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(Published April 22, 2002)
When Charles Ramsey became the District’s new police chief in 1998, his tough talk about honest cops protecting their community gave both D.C. residents and the Metropolitan Police Department’s hard-working rank-and-file officers great hope that Ramsey could once and for all rid MPD of internal corruption and restore the pride of a department that once was considered to be among the nation’s best.
Among Ramsey’s dictates aimed at restoring professionalism to the ranks was a new policy that barred officers from working off-duty jobs in establishments that serve alcoholic beverages. Working those jobs at least created an appearance of conflicted loyalties for officers, who might be accused of "looking the other way" when obvious ABC license violations occurred inside a business that was paying them to be there.
Fast forward to 2002 and we find that Chief Ramsey apparently thinks it’s just fine and dandy for his officers to be put in a similar situation as long as they are doing it while in uniform and on duty – and as long as the payments are going into his department’s budget, rather than individual officers’ pockets. The officers now routinely work overtime at the behest of local nightclubs, which pick up the tab for the city’s extra expense to provide "traffic management" and "crowd control" outside the clubs.
We can think of another way to describe what MPD is doing. It appears that MPD is either extorting money from nightclub owners or that club owners are providing MPD with officially sanctioned payoffs to prevent the enforcement of safety-based D.C. laws.
A drive through what is one of the District’s poorest residential neighborhood, Ivy City in Northeast Washington, on a Friday or Saturday night provides sufficient visual proof that on-duty MPD officers are shirking their duty to protect the public’s health and safety.
Hundreds of cars descend on the neighborhood, near New York Avenue and Mount Olivet Road NE, when a new nightclub called Dream is open. Under the watchful eye of MPD officers, who know their overtime pay is being picked up by the club’s owners, these cars block motorists’ sight lines at intersections and clog the neighborhood’s narrow streets so badly that ambulances and fire trucks would have a difficult time maneuvering to private homes in an emergency.
Notice the lack of parking tickets on the illegally parked cars, which are clearly causing a public safety hazard. Yet, one MPD officer said police allow the street on which the nightclub is located to be closed to all traffic – and used by the club as its VIP parking – to aid emergency access to the club.
Score one for the nightclub owner and zero for the neighboring residents.
MPD officers assigned to duty at Dream also appear unconcerned about the loud music emanating from the nightclub into the residential neighborhood well after midnight, in violation of D.C. noise restrictions.
Would city officials subject residents of a more affluent neighborhood to such abuse?
It is difficult to understand the logic that makes it wrong for police officers to accept a meal from a business owner in exchange for special attention but somehow right for the police department as a whole to routinely provide special security to a business for a price.
In some cities, but apparently not in Washington, public officials still consider any business that routinely requires special attention from public safety forces to be a public nuisance – and those public-spirited officials require the business owners, not the city, to remedy the problems and keep their businesses in compliance with the law.
Likewise, no business in the District of Columbia should routinely require special attention from the Metropolitan Police Department. On-duty D.C. police officers have better things to do than be assigned security duties for business owners, regardless of how much money those businesses bring into city coffers. That’s simply not their job.
Mayor Anthony Williams, the D.C. Council and Congress should provide sufficient funding for the Metropolitan Police Department to do its duty and prohibit MPD from accepting private funding. More so than any other department in the city government, MPD’s personnel and activities should be funded wholly by the taxpayers.
There should be no question for whom MPD officers work or to whom they are to be held accountable.
Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator