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Donít blame Sept. 11th for crime
(Published November 19, 2001)

By JONETTA ROSE BARRAS

Even before the fanatics crashed jetliners into New Yorkís twin towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, public safety in the District wasnít anything to rave about.

Fire Chief Ronnie Few was catching grief for focusing on the hairstyle of firefighters and not on the agencyís response time. (Heís reading this now and saying he cut response time from 19 minutes to 11; thatís still one of the slowest in the region.) There have been charges of racism, sexism and insufficient or poor quality equipment. More recently, orders to implement a reorganization plan were rescinded within two days of being issued, suggesting that perhaps Few is as confused about his own department as the rest of us. (No wonder some firefighters voted "no confidence" in the chief.)

But public safety concerns have been focused mostly on the police department and Chief Charles Ramsey. Deployment, corruption, financial management and contract mismanagement are just a few of the issues with which the public and D.C. Council members are dealing.

"Police deployment was a huge issue for the council and people in the neighborhood before Sept. 11," says Ward 3 Councilwoman Kathy Patterson, who also chairs the councilís Judiciary Committee, which oversees public safety agencies. "Ramsey was supposed to provide a report on PSAs." But the council has yet to see the patrol service area report.

Using the most recent numbers sheís been given, Patterson notes that in the first week of December 1999, the departmentís total manpower increased by 100, but during that same period the total officers in the neighborhoods went down by 100. She says the department has an authorization level of 3,800 officers but there are fewer than 3,600 currently on the force -- and only a fraction of them are deployed to neighborhoods.

If anyone thought that the planned demonstrations surrounding the September meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which were cancelled in the wake of Sept. 11, already had provided cover for MPD and Ramseyís less-than-stellar performance, wait and see how he works this whole "international terrorist thing."

During the past several weeks, concerns have surfaced about the use of D.C. police officers to supplement the federal governmentís security measures. Ramsey has deployed members of his force to protect Congress, federal buildings, the vice presidentís homeó you name it, MPD was there.

At the same time, the absence of officers in neighborhoods has been stunning. There shouldnít be any surprise, then, that crime is increasing -- specifically homicides, auto thefts and burglaries. Like mice, criminals know when to play.

Responding to residentsí worries that the neighborhoods are going without patrols, Ramsey flippantly told a Washington Post reporter: "Thatís a bug thatís been put in their ear." He suggested that the District is part of a nationwide trend of increasing crime.

But D.C. residents donít live in some generic municipality. They live in this city and have every right to expect -- in fact demand -- that the chief take public safety more seriously. Whatís more, Ramsey and his Chicago posse canít have it both ways: When crime is down, he and his crew want to take credit; when itís up, blame it on the nation.

The man who became an international star, thanks to the IMF and World Bank protests Ė traveling to other countries to teach their law enforcement personnel how to give pesky anti-globalization demonstrators the business upside their heads Ė is loving his new role as understudy to the terrorist czar. His workforce and his budget may be stretched, but he doesnít care. In fact, heís asking for more. He wants to be at the table with the FBI and CIA. He wants to receive clearance for confidential information. Some congressional representatives donít even have that.

What Ramsey doesnít want is to be bogged down with the mundane tasks of finding out who is stealing all those cars in Adams Morgan and who is committing those murders in Northeast.

The council and Mayor Anthony A. Williams need to establish boundaries for Ramsey, who hasnít seen a federal law enforcement action he didnít want to join. Further, there should be some limits set for the circumstances when MPD will serve as the federal police force, neglecting its local duties.

If the federal government and federal elected officials need more protection, they can expand the Capitol Police, or they can create and fund a federal auxiliary force that would be deployed to cover every inch of the federal enclave both during this time of heightened security and at times when demonstrators descend on the nationís capital. They seem headed in the right direction with the recent deployment of the National Guard to protect the U.S. Capitol. However, thatís temporary; a permanent fix is needed.

MPD is a local police force. Local tax dollars finance it, so that local residents can feel safe in their neighborhoods. D.C. residents should not be forced to subsidize federal and congressional needs, especially when the city is frequently denied support from Congress and the White House. (Even as I write, there is some concern that the city will not receive its full economic recovery request, although it has used its own resources to respond to anthrax scares and "terrorist threats" which, thus far, have materialized only in the myopic, power-crazed mind of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.)

Granted, my little proposal might impede our slick-talking police chiefís national aspirations, but it would go a long way toward ensuring that D.C. residents are safe. Isnít that, after all, what Ramsey was hired to do?

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator