When Police Chief Burtell M. Jefferson, spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library last week as the first in its series of noon speakers, his audience came prepared.
Their concerns ranged from rapes in Adams-Morgan and protection for senior citizens to prostitution, press coverage of the police department and vocational training for inmates at the D.C. jail.
One woman, who had recently been arrested and spent the night in a holding cell, asked Jefferson his opinion on conditions in the detention cells. The woman, who said she later was released and the charges against her dismissed, told Jefferson she was treated rudely by police officers and had to sleep on a metal bench before being released.
"I just think it is cruel and unusual punishment for people to have to sleep on metal benches. Why can't you have mattresses?" the woman asked.
Jefferson smiled and responded: "It would be impractical for us to use mattresses. There are so many people who go in and out of these facilities that it would become a health hazard."
He said the police department was going to improve its detention cells and create "a hotel for prisoners."
He added that people being held in the facility usually had broken the law and did not deserve special treatment.
"Do your officers have special training in dealing with the public?" the woman asked.
"There is special training from the time a police officer enters as a cadet," Jefferson responded. "In fact, there are also in-service training courses where those officers on duty are regularly taught how they should handle the public."
Jefferson also defended the department's record on law enforcement, explaining that courts often release people whom police arrest. He complained about a recent trial of an alleged drug dealer, who Jefferson said brought $30,000 worth of heroin into the city's black community.
"We had what we thought was a good case, but a jury of his peers let him off. Now we can only prosecute him by using the Internal Revenue Service," Jefferson said.
In response to a question about prostitution on 14th Street, the chief said, "There are a number of crimes like prostitution where we would like better enforcement of the law. But when these women are arrested some judges do not believe what they do deserves severe punishment."
Jefferson said a recent study by the police department showed that more than 50 percent of the prostitutes in the 14th Street area have drug problems and that crimes such as assault and robbery are often connected with prostitution.
The questioner, Marie Hollis, a sophomore at Howard University, who lives in a college dorm near that area, later said she has been harassed by motorists solicting her for prostitution. "I am just tired of it. I don't see why the police department can't get them off the street. They know who they are."
Julie Wall, a member of Women's Network, told the police chief that she was concerned about a recent incident in Adams-Morgan where two members of the Women's Network were arrested for handing out leaflets concerning a suspected rapist in the area.
"These women were doing a public service.Why were they arrested? They were taken to jail while the rapist was released from jail without even being fingerprinted," she said.
Jefferson said he would not comment since he did not know the details of the case. He recommended that the woman join one of the community groups that regularly meets with police and raise the complaint there.
D.C. public library officials, who organized the seminar, were pleased with the turnout.
At noon today, D.C. School Superintendent Vincent Reed will speak on public education. Tomorrow, Lisle Carter, president of the University of the District of Columbia, will speak on higher education.