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Bringing down crime
Ward 4 residents' intensive efforts produce results
(Published May 16, 2005)

Special to The Common Denominator

It is a challenge that has pitted the District's youngest council member against one of the most stubborn problems to pervade the ward he represents -- or any ward, for that matter.

Over the last 16 months, D.C. Councilman Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4, has been sponsoring town hall meetings in the Fourth Police District to quell its illegal drug troubles, joining police and residents in a push to allay residents' anxieties about their neighborhoods.

Swapping ideas with law enforcement officials, advisory neighborhood commissioners and area residents, Fenty has held the meetings to target specific neighborhood "hot spots," such as open-air drug markets, that have fostered drug-related crime.

Fenty and others hope that scrutinizing the quality of policing and focusing on specific sites will help boost the confidence among residents that ebbs when police presence does the same. And hopes are that positive changes have already occurred.

"I think we need a lot more accountability in the police department," Fenty said in a telephone interview. "There's just not enough community policing going on."

The Fourth Police District in April saw the lowest number of major crimes reported citywide, according to MPD crime statistics, a drop of more than 27 percent from April 2004.

To date this year, overall crime there is down more than 17 percent compared with this time last year, with the Second and Seventh districts reporting fewer major crimes.

Fenty's town meetings have come in threes. The first is spent pondering ways to deal with the problem in question -- an open-air drug market, say, or "nuisance properties," which "are used for numerous illegal activities, including drug trafficking, robbery, prostitution and public drinking," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Residents can then expect a follow-up meeting within about 30 days to assess what progress has been made in dealing with the target. A third meeting is then planned, to be held about 90 days after the first.

The meetings have addressed "hotspots" along Kennedy Street NW, in Shepherd Park, Petworth and other areas in the Fourth Police District considered troublesome, Fenty said.

The meetings began in Shepherd Park. About 10 such meetings have been held since they began in December 2003.

The most recent was held April 19, which was a follow-up to a March 14 meeting at which Fenty and Metropolitan Police Department officials proposed measures to get rid of an open-air drug market along the 300 to 800 blocks of Kennedy Street NW.

Fenty said the next meeting, the third to focus on this area, is scheduled for May 18.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathleen O'Connor attended the meetings in March and April. O'Connor, a D.C. native who heads the community prosecution division for the U.S. Attorney's Office in the District, has spent about 15 years with the office and said Kennedy Street NW "has been a long-term problem."

Part of the plan established at the March meeting, which Fenty and O'Connor said was attended by more than 100 people, dealt with businesses in the neighborhood.

Letters addressing the drug problem were sent to 25 business owners in the area, O'Connor said. The owners were then invited to a meeting where O'Connor and others talked with them.

"We explained to them why it would help them to get on board and help clean up the streets," O'Connor said.

For one, safer streets would mean increased traffic in front of their stores, and thus better business. They also discussed products that could double as drug paraphernalia, such as small, plastic bag and glass pipes, and asked them to sign pledges to not sell them. Several complied.

O'Connor said she believes the number of residents at the March meeting and the presence of Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey at the meeting in April were positive signs.

"I think the good thing I've been seeing is the willingness of the community to come together," O'Connor said.

The timing of the meeting with O'Connor and the Kennedy Street business owners, held between the March and April town hall meetings, reflects a larger point: that anti-crime efforts in these neighborhoods have not been limited to Fenty's meetings.

While the town hall meetings provide blueprints for how neighborhoods plan to deal with local "hotspots," the residents, who often pack Fenty's meetings, shoulder much of the anti-crime tasks in the meantime.

An example is Shepherd Park resident Tom Black, founder of two community groups that, while happy that Fenty has taken interest, pursue their own initiatives and try to ensure that Fenty, police and city agencies are held accountable.

"I think this approach with Councilman Fenty has been productive," Black said, adding, though, that "what is needed is a coordination with other agencies. In other words, police cannot do it alone."

Black and his fellow residents therefore organize their own initiatives. One is an effort to spur the owners of residential properties to keep account of whom they accommodate, ensuring they are not housing illegal immigrants, for example, Black said.

Programs to keep young people employed or otherwise active have also been major focuses for Black, as have been plans to urge the participation of the D.C. departments of consumer and regulatory affairs, transportation, public works and others in battling quality-of-life issues.

Cleaning houses and streets, as well as ridding neighborhoods of nuisance properties are all necessary measures, Black said, and doing it all means pooling the efforts of many, including the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"It's just that all the agencies have to come together," he said. "We're concerned about the return of the criminals to the neighborhood."

Last year, the Internet became another way residents and officials could monitor anti-crime efforts in the Fourth District when MPD created MPD-4D, an online bulletin board serving as a community discussion forum through which residents and others could communicate.

As of May 12, 422 messages, including notices from Fenty about the town hall meetings, were posted on the site. But any subject concerning public welfare may appear on the message board.

One Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner, however, felt this forum wasn't enough. Joseph Martin of Petworth is among the Fourth District residents most involved with and encouraged by the meetings and this online forum, routinely posting his own messages.

"There's quite a lot of drug-dealing going on on the streets," Martin said. "My concern is the inevitable violence that results with this kind of street dealing."

But Martin, a Boston native and 20-year resident of the District, had grown concerned that MPD could be censoring messages from residents, so he established a similar forum independent of MPD's oversight but with the similar aim of fostering dialogue among local politicians, police and residents.

MPD does not censor all messages, according to Yvonne Smith, who designed the site and works with community outreach for MPD. Only initial messages from new members are screened to ensure they are not posting spam or other advertising products.

"This hopefully will explain any delays in posting," Smith wrote in a March 17 message on the MPD site.

As of May 12, Martin's site had drawn 125 postings.

Still, as residents continue seeing evidence that illegal activities persist in their neighborhoods, many are apt to go beyond what Fenty's meetings or the online forums can offer.

On Kennedy Street NW, one resident and activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of her job, said "the drug markets are still there, but they're dwindling."

Like Black, this resident puts a high premium on combining the resources of city agencies and residents -- not just D.C. law enforcement -- and making sure improvements stay in place between and after Fenty's meetings.

She also dismissed the idea that only new neighborhood residents are expressing frustration about crime.

"This is not a bunch of new residents," she said. "This is new and old residents saying we will not tolerate this anymore."

Assistant U.S. Attorney O'Connor emphasizes the need for her office to work with others in a proactive sense to ensure crime goes down and stays there.

"We can't just keep putting people in jail forever," O'Connor said.

Making progress stick is also a point of concern for the Kennedy Street resident. She said she intends to hold Chief Ramsey to his promise that the drug market in her neighborhood would be eradicated within 90 days, but also that it stays away. She said she looks forward to further meetings with law enforcement and other city officials on this issue.

According to Fenty, who said the community meetings have no connection to his potential mayoral bid, making positive change tenable can only be done "by a well-organized police department," which should routinely come up with "timelines and benchmarks."

To that end, he said the meetings will continue throughout Ward 4, and should do so elsewhere.

"Every neighborhood in the District of Columbia should have a written plan to eradicate crime," Fenty said.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator