New-Old Police Work Controls Crime in D.C.
In Washington's Mt. Pleasant, cops are out of squad cars and
WASHINGTON — IT seemed like a perfectly straightforward arrest on Irving Street in Washington's Mt. Pleasant neighborhood.
One man had held up another with a knife, witnesses had summoned police to the scene, and the suspect had been handcuffed. Then Officer Pedro Garcia noticed a by-stander signaling to him and heading toward the 7-Eleven.
Officer Garcia surmised that the man wanted to talk to him but didn't want to be seen talking to a cop. So Garcia followed the man to the convenience store. Once inside, the man told Garcia that the police had it wrong: The man they had cuffed was the victim, and the man who claimed to be the victim was the one who'd had the knife.
Garcia returned to the scene and checked out the story with other bystanders, who corroborated it. The police took the handcuffs off the first man and arrested the other one.
``I knew the witness from walking the beat here,'' Garcia says. ``The people in this neigh-borhood, they know I try to be as trustful as possible.''
The case is a textbook example of community-oriented policing, a philosophy that has been around for years but is now being used citywide here and throughout the country.
With public concern running high over crime, Congress is rushing to show its support for community policing; on Nov. 4, the Senate voted to double Clinton's plan and provide funds for 100,000 additional police nationwide. In Mt. Pleasant, a racially and economically diverse neighborhood with crime problems (though nothing close to the worst of D.C.), community-police relations aren't always so harmonious. In fact, for every story like Garcia's there's at least one in which the police have appeared either inept or unwilling to put themselves on the line.
But the story of Mt. Pleasant is one of potential, a neighborhood where many elements of successful crime-fighting and prevention are falling into place: a heightened police commitment to being responsive; a new district commander with a can-do attitude; and an informed, active citizenry.
The symbol of this potential is the neighborhood's new police facility, a small office on the main thoroughfare, Mt. Pleasant Street, which establishes a permanent police presence in the neighborhood. A group of residents persuaded a local landlord to donate space and then raised almost $8,000 to pay for equipment and upkeep.
``What's important about [the facility] is it was a collaborative effort in the community - Latinos, blacks, and whites together,'' says Inspector R.C. White, the new commander of the Fourth District (4-D), which covers Mt. Pleasant. ``They raised the money to put the facility there. The police department didn't raise one penny for it.''
According to Mike Smith, a founder of the Mt. Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance, which raised the funds, 90 people gave checks ranging from $5 to $150. A couple of businesses came through with larger donations. This is community policing taken to the next level: Not only are the police responding to community needs, but the opposite is also true.
``Sometimes people think we should be like Superman and solve every problem right away,'' says Lt. Jesse Villareal, community services officer for the Fourth District of the D.C. Metropolitan Police. ``The `community' in community policing also means citizens have a role to play.''
At root, ``community-empowerment policing,'' or CEP, as it is called in Washington, D.C., is a fancy term for common sense and doing things the old-fashioned way: getting officers out of their squad cars and onto the streets, where they can get to know the people on the beat and work with communities not only to solve crimes but also to prevent them.
If there's a car parked on a street with people in it, it may be perfectly harmless or it may be people ``casing'' the neighborhood. A cop who knows what's normal in an area is more alert to things that might set off alarm bells. Getting to know the people on the beat and building a rapport with them can make people more comfortable about reporting suspicious circumstances.
``I've lived in the neighborhood 17 years, and I see things they don't see,'' says Mr. Smith.
As it happens, Pedro Garcia - the officer who helped in the knifing case - is one of a few formally designated ``community-empowerment police officers'' in Mt. Pleasant. But Inspector White flinches at the mention of designated CEP officers. He says he wants all officers in 4-D to operate under the philosophy, not just those with the title.
Five months into his tenure as 4-D commander, White is still working out how best to deploy his resources in Mt. Pleasant, a neighborhood where poor Latino and Asian immigrants live cheek by jowl with middle-class homeowners of all races. Drug-dealing and public drinking keep police busy along Mt. Pleasant Street. Throughout the neighborhood, break-ins and car thefts are common. In May 1991, riots broke out after police shot a Salvadoran immigrant.
That incident highlighted the need for more Spanish-speaking police, and White says there are now more than 30 in Mt. Pleasant, many of them sporting red pins that say ``Hablo espanol,'' meaning ``I speak Spanish.''
Garcia doesn't wear his, he says, so he can eavesdrop more easily on people on the street who might be discussing something interesting in Spanish. Sometimes when people see the pin, highly visible from a distance, they clam up.
Hispanic officers say they don't foresee a repeat of the 1991 riots, because neighborhood tensions have eased. They say they've gotten to know some of the men who hang out in front of the 7-Eleven; Officer Miguel Montanez describes helping a Latino immigrant get a job in construction.
But Ken Fealing, a member of Mt. Pleasant's Advisory Neighborhood Commission and a liaison to the police department, isn't so sure. Mr. Fealing says some African-American males say police are frisking them or asking them to move on because of how they're dressed and where they're hanging out. ``By now, officers should know who they are,'' says Fealing, who is black. New approach needed
But getting everybody on board with CEP is easier said than done.
``We're in dire need of retraining and reemphasizing a new approach,'' says the commander. ``I just don't think everyone's on the same wavelength.... Part of CEP is making everyone responsible for an area and having them feel like they have the right and the authority and the resources to address the problems in that area.''
