David A. Clarke, the 6-foot-5 hulking City Council member, was fuming. He figures everybody downtown knew that he, as head of the council's judiciary committee, has nominal control of the issue of crime. What's more, for more than a year and a half he and his staff had worked on a partial revamping of the city's criminal code -- the kind of issue that an ambitious politician, like Clarke, would like to be able to lean on in future campaigns.
So Clarke was, to say the least, upset recently when he found himself being upstaged by equally ambitious council members aiming to commandeer a piece of the action.
Betty Ann Kane and John Ray each introduced legislation to establish mandatory prison sentences for persons who commit violent crimes with guns. Ray also introduced a bill to toughen prosecution of juveniles and strengthen the city's gun control law. Chairman Arrington Dixon mentioned crime prominently as one of his legislative priorities for the current council session. Nadine Winter scheduled hearings on crime in her Ward 6. Freshman council member H. R. Crawford scheduled "roundtables" in his Ward 7.
Clarke fired back by releasing his criminal code revisions two days earlier than expected, telling anyone who would listen how sloppy and uninformed his colleagues' bills were and pitching what looked like tantrums -- pounding desks and the like -- in an attempt to retain control.
All pretty tough stuff, but when all is fought and won, will their intensity make a difference in the escalating crime rate? A top District police official doubts that the council's frenzied machinations will make "one iota" of difference, and, in fact, fears the politicans will make matters worse.
"What I worry about and what any police official worries about," he said, "is that we'll create an atmosphere of hysteria where you get reactionary things happening. Our greatest fear is that the atmosphere will get vigilante-oriented.
"The crime issue is so popular," he sighed, "that they all want to be tougher-than-thou."
How tough, you might ask. Mandatory sentencing? The District already has more people behind bars per capita -- one percent of the city's population -- than any other jurisdiction in the country. Gun control? The city's current law is one of the toughest in the nation. Hearings and roundtables? Clarke's committee already has held a slew of hearings, though most council members did not find time to attend. That was back when crime was just crime, not CRIME.
"We've already made everything illegal," said council member John A. Wilson in the down-home, back-country drawl he often uses to make a point. "The problem is, they ain't catching nobody." He added, "These people aren't scared of getting caught, they ain't scared of getting killed. How in the world do you deal with that?"
Nevertheless, the denizens of the District Building have perceived that Washingtonians are deeply concerned about the city's rising crime rate. The District ranks 14th among major cities with worsening crime rates (with first being worst). But for many, especially those who have personal experience with crime, 14th is too high.
Clarke announced during a stormy council debate that he had been the victim of four felonies in the past two years, including being stabbed in the chest as he walked to his Adams-Morgan home and having his $250 bicycle stolen.
A few minutes later, during the same debate, observers feared Clarke's tally would increase to five when Wilson misheard a Clarke wisecrack (referenced to Wilson's finance committee) and snarled back at him with a fury that would freeze the toughest mugger.
"Maybe I was annoyed," Wilson grumbled later. "All this is politics."