D.C.'s Crime Emergency

Thursday, July 13, 2006

WITH 14 PEOPLE killed within the first 11 days of July, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey was on solid ground in declaring a "crime emergency" Tuesday. A 14 percent rise in robberies over the same period last year also argues forcefully for a step up in policing. As this latest surge amply demonstrates, no quadrant of the city is beyond the reach of crime. The emergency declaration will allow the chief to quickly deploy the department's 3,800 officers to crime hot spots or wherever additional patrols and plainclothes police are needed.

But will this be enough? The answer is no, as the chief will tell you himself.

The D.C. Police Department cannot stop prisons from putting inmates -- unskilled, unprepared and jail-hardened -- back on the streets, as apparently was the case with two of the suspects in the slaying in Georgetown early Monday morning. Thousands of ex-offenders return to the District each year, many still reading and performing at the grade-school level they had attained when first incarcerated. That too many relapse into criminal behavior is not in question. What's more, the police cannot confiscate all of the guns and knives within the District's borders before they are used in crimes. The police department can certainly increase coverage in hard-hit neighborhoods. But a 3,800-member police force cannot be everywhere at once. And it cannot do the job alone.

Citizens, who unlike the police are everywhere, can help by being vigilant and by reporting suspicious activity before, not after, the fact. Does that mean following the admonition of Inspector Andy Solberg, commander of the 2nd District, who suggested during a public meeting called to discuss this week's Georgetown slaying that suspicious-looking people in the neighborhood -- those who are "going to stand out" -- should be reported? Yes. But should the criterion be race because, as Inspector Solberg said, "black people are unusual" in Georgetown? The answer, of course, is no. Behavior, actions, demeanor -- not skin color -- should be the basis for picking up the phone and dialing 911.

Citizens can also help the police and themselves by insisting on better rehabilitation programs within prisons and more support services for returning inmates. They can also demand a frontal attack on the pipeline that produces the kind of people who end up robbing, stealing and ultimately killing. Within that pipeline can be found poor parenting, inferior education and lack of values, a drug culture, and an environment where bad behavior is tolerated, if not encouraged.

That pipeline cannot be closed by the police. Achieving that end requires a civic effort involving the home and the religious and business communities, and political leadership when laws are made and resources are channeled. And that requires a fundamental change in the District's priorities. Chief Ramsey and his police force can't make that happen, either.

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