Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Testimony Concerning the Metropolitan Police Department’s Safe Homes Initiative

As noted in a recent post, MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier had proposed that police officers knock on doors and ask permission at every house in certain target areas-- Eckington being one --to search for illegal guns and drugs. There was a hearing before the City Council on Monday, and I was planning to testify.

However, news reports on April 4 indicated that the police program has been dramatically scaled back, to a "request only" system, no doubt due to the dramatic opposition from residents everywhere. So I submitted my hearing testimony by e-mail and attended the Bates Area Civic Association meeting instead. The topic of crime dominated that meeting, but no one called for police searches of residences... they called for (nearly yelled for, actually) "police presence."

My submitted testimony follows.

Council of the District of Columbia
Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary

Testimony Concerning the Metroplitan Police Department’s Safe Homes Initiative

by Kris Hammond
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, 5C-02
ANC 5C Liaison to MPD

Monday, April 7, 2008, at 5:00 p.m.
5th Floor Council Chambers, John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20004

Chairman Mendelson and members of the Committee, my name is Kris Hammond. I am an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District. Half of my single member district lies within the Eckington neighborhood, which is one of the areas targeted by the program that is the subject of this hearing. I also serve as the ANC 5C liaison to the Metropolitan Police Department. Please note that my views do not necessarily reflect the views of either my employer or all of the residents who reside within my district.

Thank you for holding this public oversight roundtable on the Metropolitan Police Department’s (“MPD”) Safe Homes Initiative. I first found out about this initiative in the newspaper The Examiner, but I should have been informed directly by the police department about a proposed program targeting my neighborhood. Even if I had not frequently attended Public Service Area (PSA) meetings over the past year, as I have, my opinion and my neighbors’ should have been solicited before a major new initiative such as this was announced.

As originally proposed, the program involved police officers knocking on doors and asking permission at every house to search for illegal guns and drugs. And if drugs or illegal guns are found, they will be seized but the household members will not be prosecuted—unless the items seized lead to the development of more serious crimes. The latest version of the program, in which residents call the police and request the searches, will likely be ineffectual, but it is considerably less harmful.

Residents are overwhelming against the program as initially proposed no matter where they stand within the political spectrum. Even though the original program will not be implemented, it has already been destructive to relations between police and citizens. Knocking on doors and talking with people is exactly what the police should be doing. But given the news reports of this program, many citizens will now be on guard. They will not trust the police to be acting in their best interest. A lack of trust between citizens and police severely hampers the ability of the police to fight crime. Information provided by residents to police is key to solving crimes, but people generally only divulge information to people they trust.

The Safe Homes Initiative as originally proposed would have been a waste of scarce police resources. Citizens do not want officers knocking on doors and asking for meaningless consent searches. Citizens want officers on the street walking the beat. They want officers to engage with pedestrians. They want officers to respond promptly to calls for service. They do not want police to show up at their door and treat them as if they are felons in need of absolution.

The Safe Homes Initiative as originally proposed is bad for police morale and debases an important police technique. I suspect that rank-and-file police officers would not have enjoyed implementing the safe home initiative. Consent searches, when used sparingly, are an important police tool. There are times when the police suspect illegal activity but do not have sufficient information to obtain a warrant. If a resident waives his or her Fourth Amendment rights, the search will hold up in court. Used sparingly, consent searches can save lives. But if the request is used in a ham-fisted manner, it will condition people to just say no all the time.

I leave you with these closing thoughts: First, the Safe Homes Initiative seems a bit out of place considering that the District of Columbia may soon be forced to permit private ownership of handguns. Three weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments concerning whether, for the past thirty years, the District of Columbia has unconstitutionally deprived its citizens of the right to bear a firearm in defense of one’s self or one’s loved ones.

Given the reasonable probability that the Court will rule against the current law, I encourage the Council to consider now what constitutionally-permitted laws and regulations it might implement to ensure that only law-abiding citizens possess firearms and that these residents receive proper safety training. Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the Council may benefit from consultation with the National Rifle Association, which has been conducting safety programs for citizens for many years.

Second, overall, the police are doing an excellent job and their performance and interaction with citizens has improved over the past year. We need to continue strategizing ways to improve attendance by the public at PSA meetings, or consider alternative methods.

Although we have closed the gap somewhat through better citizen-police interaction on the streets and listservs, much remains to be done. Improving citizen-police communication and interaction will do much more for public safety than crime cameras, consent searches of homes, or vehicle “safety check” stops.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Owner of Big Ben Pledges to Improve Community

On the day of my meeting held for constituents this past Sunday at Colonel Brooks' Tavern, controversy surrounded Big Ben liquor store, located at the corner of North Capitol Street N.W. and New York Avenue. A gentleman who bought a house in 2006 right next to the liquor store and then joined in protesting the establishment's license within months of that purchase was again castigating the business on the Truxton Circle website.

I received an e-mail from Bloomingdale resident Sara Kaufman:
A potential thought for the Big Ben [liquor store] discussion... beautification of an area helps replace some of the ugly (crime and grime). And the care of an area can help the "locals" take responsibility for that area.

I had asked North Capitol Main Street (NCMS) about ordering another of (what used to be) our signature colorful pots with more roses for in front of the store . . .

As I'm sure you've already heard me report: when NCMS put the pots at the "Bus Stop Park" at Florida and North Cap three years ago - it helped some with some of the problems there.. And its a good way to interact with the "locals." . . . My line is "I'm just a volunteer and I'm always looking for other volunteers to help me" when hey ask to help or for money. I always get someone to help and they are happy to do so, and pick up on days/weeks/months that I'm not there. Now they stop to talk to me when I see them . . .

NCMS talked some with Mr. Singh at Big Ben on a NMCS walk about last year. He was very receptive to care of something like that around his store. . . . Maybe the ANC would provide funds for pots and flowers?
The meeting was sparsely attended, but Mr. Singh was there, the second time he has attended one of my meetings. Showing up counts for a lot in my book. Well, Mr. Singh was more than willing to maintain flower pots, he volunteered to provide the funds to purchase the beautification.

He was also interested when I told him that North Capitol Main Street has a design committee that could help him with developing a more attractive interior. We discussed the possibility of adapting his business model to the changing neighborhood. He mentioned that he has made contributions to local community efforts. And we heard about some of the obstacles he faced, such as the time his store was robbed at gun point and he lost $10,000.

People often assume the worst about a business (particularly liquor stores) without engaging the business owner and giving him or her a good-faith opportunity to make a positive contribution to the community. I'm seeking to change that inclination.

(Photo credit: http://pedestriantype.blogspot.com)