It’s no secret that the District has had a hard time fighting crime this year. The job gets even tougher when the people in charge are constantly changing.
The Metropolitan Police Department is divided into seven police districts, each of which are further broken down into Public Service Areas. Each district is led by a commander, and each PSA by a lieutenant. There are 56 PSAs in the District of Columbia, and each should provide framework for close engagement between police and neighborhoods.
But In PSA 405, where I’m an ANC commissioner, we have seen the reassignment of PSA lieutenants nearly half a dozen times in the last two to three years. Our area has also seen two different district commanders. Every time there’s a leadership change, months of hard work between residents and MPD are completely erased.
While officers are swapped with well-intentioned replacements, they lack any transition guidance, reach back, or context of the previous officer’s community engagement efforts. The community is left starting over from scratch and beginning the cycle anew. In my experience, this is a vicious cycle that inevitably ends the same way.
Here are two examples of this happening
Nearly two years ago, 5A residents asked their PSA lieutenant, night watch commander, and the district commander to personally attend our monthly meeting to hear the community’s needs. After attending, 5A and the PSA 405 lieutenant agreed to merge the regularly scheduled PSA meetings with the ANC meeting so the wider community could attend and be engaged. The joint meeting happened once, but after that learned that the Lieutenant at the time had been reassigned.
An officer gives a public safety update during ANC 5A’s June 2015 ANC 5A community meeting. Image from the author.
Last year, both residents and 5A commissioners began to feel like progress was being made with public safety engagement. A new lieutenant had just arrived and was eager to attend ANC and other meetings. When residents had issues, she would give out her email and cell phone number and encouraged residents to reach out to her.
Over the course of a few months, the new lieutenant became a familiar face around the community while engaging in public safety issues, updating the community and even engaging a local charter school to help improve traffic congestion during drop-off and pick-ups of students. 5A finally had a working relationship that could continue to be effective.
One weekend in late April of this year, I contacted our new lieutenant to get information about a shooting at Webster St NE and South Dakota Ave NE. Not long after I sent my email to her, I received a response I thought we were finally free of: “I apologize… I have been transferred to the First District…”.
At the next meeting of ANC 5A the community met our new PSA Lieutenant, a man who was set to retire in two months!
Residents want better
As an ANC commissioner since 2012, I have sat through numerous meetings that have addressed public safety. Over the last three and a half years, I have listened and advocated for increased community-based policing, better access to public safety information, and better communication between commissioners and PSA lieutenants.
I have also listened to residents’ requests that police officers become more visible in their assigned community by walking or biking in the neighborhoods they are obligated to protect and serve.
Constant turnover, reassignments, and lack of transition planning are dooming any effort at positive community policing. The constant reminder during public safety meetings of an impending major reduction in force does little to produce confidence in residents of the District of Columbia.
While the Mayor and the Council hold meetings, forums, and introduce new legislation, constituent concerns and requests should not be forgotten.