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MPD’s New Chief Shows Enlightened Leadership

Much has changed for the better in DC from the days of the “Chardonnay Lady” in the waning years of the last century. More about her later, other than to say at the start, it was all about police performing their duties getting out of control.

Unfortunately, instances of this nature persist even 17 years into the now (not so) new century. That’s the discouraging news, though happily offset by some that is encouraging — at least based on recent reporting by the Washington Post. In its news story headlined, “D.C. police chief: Officer was wrong to arrest,”  we learned that “. . . Chief Peter Newsham . . . told a woman that it was wrong for an officer to arrest her after her neighbors in [the upper Northwest neighborhood of] Chevy Chase complained that music from a party was too loud, . . . ‘It was inconsistent with his vision of community policing, and we probably could have handled the situation differently,’ said Dustin Sternbeck, the department’s spokesman.

What the officer ought to have done was simply to issue her a citation requiring a later court appearance for violating DC’s noise law if she had failed to take steps to comply with the officer’s order to lower the decibel level of the noise emanating from her home.

While the facts of exactly who was retelling the sequence of actions following the officer’s initial intervention seem to be, as reported by the Post, not totally resolvedd, Chief Newsham made it clear that her having been handcuffed, shoved into the squad car and taken to the police station where she was fingerprinted, required to submit for a mug shot, and detained for a few hours in a holding cell was way out of line for that kind of misdemeanor offense.

How far things have progressed since the days when too many MPD officers were seemingly allowed to go overboard without any restraint. Although a proper balance between enforcement and sensible resolution of infractions was beginning to assert itself under the nine-year leadership of the recently retired Cathy Lanier, this resounding affirmation of support by a police chief for the legitimacy and appropriate application of what is recognized by the courts as discretionary justice is very much welcomed.

Simply defined, discretionary justice is the power or right of a government official to decide or act according to one’s own judgment, that allows police officers to decide if they want to pursue police procedure or simply let someone off with a less onerous approach to enforcement — although in this case the officer would not have been doing anything contrary to procedure since procedure did not automatically call for any action beyond issuing a citation for later court appearance.

And it was this kind of community policing approach that was not encouraged until recently, and now seemingly reinforced by the chief’s intervention and strong statements about this case.

How far we’ve come!

And that brings us back to the case of — as we dubbed it — the Chardonnay Lady. As first reported by us (and because we did not know her name) in a June 1997 editorial, the Chardonnay Lady became the focus of  a cause célèbre, especially as we characterized the feeling in the community in a follow-up  editorial 10 months later, that among residents what happened to her was “an ominous portent of a possible increasing campaign of Gestapo-like actions against persons enjoying a glass of wine or beer or cocktail on their front porch or in their front yard.” Yes, possibly a hyper-strong reaction, but things were more dicey east of 18th Street in those years. The steps were (still are) in that portion of the front yard that is technically public space but, unlike the actual sidewalks, these spaces, or front yards, are deemed by law to be under the full control and for the exclusive use of the occupants of the adjacent building.

So it was that the hapless resident was handcuffed & dragged off to the Third District police station and booked on disorderly conduct — subsequently tossed out given that no laws had been violated. (If there was to be any lingering doubt about whether residents could consume alcoholic beverages in their front yards, then At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz convinced her city council colleagues to enact clarifying legislation.)

But that was only one of other such unthinking actions by police confronted by similar instances of residents enjoying their front yards about which we reported — examples of complete lack of using discretion and common sense. And it wasn’t just front yard instances that police officers were ready to handcuff & jail; it was for all kinds of petty stuff. Those were the bad days. We are thankful that our police department has matured over the years and now especially welcome its new leader who appears to embrace modern and progressive approaches to keeping the peace.