By Theola Labbé-DeBose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 17, 2009
Litisha Payne's son Dante, 8, was walking home from summer school in Northeast Washington last week when a couple of teenage boys grabbed him by the throat in an alley, demanded money and pushed him up against a fence. Payne immediately spoke to the school and called D.C. police. A patrol officer took the report and told her to wait for a detective's call.
Payne said yesterday that she's still waiting.
"When I called the 6th District to find out if it had been assigned, they told me all of them were out because it was 'All Hands on Deck,' " Payne said.
All Hands on Deck is a crime-fighting tool in which extra officers, including detectives, hit the streets citywide over a weekend. The massive police presence, Chief Cathy L. Lanier says, reduces crime, brings police closer to the community and makes residents safer.
But Payne and other crime victims say the program has an unintended consequence: Some cases aren't getting to detectives in a timely manner, making it less likely that the criminals will be brought to justice.
"I didn't exactly know what 'All Hands on Deck' was before, but to know that they're taking detectives from one position to another, that just leaves anyone who's been violated kind of hanging," said Payne, 27.
The special citywide detail, in which officers work a pair of overtime shifts during a weekend, is an approach favored by Lanier. It was used most recently last weekend, when 2,500 officers were deployed on 12-hour shifts. Four more All Hands details are planned this year.
Lanier spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the program has not caused widespread problems for detectives. "Detectives are scheduled . . . on a rotational basis to avoid disruptions in their investigations," she said.
But some detectives don't see it that way. They say that All Hands assignments interrupt investigations and that investigators often take comp days after working the overtime shifts, further delaying their return to pending cases. An exception is made for homicide detectives, who are exempt from All Hands shifts.
Detective William Hawkins, for instance, pointed to a Capitol Hill burglary case that he was working last month. He said he received an e-mail from the victim that provided an updated list of missing items, including electronics and jewelry, along with the potential value of the items.
"I'm very anxious to get this investigation underway and to get a police report to give to the insurance company," wrote the woman, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted again.
Hawkins responded in an e-mail the next morning that he would not get a chance to work on the case "for quite a while." He was scheduled for two days off and then had to report to Georgetown for an All Hands on Deck assignment. After that, he had mandatory training at the police academy, followed by a day off, a special Fourth of July detail and another All Hands on Deck.
"Looks like 7/5, 7/6 and 7/7 are free to investigate my crime victim's cases," Hawkins wrote in the e-mail.
The resident wrote a follow-up message to a supervisor, Inspector Michael Reese, asking that her case be assigned right away. "After the attentive and painstaking work . . . it seems odd that this case would be virtually abandoned for at least two weeks," she wrote.
Reese declined to comment. Hawkins said he was able to check with a couple of pawnshops on his days off. He's scheduled to work the next All Hands the weekend of July 24.
"There are burglaries and serious assaults and armed robberies that are set aside because of AHOD," said Hawkins, a detective for 11 years. "Detectives should be exempt because it jeopardizes cases."
The tactic of flooding the city with officers is not new. Former police chief Charles H. Ramsey declared "crime emergencies." Lanier called her first All Hands in June 2007, six months after becoming chief. There were five details last year. Officials called them all successful because of the increased number of arrests, although few were for homicides or other violent crimes. The extra officers sometimes organize community events during All Hands weekends, which gives them a chance to spend time meeting and talking with residents, a hallmark of Lanier's community policing strategy.
Detectives in units other than homicide quietly grumble that they don't have as much time as homicide investigators to work on cases because they get pulled to do special duty, which can be an All Hands, a major protest or a presidential inauguration. As of June 20 of this year, the closure rate for homicide cases is 72 percent, up from 41 percent in 1997.
Kristopher Baumann, head of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1, said it doesn't make sense to put extra officers on weekend duty when agency statistics show that crime in some parts of the city spikes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
"If it's that's important, why hasn't the chief gone to the council to say we need 6,500 officers so we can have the equivalent of All Hands on Deck all the time?"
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chairs the committee that oversees the police, said that All Hands has several benefits but that residents should not have to wait days for a detective to follow up on a crime report, no matter what the reason.
"The first 24 to 48 hours are critical for solving a case, and if you lose that time because you don't have a detective available, you make it potentially difficult to close a case," Mendelson said. "I don't know if one can blame All Hands on Deck, but one can blame the managerial decision of how the officers are being deployed and how they can work these cases."