Last Monday, I accompanied D.C. policeman Robert Moss on the 3-to-11 p.m. shift as he patrolled some of the toughest territory in the city.
I listened to drug addicts curse when Moss told them to move their cars from a "No Standing" zone near "their" corner -- 14th and U Streets NW. I watched at Rhode Island Avenue and P Street as an abusive drunk refused to discuss -- or move from -- his seat on the curb. I stood by as Moss, gun drawn, checked out a burglary-in-progress complaint on Vermont Avenue that proved unfounded.
All three of these calls, and a few others, were legitimate police business. But for most of his shift, Robert Moss -- and by extension, hundreds of police officers like him -- was forced to waste time.
He wasted it by investigating a complaint of loud music being played in an apartment house on 16th Street. He never located either the music or anyone who had heard it. Elapsed time: 23 minutes.
He wasted it by taking a complaint from an elderly woman who lived in apartment 704 of a large building on 12th Street. The people in 804 ran their shower so loud that she couldn't sleep, the woman said. It took 21 minutes for Moss to explain that she should call the resident manager in the morning.
And he wasted it in a rundown apartment on Sixth Street NW, which he had already visited 15 times in the previous three months. Neither the problem nor the outcome was any different the 16th time.
The scene: a woman in a pink slip sits at the kitchen table, slugging from a pint bottle of vodka. The request: she wants the police to evict her boy friend, who is a little more sober than she, but not much. The result: "Like I told you all the other times, there's nothing we can do," says Moss. He leaves with a worldly-wise shrug -- after 13 more wasted minutes.
As police regulations now read, Robert Moss must respond to these calls, and any like them. The city has a clear duty to keep the peace, or whatever dimly resembles it. If a woman threatens to become unpeaceful for any reason, even a noisy nearby shower, she can hardly be told that the city doesn't care.
But why should the police be the ones to do the caring?
In the record player incident, the offended apartment dweller could have pounded on his neighbor's door just as easily as Robert Moss. In the loud-shower incident, a social worker would have been the best sort of city employe to step in. Same in the evict-my-boyfriend melodrama.
But without thinking, citizens call the cops. Worse, they tend to dial 911, which is supposed to be reserved for emergencies.
Understandably, the police would rather be safe than sorry. If a woman calls 911, the areawide emergency number, and says there is musical chaos in her apartment house, it's obvious that a fist fight or a shooting might be just around the corner. The police would rather check out such calls, even if they prove groundless, than be criticized or sued for not responding.
But hasn't the time come for other city agencies to be hooked into the police radio network in case their specialists should handle certain calls? The police could then answer only those calls that require force or pose real danger.
Robert Moss thinks we'd all be better off. I do, too.