D.C. police chief says predicting crime is way to protect new development in district

August 4, 2012

The streets of NoMa routinely teem with people well into the early morning as partiers stream through the doors of the massive nightclubs Ibiza and Fur. The neighborhood just north of Union Station is among the District’s fastest-changing, and even its name has only begun to stick.

NoMa — short for north of Massachusetts Avenue — is now a bustling city within a city in Northeast Washington, and more condos and a new hotel are on the way. That has D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier girding for a surge in 911 calls from new residents concerned about safety, security and noise when 1,400 clubgoers step outside at 3 a.m. Her strategy for dealing with that, she said, is still being worked out.

“I’m trying to determine what type of resources I have and how we will deploy — foot patrol versus bike patrol versus cars,” Lanier said in a recent interview.

These days, police study not only where crime happens but also where they think it will happen. As residential and retail development pushes more people and businesses into new areas, economic development data can be as important in shaping police staffing decisions as armed-robbery statistics.

In communities identified as redeveloping, the police presence can become more visible through increased foot and bicycle patrols. More detectives are assigned to investigate the crimes that occur. Officials reach out to residents and community leaders, and they survey business owners on their needs.

Lanier keeps a binder stuffed with numbers on 14 areas considered the District’s up-and-coming shopping and residential hubs, including the Southwest Waterfront and City Center along New York Avenue NW.

She’s preparing a five-year plan to detail how she intends to police those neighborhoods in the future.

“My primary goal, as these areas roll out, is that not only are they safe, but that they feel safe,” Lanier said, explaining that she deploys an “initial surge of officers” as an area becomes established. “We need to set the standard very quickly of what is what is not acceptable.”

Today, her attention runs toward areas that include H Street in Northeast and Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor in Northwest. On H Street, residents had long complained of rampant drug dealing and prostitution. Redevelopment has brought new businesses, residents and visitors, but also more street robberies and late-night nuisance crime.

Transformations

Years ago, the area around Gallery Place in Northwest was the epicenter of District revitalization. In a place once largely deserted, the construction of a downtown arena produced a gradual escalation in the number and quality of restaurants, shops and residences. It also attracted problems — including crowd issues, traffic congestion, shoplifting and robberies.

The District is not a 24-hour city. Still, residential neighborhoods largely served by corner-store retail have been transformed into day-and-night destinations for people from across the region. That has meant a change for a police department that for decades chiefly struggled with homicide and the drug trade.

“Even a subtle change in a neighborhood can change crime,” Lanier said.

“Ultimately, it’s a complete shift in standards, regulations, transportation, policing and public safety. If we know where the development is, we can predict a little better and put things in place to prevent crimes from popping up in those places.”

One reason redevelopment challenges police is that it doesn’t happen all at once. Along H Street NE, for instance, the bars, dance studio, restaurants and clubs are still next to boarded-up buildings.

In the patrol area that includes the H Street corridor, armed and unarmed robberies dropped from 77 in the first seven months of 2006 to 52 during the same period this year, according to the department. The total number of violent crimes dropped from 116 to 76 for that same period.

Residents say they understand that revitalization doesn’t wipe out crime completely or for good. The prostitutes and corner boys who pushed crack are gone, neighborhood residents say, but there are other fears — robbers preying on patrons rendered vulnerable by alcohol and dangers associated with late-night crowds, for example.

“We traded one type of crime for another,” said Pia Forstrom, who is in her early 40s and nine years ago moved with her husband from San Diego to a townhouse just south of H Street.

Ed Hill, 40, who moved to the neighborhood from Logan Circle in Northwest two years ago, said that he has not been a crime victim but that he does watch trends through police Internet listings and the news media.

“I still won’t come to H Street after 11,” Hill said as he sipped beer one recent evening at the Biergarten Haus, where he was with friends and their young children. “But it’s because of the drunken 20-year-olds, not the crime.”

Serious crime remains an issue in redeveloping neighborhoods.

A community leader in Columbia Heights complained that the drug dealers still haven’t left. In June, a man was shot in the face during the robbery of a $200 cellphone at 13th and G streets NE, just off the H Street nightlife district. Four people were shot and wounded — two each on consecutive weekends — last month on U Street.

Dissatisfied customers

There is also friction between law enforcement and community leaders who say police are not moving quickly enough or deploying officers smartly enough in some areas to ensure a smooth transition for residents, businesses and visitors.

Business owners along H and U streets are declining to collectively pay for off-duty officers to work overtime in their neighborhoods. Groups in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, established centers of D.C. night life, have chosen to do so.

Proprietors complained that they were being asked to pay half an officer’s hourly wage but would have little influence over deployment. They also said they pay enough in taxes and shouldn’t have to pay more for such a basic public service as police protection.

“There has to be a new approach,” said Joe Englert, who owns five establishments along H Street. “It’s an odd sort of arrangement where you pay for police that aren’t necessarily going to be there guaranteed.”

Englert said the changes he helped bring about haven’t changed how the area is policed, which appears geared toward the daylight hours and not to the nighttime, when he needs it most.

“People don’t spend that much time at home,” he said. “They have long workdays. They eat out and go to the gym. We are a society of people that use their houses as a changing station and a bedroom.”

‘Intelligent’ protection

Brian Card, president of the U Street Neighborhood Associations, agreed.

“Of course, we would all like to see more police,” said Card, who has lived in the heart of the U Street shopping district for a quar­ter-century.

“But we would like to see intelligent police protection. Some of the cops just sit in their cars and respond to calls. Some are proactive. They introduce themselves, take an interest.”

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said that U Street businesses could benefit from paying for officers to patrol the area on overtime.

“With the increasing violence, I think the case is clear they should be doing it,” Graham said, referring to recent shootings on U Street.

Staffing — and funding — large-scale deployments at night can be tricky. Lanier said, “because the city is so busy during the day.” But she said that protecting redeveloping neighborhoods is a priority, not an option.

“We can’t afford to have those areas not continue to grow because of crime,” she said.

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