By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 12, 2006; A01
D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey reacted yesterday to a recent surge in homicides by declaring a "crime emergency," a move that gives him the freedom to quickly adjust officers' schedules and restrict their days off.
Thirteen people have been killed since July 1 in the District, and police are being pressured to take action by residents at community meetings and vigils to honor the dead. The victims included a popular store owner slain at closing time, a community activist killed in a park and a British citizen whose throat was slit in Georgetown.
"You can't make sense of it because it doesn't make any sense," Ramsey said of the slayings, which have occurred in all four quadrants of the city. "Thirteen people is simply unacceptable by anyone's standards. We have to do something right now."
The declaration came on the same day that Ramsey transferred a police official who was accused of making a racially insensitive remark at a community meeting Monday night in Georgetown. Ramsey temporarily reassigned Inspector Andy Solberg, who urged residents to report suspicious activity and said, "This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown."
Ramsey had declared three previous crime emergencies since becoming chief in 1998, the most recent in December after four people were killed in six hours. The declaration gives him the power to quickly shift the department's 3,800 officers to areas and times they are needed most. He can change schedules without giving officers 14 days' notice, as required under the union contract. Ramsey said he will increase patrols in hard-hit neighborhoods and put nonuniformed officers on the streets to help provide the increased coverage.
Ten men, two women and a 16-year-old youth have been killed in the city since July 1. The most recent killing occurred at 1:25 a.m. yesterday in the 3600 block of 22nd Street SE, where Laquanda Johnson, 24, was found fatally shot. A suspect was arrested about 12 hours later in Suitland.
Despite the recent uptick in violence, the number of people killed this year is the same as at this point in 2005: 94. But the number of robberies is up 14 percent, and Ramsey and other commanders are concerned that more holdups will turn deadly.
"Robbery is a very dangerous crime," Ramsey said. "You are literally one movement away from it being a homicide."
Police have linked robbery and homicide in the slaying early Sunday of Alan Senitt, 27, a British citizen who was caught by surprise while walking a friend home along a tree-lined street in Georgetown. Senitt's throat was slashed and his friend was nearly raped, police said. Four suspects are in custody -- including a woman who allegedly drove the getaway car and a 15-year-old who authorities want to prosecute as an adult. Senitt had been working in Washington with a political action committee set up for former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D).
Two of the suspects in Senitt's killing -- Christopher Piper, 25, and Jeffrey Rice, 22 -- had criminal records. Piper was paroled this year after a prison term for armed robbery and a drug charge. Rice was released in May after serving time for a drug offense and probation violation. Authorities said the two are suspects in at least two robberies that took place in Georgetown in the weeks before Senitt's attack.
About 400 people crowded into a church in Georgetown on Monday night to discuss the Senitt killing. Solberg, the commander of the 2nd Police District, was addressing that forum when he made his remarks about race. Senitt was white, and the suspects in the case are black.
When he made the comment, Solberg was telling the crowd to report suspicious-looking people to police when they see them in the neighborhood. He talked about the suspects in the Senitt killing and described one as a "chubby, stocky guy" and one as a 15-year-old. He said at 2 a.m. they "are going to stand out" in the area.
"They were black," Solberg said. "This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life."
Solberg did not respond to messages yesterday. In an interview after the meeting, he told WJLA-TV (Channel 7), "What should be suspicious is three guys standing out on a street corner at 2 o'clock in the morning."
Ramsey said yesterday that Solberg is "a good man, not a racist or anything like that." Ramsey said he opened the investigation because "public trust is not something we can afford to lose." He reassigned Solberg to the police department's security services section pending the outcome of the investigation.
Bill Starrells, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission from Georgetown who was at the meeting, said he "winced" when he heard the comment. "Obviously it was out of place," Starrells said. "It was out of character for him. It was an unfortunate comment."
He said Solberg has done "great work" in the 2nd Police District. Solberg, a 19-year veteran, took charge of the district in April.
Other community activists in Georgetown and downtown said they were surprised that Solberg had been reassigned for the statement. Lowaunz Tascoe, a black shop owner who has lived in Georgetown for almost 40 years, said Solberg had merely stated the truth.
"How come people don't know that? These people live in a box?" Tascoe said. " It is highly, highly unusual to see three young black males roaming around up there in the residential neighborhoods."
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Leroy Thorpe said he suspects that Ramsey transferred Solberg to "play it safe politically" and ease racial tensions over radically different outcomes in two high-profile weekend killings.
An arrest was made within hours of Senitt's slaying, but police have yet to catch the person who killed Chris Crowder, 44, a black community activist who was shot early Saturday in a park near the Washington Convention Center. Last night, a crowd gathered in that neighborhood to push for police action.
In the Bloomingdale section of Northwest, residents are pressuring police to do more to solve the killing of Maurice "Moe" Darnaby, 35, who was slain about closing time July 1 at his A&L Market.
Bloomingdale resident Jim Chambers, who went to a vigil for Darnaby last week, said he was not impressed by the emergency declaration. "I would say the Metropolitan Police Department is always one step behind what needs to be done," Chambers said. "It's a reactive police department, not a proactive one."
Leaders of the police union took issue with the declaration. They said the chief lacks an effective crime-fighting strategy.
"The question becomes: Is this good policing?" said Officer Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. police labor committee for the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1. "What we need is intelligent, comprehensive crime-fighting strategy rather than reactionary policing."
"While it may sound like an amazing mobilization reaction, what it does is allow the chief not to pay officers for overtime," further demoralizing the force, he said.
Ramsey said he will reevaluate the emergency declaration in 30 days. In the meantime, he said, he will honor approved vacation requests but will not necessarily grant new requests. "That will be on a first-come, first-served basis," he said.
Staff writers Karlyn Barker, Henri E. Cauvin, Lori Montgomery, Robert Samuels and Clarence Williams contributed to this report.