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District police embrace concept of preventing crime through design

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The land east of Nationals Park is already built up, and the pace is accelerating. An estimated 35,000 daytime visitors, workers and new residents are dressing up the Anacostia River front with restaurants and lofts. An upscale 50,000-square-foot grocery store is on the way.

Next up is a project called the Wharf, slated for 27 acres east of the 14th Street Bridge along Maine Avenue SW and Water Street near the Fish Market. Groundbreaking for the first phase is planned for spring; the ultimate aim is millions of square feet of buildings, 20 restaurants, three hotels, 500 boat slips, a concert hall and festival grounds.

All of the burgeoning development is being helped along by an agency that just years earlier might have been seen as an unlikely partner: the Metropolitan Police Department. Chief Cathy L. Lanier is embedding police commanders with developers in the belief that the way things are built can influence the behaviors of criminals and potential victims, much as speed bumps can slow cars.

Last month, Lanier; Daniel P. Hickson, commander of the department’s First District; and developers met at the future site of the Wharf to pore over a scale model and discuss surveillance cameras and sight lines. Hickson called the model “very impressive” even as he contemplated finding a contingent of officers to patrol an area that, at present, requires relatively little attention.

The concept of police working with developers is not unique to Washington, but experts say Lanier’s department is ahead of many of its peers. While some offer a stock list of design recommendations, D.C. police make specific suggestions about safety measures as blueprints are being drawn, well before the first buckets of concrete are poured.

The District learned its lesson with Gallery Place. The explosion of entertainment, restaurants and night life in the area is seen as a cornerstone of the District’s redevelopment. But the crowds and traffic have challenged police, who bemoan a missed opportunity to help design a more safety-oriented downtown when it was first envisioned decades ago.

Bernard Melekian, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said such efforts take “community policing to the next level.”

“It’s not going on everywhere, and it should,” said Melekian, former police chief of Pasadena, Calif. “Once these projects are done, the police are purely reactionary.”

Police have long sought to promote public safety through design, encouraging such common-sense features as bright streetlights, discouraging secluded footpaths and laying out roads to make it difficult to circle a block.

Today, however, police across the country offer even more detailed ideas.

In Los Angeles, police encourage gardeners to plant blackberry bushes because the spiny branches are hard for burglars to crawl through. Seattle police urge bank managers to trim hedges so that the front door is visible from the street. And in San Diego, police warn against street planters that, while visually appealing, might clog sidewalks if used as stools.

The idea, Melekian says, is to merge the goals of developers, who want to know, for example, how many people can fit onto a sidewalk, and police, who want to know whether a building’s doors swing in or out and how that will affect the flow of pedestrians.

The District goes a step further, putting officers at the table with developers as projects are being designed. The process is informal, with the department reaching out to developers of major initiatives to request a seat at the table. When developers agree, Lanier says, police can contribute while changes can still be made with the stroke of a pen instead of the rumble of a bulldozer.

“The meetings are critical,” Lanier said in an e-mail. “Having discussions with those who are leading the development allows us to identify issues on both sides before they arise. That is our best chance for success.”

The packed Gallery

Minutes after 9 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Gallery Place is already on its way to capacity. A police commander, stuck in traffic outside the Verizon Center, is watching the bulging crowd spill onto Seventh Street NW with a worried eye.

People pile out of the Metro station; they stream in and out of movies and restaurants; they try to walk where others want to hang out. They are everywhere. It’s a recipe for trouble, where a bump can turn into a shove that can turn into a punch that can turn into a fight.

“The sidewalk is too small,” explains Hickson. A 37-year veteran of the force, Hickson runs a small army of officers taxed with safety in many of the city’s burgeoning neighborhoods, from the Southwest Waterfront north through Capitol Hill into NoMa, the H Street corridor and Gallery Place.

As the area around Verizon Center exploded into a hub of residences and night life, the need for more police surprised the department. The department responded with reinforcements, and a permanent squad is now assigned there.

Hickson has been able to institute some changes retroactively. For instance, he convinced the city to forbid turns — even by Metro buses — against traffic on Seventh Street to help alleviate bottlenecks. For the most part, however, what’s done is done; the sidewalk, for example, is an immovable impediment, literally set in stone.

Lanier tracks economic development trends across the city closely. She says she recently met with developers to discuss public safety in Ward 8. “The bottom line is every neighborhood and every project has to have the same level of attention from public safety officials if the city is going to continue to grow and thrive,” she wrote.

Having taken lessons from problems attending Gallery Place’s growth, police have already met with developers building the mega-project on the Southwest waterfront, even though they are months away from starting construction.

Police believe such efforts are particularly important as neighborhoods transform, presenting shifting demographics, drastically altered landscapes, changing crowd dynamics and, in some cases, entirely new mini-cities to protect.

All at the table

Seated with Monty Hoffman, chief executive of the development company Hoffman-Madison Waterfront, Hickson and Lanier debated how best to deploy officers at the Wharf.

Hoffman was willing to build a police substation. But Hickson preferred only a closet for storing gear; he wants to discourage officers from sitting in an office and keep them on the streets.

The conversation turned to curbs. Hoffman doesn’t want them, hoping to recreate what he called a European street ambiance, with sidewalks and streets at the same level.

Hickson and Lanier voiced concerns about safety — curbs help keep runaway cars from hitting sidewalk pedestrians — but agreed that a no-curb design might make things easier for police on bicycles.

Thinking ahead, Lanier and Hickson figured officers on bicycles and on foot would handle most patrols at the Wharf; its dense layout would make it difficult for cars to maneuver.

And Hickson urged Hoffman to study Gallery Place — not for its public safety defects, such as the sidewalks, but for its internal security procedures and extensive network of surveillance cameras, which he said were effective.

The idea, Hickson explained, is to devise ways to police an area that go beyond simply sending more officers in.

“It’s not all crime numbers,” he said. “It’s us trying to look at what’s happening in neighborhoods, and that may influence what we do and how we do it. . . . Policing has evolved, like any business, and we’ve realized that we can be predictive rather than totally reactionary.”

Involving police at the blueprint stage adds another voice to the creative process. Police don’t make directives, however; developers can take — or leave — their advice as they see fit.

Hoffman said he learned a lot from his meetings with Hickson and Lanier. And he is acting on their input; at present, he is working to eliminate dark nooks from his plan.

Still, not every police suggestion is embraced. Police, Hoffman said, want restaurateurs to forgo romantic street lighting in favor of brighter lamps. He is seeking a compromise.

“Restaurants want romance,” Hoffman said. “Safety wants lights.”

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