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Is D.C. safer?

(Published November 4, 2002)

Old-fashioned community policing seems to be taking a back seat to the Metropolitan Police Department's fascination with high-technology gadgets and federal security concerns - and the residents of Washington are suffering for it.

Beyond the high-profile sniper attacks, recent increases in street-level crime and violent crime in many neighborhoods have made the nation's capital a more dangerous place for both residents and visitors.

Noticeably, most local politicians steered away from making crime a major issue in this year's campaigns. Given the situation, it was a much safer way for incumbents to retain their positions than to try to defend the low priority they have placed on making real improvements in public safety.

Is D.C. a safer place than it was four years ago, when Chief Charles Ramsey was brought here from Chicago to head a demoralized police force that was often viewed by residents as being part of the problem?

Yes and no.

Ramsey's penchant for public relations and his affability, on display at numerous community meetings, have made many residents feel a personal connection to the man at the top. Personal assurances that this "no-nonsense" police chief shares residents' concerns and wants to fix the vexing problems, both internal to his department and external, that stand in the way of proper law enforcement have made Ramsey a popular figure.

But law enforcement isn't a popularity contest.

As residents know, most of the open-air drug markets that existed four years ago in their neighborhoods still exist today. MPD has made nary a dent during the past four years in the high level of auto theft and vehicle break-ins that plague a city where most homeowners lack a secure garage. While the number of homicides dipped in recent years (but remained at unacceptably high levels), the numbers are again climbing. And there's been an alarming increase during the past year in drive-by shootings, multiple shootings and daylight shootings.

Such routine activities as waiting for a bus, walking to your car or using an ATM machine remain just as hazardous at night now as they were four years ago - or maybe even more so, judging from what appears to be a recent increase in armed robberies, often involving multiple assailants.

Congressionally inspired efforts in recent years that have broadened the authority of U.S. Capitol Police officers and other federal law enforcement agencies to help MPD enforce the District's laws have done little to make our streets safer.

Chief Ramsey's expertise in community policing - that old-fashioned concept of police officers getting to know the people and places they are sworn to protect - was cited as a major reason why he was hired to head MPD. Yet, city officials have allowed federal security concerns and surveillance cameras to distract the chief and derail effective implementation of a community policing program.

The mayor and the city council need to refocus the Metropolitan Police Department on what should be its priority: local law enforcement.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator