Long before he arrived, Sgt. James Boteler hadheard the 7th Police District was "just the pits to work in." In his first week there last Fevruary, he decided the talk just might be true.
At 2 a.m. one night, Boteler was driving along Wheeler Road, getting the feel of the sprawling Anacostia-Congress Heights area. He stopped at a light and saw ahead of him a car stolen in an armed robbery the night before. The suspect led Boteler on a mile-and-a-half chase before crashing in a Bellevue Street parking lot; he then leaped from the car, ran into an apartment house and down a flight of steps, turned and trained his gun on the officer.
Boteler fired and missed. The man jumped blithely over a wall. Boteler followed.
There was an eight foot drop on the other side.
Boteler landed flat on his face -- and lifted his head to confront the barrel of the suspect's handgun. "I shot him in the leg," said Boteler, recalling the sound of the suspect's bullet whizzing past his left ear.
And the suspect? "He kept running," Boteler said. The man finally was caught when he turned up for treatment at Southeast Community Hospital.
"The irony of it is that I was up there being treated for my hand, which I had split in the fall," Boteler said, "when the nurse comes in and says, 'Hey, we got a gunshot wound, says he was robbed on Wheeler Road.' Sure enough, it was him."
Life can be rough in the 7th, that nether world of D.C. police where experience comes hard and fast, and the thanks are few and far between.
While the 7th doesn't have the city's highest crime rate, it carries one of the biggest burdens of violent crime. From their dilapidated headquarters at 1324 Mississippi Ave. SE, the 223 rank and file officers of the 7th chase some of the city's most consistently dangerous, brutal and desperate criminals.
And those who work in the 7th, far from the downtown spotlight, often feel as forgotten among their peers and politicians as Anacostians among their city neighbors.
Encompassing about half of Southeast, the 7th is bordered by Pennsylvania Avenue, the Anacostia River and the District line. It ranked next to last in reported incidents of crime among all seven districts in 1980, according to police records. But with 6,957 incidents, the 7th District ranked first in homicides, second in rapes and third in aggravated assaults last year.
"Sometimes it's so busy down here that you can't put the radio back in the car before you get another run," said William H. Vaughan III, a 10-year police veteran who has spent all of his time in the 7th District.
"You learn a lot in a little bit of time. They really work you. Saturday night we were working 3 (p.m.) to 11, and we wound up staying until 2 to 2:30 in the morning. We had 11/2 pages of runs -- there's only 14 runs to a sheet," Vaughan said. "And then we started looking for somebody they wanted for a shooting and wound up finding somebody we wanted for two days for an armed robbery. It's not like that every night but it's fairly typical."
Nights like those translate into staggering statistics. Over the last three years, the 7th District has investigated more than 300 rapes, more than 100 homicides and close to 2,000 assaults. In incidence of violent crimes, the 7th trades first place back and forth with the 3rd District, which has a heavily publicized drug traffic problem concentrated on a handful of street corners.
But the 7th has something more. It embraces what are, by any measure, the city's poorest neighborhoods, including nine public housing projects. About a quarter of its families receive welfare and food stamps, and of those with children, about 42 percent have only one parent. Many of the calls for help to the area involve family disputes. While time-consuming and occasionally petty, these disputes cannot be ignored since they could easily flare into serious injuries or homicides. Their police duties also include the protection of better-heeled homes, such as those of Mayor Marion Barry and City Council members H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7) and Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8). The pursuit of missing and sometimes dangerous patients from St. Elizabeth's Hospital also falls to them.
Added to the workload is the feeling, widespread among the officers, that they are ignored by the rest of the city and unappreciated by the people they try to protect. Moreover, officers say they are disparaged among other police as the department's dumping ground for attitude and disciplinary problems, although their record of promotions and awards indicates otherwise.
"It's true -- the feeling anyway," said Capt. Charles B. Moore, the affable commander of one of the 7th District's two sectors. A 12-year police veteran, Moore has completed his first year in the 7th after serving in the 3rd, 1st and 5th Districts. He exemplifies the puckish good humor many 7th District officers wear like a second badge.
"You're in the forgotten precinct. Everybody who works here knows that. You can do a lot of things at King and Talbert, or at Wheeler and Varney (two of the area's biggest drug dealing corners), good and bad, and never hear a word about it in the media. Let's face it, 14th Street (in the 3rd District) has always been politically sensitive: It had the Black Panthers, Pride Inc., SNCC. Nobody colorful's ever been on King Avenue.
"Fourteenth Street's close to the White House, close to the embassies, close to the Post. It's a media magnet," Moore continued, reciting a complaint heard often in the cramped 7th District quarters. "This," he said with a jerk of a fat thumb, "isn't close to anything but St. Elizabeth's."
As an example, officials cited one of their operations, begun in January. As the Wheeler Road and Varney Street area became thicker with drug dealers, the 7th's tactical unit decided to crack down by arresting both buyers and sellers. On four separate occasions, the 26-member squad observed and photographed the transactions and, in one understaffed swoop, returned to make a total of about 100 arrests, according to Lt. Ray Tarasovic, commander of the Sector 2 Tactical Unit.
Then there was the Operation Mr. Peabody in December 1980. A plainclothes officer went out in a shabby overcoat, flowing beard, thick glasses and a bulletproof vest in order to crack down on attacks on the elderly. It produced two arrests of armed robbers.
And then there are the 7th District Community Picnic, Christmas Party and annual marathon softball game, in which the dedicated officers play for 54 hours straight to raise money for muscular dystrophy.
"You never hear about that," said Community Relations Officer Lt. Walter White.
That middle-child identity crisis has spawned a popular nickname -- the Anacostia County Sheriff's Department -- and a host of jokes about passports and visas whenever 7th District officers cross the river. "One of the guys has a bumper sticker," said Moore, "that says 'Anacostia. Love it or Leave it.' Some of the guys even have jackets. We tried 'Southeast Area Border Patrol' but it didn't catch on."
"I keep hearing suggestions that we secede from D.C.," added Deputy Chief James Kelly, commander of the 7th. "I don't know, should we?"
Isolation, however, has as much to do with stereotype and circumstances as with more obvious factors like citizen support and media attention. For years there has been a stigma attached to working in 7th, to which even Kelly once subscribed. "Everybody figures he gets sent to the outpost for a reason," he said, "but I was surprised to find such an efficient, hardworking group. You couldn't ask for a better group." On the contrary, Kelly said, he feels his officers are among the best in the department because the job demands so much from them so soon.
Despite their chief's wholehearted support, officers in the 7th have plenty to reinforce their feelings of second-class citizenship. There is the matter of the station house. The 7th is housed in a cramped old apartment building, a sometime home for neighborhood raccoons, opossums and garden snakes. Police took over the building in 1973, after moving from a building on King and Chicago avenues that they had used since 1903. Parking is on the street and officers say they and their cars have been hit by drunk drivers speeding down Mississippi.
The station is the last of the seven to be renovated or replaced, though the mayor has assured the officers that funds for the new building, to be located at Alabama Avenue and Knox Street, have been included in the 1984 budget. Still, the officers, many of whom feel an acute empathy with Anacostia concerns, liken their situation to that of Southeast residents who have waited just as long for their Green Line Metro.
Community relations are often cited as a reason for officer unhappiness. A Citizens' Advisory Council exists and has a devoted following, officers say, but the rank and file cannot help but feel that much of the community despises them.
One example occurred last week, as a reporter rode with officers Anne Falkinburg and Jimmy Brown. As they responded to a call for a man with a gun, Brown swerved to avoid another car which had begun, inexplicably, to turn into theirs. The cars collided and as Brown rolled the scout car to a halt, a crowd surrounded the car, peering in and laughing. No one inquired about the officers, both of whom appeared stunned and in pain. Several bystanders tapped on the window of the car to inform the reporter, whom they may have mistaken for a prisoner, that she could leave if she wished. And none of the officers back at the station house expressed the least bit of surprise.
"I was dazzled the other day," said Sgt. Charles McGihon, head of the Vice Unit. "We locked up a guy on Condon Terrace for selling narcotics. He began to fight us, and everybody comes out and they're hollerin' that we didn't have to use force on him. And nobody's concerned at all that he's selling dope. I don't understand it."
Still, there are saving graces to life in the 7th, and most of them derive from the officers themselves. "It was culture shock," when he first arrived, said Sgt. Boteler, "but now I love it. It's busy and in a busier district you form a lot more camaraderie. You not only get the job done, you look out for each other."
"I died and went to heaven," said McGihon about his job. "I love coming to work." McGihon, like most officers, is almost apologetic in his praise both of his squad and of his commander. "These are really dedicated men," he said. "I don't want to sound like I'm giving you a line, but that's what makes my job so enjoyable. And Deputy Kelly -- you couldn't ask for a better commanding officer. He's reasonable, mild-mannered, intelligent, supportive. He motivates people."
Even officers who have gone elsewhere come back.
"I put in a request to go to the harbor," said William Shirk, an officer on the tactical unit, "and then I wanted to come back here. It isn't that it was a bad job, it's just that, well, it was boring compared to being here. Here I was used to crawling though windows looking for people, coming in working eight hours nonstop, and (there) all of a sudden I was rescuing people from the harbor."
"I just wish that people would just see the junk a police officer has to go through, both verbally and physically," said Anne Falkinburg, a nine-year veteran. "The other day I was booking a disorderly and the guy just lights into me, 'Well, if your race hadn't come over here and started all this s---, you ain't s---.' And all of that.
"Well, here you've got to play doctor on the scene, you've got to play marriage counselor, you've got to play psychologist," she said. "Sure I'd like to make rank, move around, see how other districts police. But I feel I'm doing better than a sergeant if I can calm a whole family down, get them talking and getting through the night. I might have saved somebody's life.
"I've done something," she said.