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MPD still faces stiff criticism

(Published January 24, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Despite major shakeups in command and a continuing decline in crime, the Metropolitan Police Department and its leadership are still getting mixed reviews from city residents.

Some ó like James D. Berry Jr., who chairs both the group of city residents who advise Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and the civic association for the troubled Bates Street neighborhood ó continue to express confidence in Ramseyís ability over time to transform the police department into the top-notch law enforcement agency it used to be.

But others Ė like outspoken police critic Carl Rowan Jr. Ė are losing patience with the slow pace of reforms and wondering when the changes will translate into comprehensive street-level improvements in crime fighting for the cityís troubled neighborhoods.

"It seems to me that the police department is getting awfully top heavy," Rowan said, referring to the many promotions Ramsey has made since he took over the helm in April 1998. "Making more commanders isnít going to make much of an impact at the street level."

But crime in the District continues to decline, with homicide levels dropping to their lowest levels in 12 years. Some recent high-profile homicides in the city, however, have perpetuated the perception that crime in the District is still out of control.

"To think that you can make just one round of changes or two and assume that we have a team that can take us into the future is naïve," Berry said.

He said he expects more personnel and administrative changes in the department as Ramsey continues to reform the department.

The troubled department has undergone major reorganizations since Ramsey took over almost two years ago. Ramsey restructured the police department and made major changes in its top administrators within his first year. Last month, Ramsey announced another round of changes in his top administrators, including the appointment of new commanders to four of the cityís seven police districts.

But some observers say the changes at the command level donít affect crime-fighting efforts in the neighborhoods. Rowan said the Patrol Service Area system, the much-touted model of community policing instituted by former police chief Larry Soulsby, is deeply flawed and should either be restructured or scrapped.

"Until then theyíll be continuing to promise citizens something the department canít deliver," Rowan said. Since the PSA model has been operating, activists and citizens throughout the city, as well as police officers, have complained that the force does not have enough officers to properly staff every PSA.

But Berry said despite the staffing and other problems in the department, he is still confident the department is moving in the right direction.

Berry said many people in the District feel the entire city is unsafe, but he said those perceptions may be skewed because they canít see whatís going on beyond their immediate neighborhood. Berry, who lives on Bates Street NW, which was the site of a recent turf battle between warring gangs, said a type of myopia takes hold when crime happens in a neighborhood.

"We started this past spring with three kids getting shot, and a month or later another kid got shot," Berry said. "It makes you crazy. That is your world, and you react with the intensity as if thatís how the rest of the world is like."

He said that though crime and illegal drug trafficking are still a problem in his neighborhood, conditions are better than they were five years ago.

Rowan criticized the department for being too reactionary to crimes which receive media attention rather than concentrating on systemic problems like morale and management within the department.

"You canít run a police department from the op-ed page of The Washington Post," Rowan said.

Rowan noted that Ramsey has instituted some policy changes that have been good for the department but questioned his administrationís day-to-day management of the force.

"There are a number of things that the chief has done right," Rowan said. "The major failing has been the effective leading and management of personnel. Unfortunately, thatís where the rubber meets the road."

Rowan also said that he feels Ramsey has become a sort of invisible leader in the department, spending too much time in his hometown city of Chicago visiting his son and his father, who is ill. Ramsey has said his legal residence is in the District.

Rowan also faulted Ramsey and his top aides for not taking full advantage of the pool of qualified candidates within the department.

"I think there is a lot more talent on this department than anyone gives them credit for," Rowan said.

Berry agreed with Rowan, saying the department has gotten a bad reputation because of a few bad apples.

"If our people are so bad, why are they sought after and why do they excel in other police departments, if weíre as bad off as people say?" Berry asked. In particular, he noted two former commanders, Ross Swope and Lloyd Coward, who recently left the force to head federal police agencies in the city.

Berry said he is generally satisfied with the changes made in the department and the crime fighting efforts made in the past 20 months under Ramseyís command.

"Things are totally not where we want them to be, but they are improving," Berry said. "Itís the pace of change that people are uncomfortable with. The reality of change is undeniable."

Rowan said he is growing pessimistic about the reform efforts being made by Ramsey and his aides.

"Itís time to stop all the public relations and get back to basics of reform," Rowan said.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator