May 4, 2012

There’s something mightily wrong with this picture: My parked car gets totaled on a Massachusetts Avenue service road in American University Park at 10:05 p.m. on a recent Saturday. By all accounts the driver is weaving and swerving at a high speed when his or her late-model Chrysler Sebring smashes into my Honda Civic. A police officer arrives, writes up a report — and there is absolutely no follow-up, no apparent effort to apprehend the hit-and-run driver for at least 10 days afterward. 

Okay, so no one was injured. And, yes, I am insured (although, in replacing the car, I will probably lose more than $10,000). But do these facts let the police off the hook?

The officer who responded that night warned my wife and me, as closely as I can recall his words: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease on hit-and-run accidents in the District. The 2nd District has only one detective devoted to investigating hit-and-run accidents, but the efforts are hit-or-miss. They keep changing the detective involved. And you have to keep bugging them to get any action.”

In essence, he was saying that we had to do our own detective work. Which I unhappily did.

The next day, I spoke to two workers at a gas station across the street from where my car was parked. One of them reported that he “saw it all” and provided the information about the make and model of the culprit’s vehicle, among other facts. The restaurants in the immediate area were not open at the time of the accident, but they offered to make their camera footage from that night available to police — and pointed out useful cameras at two local banks, as well as a camera across the street at the American University Washington College of Law. At least one of these cameras might have captured an image of the hit-and-run driver speeding off after the demolition.

For a week and a half, however, my e-mails and calls to the detective in charge of hit-and-run accidents in the 2nd District — and even my visits to the station — were met with silence. No return calls, no return e-mails. Finally, I learned that the detective had been assigned to a detail in another part of the city for at least a week after the incident. No one else, apparently, was available to respond.

Our experience with the Metropolitan Police Department goes against what has become a guiding principle of much urban police work: the broken-windows theory.  This idea, introduced in 1982 by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, is reflected in the following example: “Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.”

This theory, though initially controversial, has shown to be quite effective around the country. An ordered environment sends the signal that the area is monitored and that criminal behavior will not be tolerated. In contrast, a disordered environment sends the signal that one can engage in criminal behavior with little risk of detection. 

In our situation, we are not dealing simply with a broken window. A whole car has been demolished without much risk of detection for the perpetrator — a perpetrator who may well have been intoxicated and probably should be kept off the roads.

If my case is at all typical, the D.C. police have set up some strange incentives: If you are involved in a serious car accident, especially if you happen to be drunk and it is night and you see no obvious witnesses, then leave the scene as quickly as possible. Do not tarry. 

Clearly there is moral hazard in having automobile insurance. If people are insured, especially with no-fault insurance, and if no one is injured, then why should anyone bother looking for the perpetrator? No harm, no foul. But we all pay. Insurance prices go up, especially for those of us who live in the jurisdiction where the claim was made.

In his poem “The Drunken Driver Has the Right of Way,” filmmaker Ethan Coen describes it best:

The loudest have the final say,

The wanton win, the rash hold sway,

The realist’s rules of order say

The drunken driver has the right of way.

Yes, indeed, the law-abiding citizen parking his car innocently in the District seems to have absolutely no right of way.