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New police patrol pattern fails to quell chief's critics

(Published May 19, 2003)


Special to The Common Denominator

Frustration over rising murder rates, a broken 911 system and a $25,000 raise for Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey hampered the city’s efforts to sell its new community policing plan to residents at a recent crime forum.

The new plan presented May 10 by Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams at the Scripture Cathedral reduces the number of Patrol Service Areas from 83 to 39, with the boundaries generally matching the "neighborhood clusters" used by the D.C. Office of Planning.

"Reducing the overall number of PSAs would increase the number of officers assigned to each area, thus providing more flexibility to staff neighborhood patrols," according to a press release issued by the mayor’s office.

"The new PSAs were the result of an internal MPD study mandated by the city council earlier this year – to study the PSA system," said police spokesman Kevin Morison. "Part of that study involved looking at the boundaries. ... We will deliver to the council on or before the [May 25] deadline, a complete analysis of the PSAs."

Several advisory neighborhood commissioners, community activists and residents said many of the proposed PSAs still ignore the natural boundaries in many neighborhoods, and could lead to a reduced police presence in some areas of the new PSAs.

PSA 106 Coordinator Roger Mattioli said the current PSA system was "working pretty well" for his neighborhood east of Union Station, but he expressed concern that the number of officers in his area may drop under the new system.

"We’re afraid that under the proposed PSA plan we’re going to get swamped in a much larger area and our services will decline," Mattioli said. "Our area doesn’t have the amount of crime as some of the other areas in our proposed PSA, so we expect to be ignored."

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Margret Kellems said the new PSA proposal includes "a minimum staffing level for all PSAs, so it’s not purely based on low crime." She said there would be few police in low crime areas if only a statistical model were used.

MPD established "a baseline number of police we wanted in all PSAs – irrespective of what the numbers showed us," she said.

Grabbing a free donut and coffee before the presentation, Ward 6 resident and local real estate developer Brian Brown said he is concerned that the quality of police coverage could decline with larger PSAs and that many of the proposed boundaries are still "splitting some of the neighborhoods counter-intuitive to where the natural boundaries are."

"The best crime control tends to be when they keep a particular neighborhood in one PSA," he said.

Hoping to provide some input for his neighborhood at the forum, Brown said he wanted "to get a better feel for where the boundaries are and give some real input as far as where these boundaries should be."

Brown complained that maintaining a police presence in his area requires constant vigilance by his neighbors and himself.

"When they are there, they do a great job. [But] they’re usually missing in action," he said. "We’ll get a spike in crime, and then when we raise hell with the local watch commanders, we’ll start seeing additional officers in the area for a short period of time."

Brown acknowledged that frequent national protests contribute to some of the manpower shortages in residential areas.

"Frequently our officers are reassigned for special duty downtown for protests," Brown said. "So at any given time, if we’re able to find one officer in our area that’s on duty, it’s amazing."

Brown said he worries that the reduced number of PSAs could allow the city to "claim that they have more officers at any point and time in a PSA, because they’re supporting less PSAs."

MPD spokesman Morison said the new plan would increase the number of police in the PSAs and give greater "flexibility to assign staff, and avoid some of the staffing shortages we’ve experienced. If you have more to work with in an area, we think it will give more flexibility to the district commanders and lieutenants in terms of how they manage those resources," he said.

Morison made it clear the new PSA boundaries are not yet set in stone.

"We’re trying to align [the PSAs] with neighborhood clusters for the purposes of strategic planning for the city as a whole," Morison said. "In some cases, we’ve already looked at those clusters and made some adjustments based on feedback from council members and others, and we will continue that process."

Speaking to reporters before his presentation, Chief Ramsey defended the new PSA boundaries and said the old PSA system he inherited in1998 was flawed.

"I tried to make the current [PSA] structure work after I came here, but there is simply too many of them, so we’re talking about reducing the number," Ramsey said. "We’re talking about concentrating our resources in a way that makes it a little more flexible, so that we can deal with hot spots more effectively."

But Ramsey warned the new boundaries alone are not the cure-all for the city’s crime problems.

"It’s all going to boil down to the performance of police, citizens and city services," he said. "Structure alone won’t make that big a difference; it takes a commitment of people to make a difference.

