowers the crime rate. Evidence of its efficacy, however, is inconclusive.

Community policing is very different. This concept seeks to form a partnership between the community and police. Police are asked to get out of their cars, walk the beat, chat with and actually get to know a  neighborhood’s residents and businesspeople.

The U.S. Department of Justice created its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in 1994 with the key components of community partnerships and police problem solving strategies. The relationship between communities and police is complex but a 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology resulted in mostly positive outcomes from community policing. Citizen satisfaction with the police was up in 80 percent of the communities researched and crime was down by five to 10 percent.

At the same time, Mayor Muriel Bowser emphasized the value of community policing at Fortune magazine’s “2015 Most Powerful Women Summit.” Bowser has devoted $15 million of the budge to build police presence in the city’s neighborhoods. Her plan calls for body cameras, placing officers in neighborhoods during both the bad and good times and harsher penalties for violent crime. She emphasized that the trust between the police and community is fragile and needs constant vigilance.

Matthew Mahl, chairman of the MPD police union, which has 3,600 members, agrees: “Community policing does work, this is something that we have been doing and dedicating a lot of man hours on as an agency for years. I think the telltale sign of our success is the trust that a lot of the communities have with the police department and the access they have to top level officials within the agency itself. We do not see a lot of the problems that other police departments around the country are seeing right now because we have been using the community policing model for so long and have the officers entrenched in these communities. I think we can always do better, and we see that in the neighborhoods that are constantly plagued with violent crimes, but change does not happen overnight. I think there will always be room for improvement, and I think over time we will start to win some major headway into the communities that we have had a hard time breaking the ice with.”

Interim Chief of Police Peter Newsham told The InTowner that “working hand in hand with the community and the people in their neighborhoods is one of the most effective ways to ensure public safety. This requires buy-in from community leaders, as well as on-going conversations between us and the people we protect on a daily basis. It’s a mutual effort.”

Still, neighbors wonder if they will see police on their blocks, will get to know names, and will be able to communicate with their beat officers to prevent crimes. Plan elements such as harsher penalties and body cameras does not capture this idea.

Businesses surely desire community policing. Fran Levine, co-owner of Soho Tea and Coffee at 22nd and P Streets says, ?My partner Helene Bloom and I have owned and operated Soho Tea and Coffee for 21 years at the same location. I love the idea of community policing but have seen little evidence of such. It would be great for our business if we knew our patrol beat officer. We know what goes on in the neighborhood and could share that information with the police aiming for crime prevention.”

On May 26th, two community police officers walked into the Fireplace Bar at the, corner of 22nd and P Streets, NW.  They checked with the manager, Scott Paige, to ensure all was well, which is was.  The officers said hello to all of the customers, who in turn applauded the officers.  This is the way community policing should work.  One of the customers reported on this excellent policing by email to the then Chief of Police, Cathy Lanier , who replied, “Great to hear.”  Residents want more of this.

*Larry Ray, an attorney and resident of Columbia Heights, is a Senior Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University School of Law and Senior Trainer with the American Management Association. He is a former multi-term Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in both Dupont Circle and later in Columbia Heights and has also served as President of the North Columbia Heights Civic Association (NCHCA) and as a member of the DC Citizens Complaint Police Review Board. Before relocating to DC early in his career, he served in the office of the Columbus, Ohio City Prosecutor and was in charge of the intake of criminal complaints, mediation and domestic violence cases.  

Copyright © 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Larry Ray. All rights reserved.