The U.S. Attorney's Office has told D.C. police narcotics task force officers that their highly publicized drug crackdown has jammed the court system with petty misdemeanor offenses and that a more effective approach would be to develop more serious felony cases to ensure longer prisoner sentences for suspects.
U.S. Attorney Charles F.C. Ruff said yesterday that his office is cooperating with police sweep arrests efforts, but that at a meeting last week, prosecutors offered police "methods of upgrading the quality" of some of the cases they were making.
Police have been engaged for the past month in a new push to drive drug dealers from openly selling narcotics in city neighborhoods. The effort has resulted in at least 474 arrests.
However, at a meeting last Thursday, a group of assistant U.S. attorneys told members of the police task force that the avalanche of misdemeanor drug cases pouring into the court would result in few long prison terms. They also stressed that drug dealers could be kept off the city's streets longer if police redirected their efforts by arresting individuals involved in multiple drug sales -- which would upgrade cases to felony charges -- instead of making quick-hit arrests after witnessing only one transaction.
'We were saying that the idea of sweeping the streets is a totally valid one," said Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., who heads the prosecutors' narcotics unit. "But we can keep the dirt off the street longer if we try to get multiple buys so that we can escalate it into felony prosecutions."
Police say their crackdown has succeeded in disrupting drug traffic, and the immediate result has been a reduction in the street price of some illicit drugs and satisfaction among community members that the police are responsive to their needs. However, police who attended the Thursday meeting said the task force was not set up for traditional undercover narcotics investigations, and the focus had to remain on disrupting drug trafficking.
"They were complaining about the clogging up of the court system," said one police officer who was present at the meeting. "They are interested in felony offenses. But what do you do? Do you let people who make purchases just walk away? We're not going to do that. If that means a lot of misdemeanor cases, so be it."
At the same time, the massive number of cases have clogged the court with more than 100 new cases each week that are unlikely to result in substantial sentences or cause defendants to be held on bond prior to trial, resulting in what one law enforcement official described as "revolving door" justice.
Prosecutors said they would like to see arrests for multiple drug sales -- which are charged as felonies with up to 15-year penalties but require more involved police investigations -- instead of arrests for single drug sales, which generally are charged as misdemeanors that could bring only one-year prison terms.
"Disruption of the street traffic is an important part of an enforcement effort," Ruff said. "Our only effort in talking to the police was to improve the operation and suggest where we thought it possible that in fact more serious cases can be made."
At the meeting, some officers said the mission of the drug task force basically precluded the kind of long-term undercover operation needed for officers to witness multiple drug buys. "They were under the impression that this was a traditional undercover operation," one officer said, "but it's not geared for that."
"The question is, do you want to go out there and make a big splash by getting a lot of misdemeanor arrests with small penalties," said one law enforcement official, "or put in a different kind of effort, and make a greater impact by hitting longer balls when it comes down to sentences."
"The street sweep operation is just a cheap way of saying we're doing something," said one high-level narcotics officer. "The payoff comes when the police chief presents his budget request."
Police Chief Maurice T. Turner said recently that the crackdown was having a positive effect on disrupting drug traffic. "We don't have the crowds or loitering in the drug trafficking areas. We are dispersing that traffic. We are making arrests.