"We’re not perfect – far from it. There’s an awful lot of work that needs to be done yet," the chief said.

Ramsey also defended his record and his $25,000 pay increase.

"The first year that murder went up since I’ve been here was last year, so what about all the years when it didn’t go up? If you want to use that as a measure, which is not a fair measure to begin with, then make the argument, not just part of an argument," Ramsey said.

"I came in 1998 [and] made $150,000. The contract I signed with the mayor gives me an increase to $175,000 for 4.9 years. That means I’ll have one raise in 10 years," Ramsey said.

The chief suggested the city could replace him if the council doesn’t like his contract.

"If it’s not good enough, then find somebody else," he said. "I’ll get another job. It’s no big deal to me."

Many residents at the forum challenged Ramsey’s job performance and his pay hike.

"We’re opposed to the chief’s pay raise – we think the city can’t afford it at this point and we think he hasn’t earned it," said John Aravosis, co-founder of "Violent crime has increased since the chief arrived in 1998, we’re once again the murder capital and our [911] service has degraded since he got here."

Aravosis’s biggest criticism was the understaffing of the city’s 911 call center and the 20 percent of calls that are abandoned – which he noted could have been a factor in the death of a 24-year-old man last January in a Dupont Circle fire.

"For the past year Chief Ramsey and Deputy Mayor Kellems have testified before the council that there were 106 operators in the 911 system, then a few months ago Ramsey testified there were 80 operators, a couple weeks later he testifies there’s really 70 operators," Aravosis said. "A few weeks ago he finally testified there are only 61 operators working in our 911 system. They either lied to the city council or were woefully ignorant."

Morison defended the city’s 911 response as "improved since January."

"It may not be where it ought to be, but in March we answered 88 percent of our 911 calls within five seconds," he said. "Our goal is 90 percent, so we’re still not quite there yet."

Morison said the recent improvements in 911 answering times came from "better scheduling and management" at the call center. He said the city is in the process of hiring 59 civilian call takers to improve the 911 response times.

Mayor Williams took the stage before the main presentation to endorse Ramsey, as some residents raised posters critical of the chief’s record.

"I'm going to fight to keep this man," Williams said. "I believe he is the right man at the right time in our city, and I believe we need to be behind him."

Cautious optimism to skepticism to vehement opposition was the range of reactions from residents in the breakout sessions that followed Ramsey’s presentation. Separate panel discussions were held for each of the city’s seven police districts, allowing watch commanders to acquaint residents with the new PSA system and discuss any issues residents had with the new boundaries.

ANC 5B Commissioner Regina James said that crime was going up in her neighborhood and that Ramsey never came through on the promise he made in May 2000 to get rid of prostitution on Rhode Island, West Virginia and New York avenues in Northeast Washington.

"It is now 2003 and it’s worse than ever," James said.

James said she doubts that redrawing the PSAs would solve the staffing problems in her neighborhood.

"Keep the old system – just staff it," she said.

Mount Pleasant ANC Chairman Dominic Sale said Ramsey’s plan "draws attention away from the lack of leadership and focuses on the system." The chief "never fully implemented the [current] PSA system and it was never correctly staffed," Sale said.

"I have no faith that this will make any difference in crime in this city, by the simple fact that there is no new strategy behind it – all we’re doing is redrawing maps," he said.

Sale said greater accountability in the system could be achieved by "redrawing the districts in the PSAs to exactly overlap the wards and the ANCs. ...[The resulting] PSAs would be almost identical to the number they’ve proposed."

Kellems said "neighborhood cluster" boundaries were chosen for the PSAs "because that’s how we deliver services of the government. What we’re trying to do is something that mirrors actual neighborhoods. Political boundaries are very different than operational boundaries, and what you need to be successful in management and operations is not necessarily aligned exactly with political boundaries."

Mayor Williams said he thinks the new PSA boundaries "do have a good alignment with the ANCs."

"It’s intended to align with our neighborhood boundaries, which are really how people live, how we organize ourselves, and how we relate to one another," he said. "I didn’t set up the neighborhoods in this city – the neighborhoods in the city were here, obviously, long before I got here. I’m simply trying to align PSAs with our neighborhoods."

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator