An Apartment Dweller's Two-Year War on Crack
WASHINGTON — IT seemed as if no one was listening during the two years Mary Williams tried to force police, housing authorities, and child-welfare officials to help her get rid of the illegal drug activity that plagued her three-unit apartment building. Officials now say they were aware of the problem, which, no thanks to their efforts, ended abruptly in November when a dangerous fire erupted in the ground-floor apartment that had been the center of drug activity.
But the trail of official explanations suggests that while the activity at the University Place apartment building may have made Mary's life miserable, it clearly was not a priority for police. Nor were her complaints effective in greasing the wheels of other agencies.
Ms. Williams's case does suggest ``there are a lot of people in institutions at fault in the situation,'' says Cynthia B. Harris, special assistant to the mayor for drug-control policy. She also faults Williams for not having called the drug-control policy office created by former Mayor Marion Barry to coordinate city antidrug efforts. (Williams says she was unaware of the office and its function.)
It is ironic that during the period Williams was pressing her case to officials, the city, to its credit, was involved in some of its most successful assaults on drug abuse.
OPERATION Clean Sweep, an 18-month, $20-million intensive police attack on the city's notorious open-air drug markets resulted in 46,000 arrests and heaps of public praise between 1986 and 1988. And for the short five months it could be sustained, the ``Reclaiming Our Streets'' program, a $22 million project to intensify city services like trash cleanup, job placement, recreation, and housing improvement in a drug-infested area, cleaned up a 65-square-block area of drug activity.
And to crank the frustrating irony up another notch in Mary's story, it was in 1989 that the Metropolitan Police Department touted a major new initiative - Community Empowerment Policing - to encourage the private citizen to play a more active role in helping police prevent crime.
``Sometimes it looks as though the police are not doing anything,'' says Lt. Reginald Smith, Metropolitan Police Department public information officer. ``To investigate requires undercover observation or a buy or two.''
This may be difficult to do because undercover operations are expensive and time-consuming to set up, say police officials. A small-time operation, like the crack house in Mary's building where the business was involved less with sales of the drug than with rental of space to use drugs, probably didn't rate an investigation, several police sources say.
``Vice [office] was aware of it. But unless I can find out that on a certain day there was more than 10 grams or nine rocks [of cocaine], it wouldn't be enough for Vice to do it [investigate],'' explains Officer Perry Singletary, who investigated the fire scene and had taken several of Williams's complaints in the past. ``So there's nothing we can do about the house.''
Officer John Shelton, another policeman who had fielded complaints from Williams, says she ``has a legitimate complaint.'' He acknowledged in a street-corner interview over the blare of his police radio that he's well aware of drug activity in the neighborhood. He went so far as to offer names of dealers - Chris, James, and ``New York'' - and point to an apartment building just down the street from Williams's where the constant crowd outside is a sure sign of drug activity.
He says it is ``frustrating'' because, often, without an undercover operation to gather evidence there is little uniformed officers can do to arrest the kind of people Williams was trying to get out of her building. When an officer in uniform arrives on a scene, ``Boom, it's [the drug activity] gone.''
Police Capt. Karl Turner, who knows the neighborhood intimately because he was raised there and still lives a flew blocks from University Place, says the drug business near Mary Williams's house is constant. He claims arrests are made ``continuously'' there; however, a squad room map showing arrests for the months of November and December shows only one arrest in that area.
Captain Turner adds with a resignation that became familiar over the course of several police interviews: ``[Drug] business is so lucrative, when we make the arrest there's always someone to take the place [of the dealer]. Everyone wants a piece of the rock.''
WHILE Department of Human Services spokesperson Rae Parr-Moore would only confirm that the family of Paula Williams (no relation to Mary), who lived in the crack house, was known to child protective services officials, Department of Public and Assisted Housing (DPAH) records confirm that a child was removed from the home in 1989.
Police and social workers who interviewed neighbors about the family were told about the drug activities in the house, but this information, if shared between agencies, apparently was not enough to spark an investigation.
DPAH came closest to solving the problem for Williams. And although the property manager who handled her complaints refused to be interviewed, saying, ``They don't pay me to talk to reporters,'' top-level housing officials were the most forthcoming of any officials interviewed for this series of articles.
Mary's complaints actually had started gears slowly moving at the housing department. Records show that housing officials routinely had contacted police, but proceeded on their own to solve the problem by building an eviction case against Paula Williams.
Housing officials, who administer housing for more than 25,000 low-income Washington residents, deal with perhaps the most entrenched sites of drug dealing and constantly field complaints of the smell of crack or the congregation of people. But they apparently don't expect much from the police in the nickel-and-dime drug dealing that proliferates here.
``Housing accepts these reports and gives them to the Metropolitan Police Department. It depends on the police if an investigation is warranted, but [the police] concentrate most of their efforts on open-air markets [not dealing in housing],'' says R. Benjamin Johnson, acting director of DPAH.
So in a case like Mary Williams's building on University Place, housing officials use their own methods for solving the problem.
Tenant Paula Williams had been served several citations for failure to pay rent, says Oliver Cromwell, spokesman for the housing department. ``And nine times out of 10, the people we suspect of dealing drugs are delinquent on rent. It's more expeditious to go after them for rent rather than for drugs,'' Mr. Cromwell says, explaining that by allowing the citations to build up, the case for eviction gets more solid.
After two years of complaints from Mary Williams, the eviction of her neighbor was imminent before the fire, say housing officials.