All Hands on Deck police effort gets mixed reviews

Southeast Washington resident Nikki Peele says seeing police walk around her neighborhood makes her feel safe. So she likes D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s All Hands on Deck program, which floods the streets with police during select weekends each year.

Across the Anacostia River in Northwest, Martin Moulton says his neighborhood near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center struggles with public urination, loitering and other quality-of-life issues. Seeing police around is fine, Moulton says, but he doesn’t think it impresses or intimidates criminals.

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The All Hands on Deck program, which wrapped up its fifth year of operations last month, is a source of public debate largely played out among law enforcement leaders. Considered a key component of Lanier’s crime-fighting strategy, it has been challenged in court by the police union and is unpopular with some officers.

The opinions of residents, however, are less frequently heard. In interviews, residents across the city expressed a range of opinions about its effectiveness.

“It emboldens the community to do what they were already doing — report crime, be vigilant and contribute to a safe atmosphere,” said Peele, a Congress Heights condominium owner and blogger .

“I don’t believe that [All Hands on Deck] is all that effective in targeting criminals,” said Moulton, president of the Convention Center Community Association. “Even the most marginally intelligent criminal, when they see a police officer, will walk away.”

The department has had every available officer work back-to-back shifts on designated weekends since 2007. Lanier describes the program as proactive policing that deters crime during times when it has historically spiked.

That position has led to repeated clashes with Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police Labor Department, who characterizes it as a public-relations stunt. Some rank-and-file officers say that the temporary reassignments affect their regular investigations.

The matter has gone to court, with an arbitrator ruling that two 2009 All Hands deployments violated the police union contract and ordering the city to pay overtime expenses. That amount, which Lanier estimates is $300,000 to $400,00, is another point of contention.

Beyond the public debate is the perspective of residents, whose impressions of All Hands illustrate the range of expectations they have of law enforcement.

Some appreciate the opportunity to nurture relationships with police, while others wonder whether the occasional high-profile presence of officers truly deters criminals.

Originally from Spain, Esperenza Mendoza moved to Adams Morgan three months ago from Capitol Hill. Walking her son to school one morning, she stopped by her car in a reserved alley parking space and found a window smashed. “I did not have any valuables in the car, but they broke in anyway,” she posted in a community e-mail group.

In an interview, Mendoza said she’s uncertain whether All Hands makes a dent in crime in her neighborhood. “If it’s only going to be something for show, then it might not help,” she said. And in some cases, Mendoza said, the presence of officers has worried her.

“I didn’t feel safer because I thought something was going on,” she said.

The final All Hands weekend for 2011 ended Oct. 23. D.C. police used to hold news conferences announcing the program and, afterward, release data on the results, touting arrests, weapons and drug seizures. That hasn’t happened since May 2010.

Lanier said the change was driven by community concern that it didn’t make sense to tell criminals when police would be out in full force. Under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the All Hands weekends have taken on a quieter tone.

“It’s just part of the strategy,” Lanier said. She continues to analyze All Hands data.

“We look at the statistics afterward and compare them to prior years to see if it was effective,” Lanier said. “There’s a lot of research behind this. It’s much more than just telling everyone to show up for work.”

Baumann has said the union may file additional grievances against the program. If Lanier wants more officers on the streets, he says, she should instead advocate for more money in the police budget.

In 2009, there were more than 4,000 officers. Lanier and Gray recently announced more funding for a police recruit class, which would add 120 officers and raise the size of the police force to 3,900 sworn officers by the end of fiscal 2012.

“Residents get frustrated about crime, and they blame the police when they should be blaming management,” Baumann said. “We need to have enough officers to put out on the street and still be doing detective work, crime-scene work, out in the schools and all the other functions that are necessary,” Baumann said.

On that point, at least, residents agree.

“When residents have police issues, the first thing they say is, ‘The police aren’t visible enough.’ All Hands on Deck creates that visibility,” said Eckington area resident Timothy Clark, a Ward 5 advisory neighborhood commissioner who says his neighbors complain about loitering, noise and, in some pockets, drug sales and prostitution. During All Hands, Clark says, complaints plummet.

But when it ends: “For a few days, the criminals stay away, knowing that the area is hot,” Clark said. “But after a while, if you don’t have persistent policing, of course they’re going to come back.”

 
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