All district police officers are getting an eight-hour block of training in CEP, including components in group dynamics and cultural sensitivity. The sessions are also a reminder to police to be pro-active.
``If DPW [the Department of Public Works] isn't doing a good job in cleaning alleys and replacing lights, and an officer hears about it, he can call the appropriate services,'' says Tom Blagburn, director of CEP policy for the district.
White, the 4-D commander, subscribes to the Nike school of management: Just do it. When he decided to put some cops on bicycles, he found it would have taken months to procure the bikes through official channels. So he went down to a district impoundment lot, picked out some bicycles, had them reconditioned, and in a matter of weeks some Mt. Pleasant police were cycling their beats instead of walking them.
``If a need arises, you want to be resourceful,'' he says. ``The community is not interested in excuses. And I have to display that in my actions. I expect the same of my officers.''
Officer Yamit Chaparro looks proud on his gleaming mountain bike, a helmet perched atop his head. He's been a bicycle cop for two weeks, and he's clearly enjoying himself.
``We can move faster and get into small places,'' he says, straddling the bike outside the Mt. Pleasant police facility. ``There's also that element of surprise: I can sneak up on people.''
Inside the facility, a one-room apartment on the first floor of the Deauville apartment building, Officer Maria Robinson appears to be holding court among male officers. A teenage girl sits unassumingly atop a table off to the side.
Officer Robinson, a native of Puerto Rico, has been assigned to Mt. Pleasant since she joined the force in 1986. Her job is to hold down the fort at the new facility, handling telephone calls and people who walk in off the street.
Resident Harry Johnson comes in to complain that Asian shopkeepers in the neighborhood hire only their relatives and no blacks. After his lengthy tirade, Officer Montanez escorts Mr. Johnson out to the sidewalk to continue the discussion. Gradually, the office clears out, and Robinson is free to talk about her work.
The girl who had been sitting there, Robinson explains, is a Latino immigrant who was having trouble getting enrolled in school. Instead of waiting for the girl's mother, who works several jobs, to find the time to deal with the problem, Robinson handled the problem herself.
Robinson laughs at the suggestion that she's as much a social worker as a cop. Getting involved in other people's problems isn't exactly in her job description, she says. But if getting that girl into school keeps her out of trouble, then in one sense it is her job, she adds - especially under the new CEP philosophy.
Just then, a well-dressed man walks into the office and complains of loud music coming from the apartment next to his. Robinson positions her police hat on her blond hair, grabs her walkie-talkie, and follows the man out the door. Assault case mishandled
But the best-laid plans of CEP are for naught if, when a crime occurs, police do not respond to the public's satisfaction. One case in Mt. Pleasant demonstrates White's frustration in making sure his officers are ``good at doing what needs to be done,'' as he puts it.
This summer, on Ingleside Terrace, a woman was assaulted by a neighborhood man reputed to have a drug problem. The woman's screams brought neighbors to her rescue: One pulled the man off her; another called the police. According to witnesses, the man disappeared down an alley and into his house.
It took 20 minutes for the police to arrive. When they did, witnesses were unhappy with the officers' seeming lack of concern for the victim or for getting any firsthand accounts of what had happened. They also did little to calm the crowd of people who were all speaking at once.
``It was like sending someone into a kindergarten class who doesn't know how to deal with kids,'' says Tamar Ellentuck, a witness.
When the police did go after the suspect, they came back with the wrong man, who bore little resemblance to the description witnesses say they had given. By day's end, police still had not arrested the right suspect, even though witnesses could point out his house. Eventually, the man was arrested, but only after a further ``comedy of errors,'' says Ms. Ellentuck.
Ellentuck says she was particularly disappointed when a CEP officer she knew appeared on the scene - and found him to be as ineffective as the other police. ``He didn't ask the right questions, he didn't listen, he didn't write anything down,'' she complains.
At a meeting with residents, Lt. Villareal explained the apparent delay in responding to the call was in part because police must set priorities in requests for service - and in this case, the attack had ended and the suspect had left the scene. Villareal also pointed out that the public's unhappiness over other aspects of the case resulted from their misunderstanding of police procedure. But he apologized for any lack of professionalism on the police's part. After the meeting, he privately told Ellentuck that some of the police involved had a record of performing inadequately.
One of the morals of this story, perhaps, is that the introduction of CEP has raised some citizens' hopes for their police force, one that at times feels under siege by the city's high crime rate.
Some police complain privately that there aren't enough cops to take time for the ``touchy-feely stuff'' of CEP, whose advocates counter that it doesn't require more work, just working smarter. Mr. Blagburn, the CEP policy director, argues that the added manpower expense of CEP pays for itself by preventing crime.
Institutional resistance to change has also impeded the introduction of CEP. ``The job today is much more difficult for police officers than it was when I was a police officer'' in the 1970s, Robinson says.
Though some cities and counties point to a decreased crime rate as a sign that community policing works, White says it's impossible to prove. ``You never know how much crime you're stopping, because you've stopped it,'' he says.
Studies have shown that people feel safer when they see police walking beats, as opposed to riding in squad cars. Mike Smith, for one, says he feels more secure. On a recent morning walk from his house to a convenience store, he passed a patrol car - and a cop on the beat. ``I haven't seen that in the neighborhood in 10 years,'' he says.