There were dozens of similar incidents over several weeks. In each case, the men wore ski masks and gloves, the victim was a woman driving alone, who apparently had been followed until she parked her car, usually someplace in Southeast Washington or Prince George's County. Her jewelry, her money, her credit cards were stolen. Then she was thrown in the back seat of her own car where the men took turns raping her, often at gunpoint, as they tooled the auto through the streets of the city.
Yet it was only after a stolen car carrying three men suspected of committing the rapes crashed and all three were killed that the D.C. police department decided to inform the public that a spree of rapes and robberies had been taking place.
Police said they decided not to alert the public in order to protect the women who had already been victimized from possible retaliation by the rapists and to avoid scaring off the criminals and hampering their investigation. "We don't make efforts to keep things from the public except where it might hamper the investigation or cause us difficulty in court," said Lt. Hiram Brewton of the department's Public Information Office.
That may have been a good decision from the point of view of the police. But it also had the effect of making the public into victims-at-large. Here was an instance where closing the case apparently took precedence over the safety of the public, and that should not be.
Even the press fell down and wasn't persistent enough in pursuing reports and alerting the public that these crimes were occurring. Patrolmen hinted repeatedly that some kind of pattern was developing, that something larger was going on. But their mid-level supervisors refused just as repeatedly to confirm anything out of the ordinary. Here was an instance where the reporters gave up too quickly, and that, too, should not be.
Within the Police Department, even now, there is division over what the public should have known and when it should have known it. "Coupling those two concerns," I think not going public was an appropriate move," says Deputy Chief Alphonso Gibson, who is in charge of the department's criminal investigations division. Gibson's boss, Chief Maurice T. Turner says there should be concern for past victims but the public needs to be alerted. "As the trend became clear, the Police Department should have communicated this to the public," says Turner.
To avoid endangering the victims, police might also have relayed their concern for public safety to city residents through the contacts the department maintains with community civic groups, rather than the general media. Apparently, however, no major effort was made in this direction either.
At times, according to Brewton, police felt they were within one or two days of making an arrest. But no arrest was made, and other women were attacked. If women had been instructed to exercise greater than usual caution, even the women who fell victim to these men in the weeks the police were hunting them may have been spared the traumatic experience of rape.
The question that nags so many people on this one is the same one that came up in the "Freeway Phantom Killings" a decade ago: whether both press and police concern initially would have been greater if the main scene of these crimes were Georgetown or Cleveland Park rather than far Southeast Washington and Prince George's County--or if the victims had not been black.
"I'd like to think they would treat them both the same," said Lt. Brewton, who is black and who lives in the same neighborhood where many of the rapes were committed. Was he worried about his own family? "Not really, but I was concerned," he answered.
"You've got blacks in control of the Police Department," Gibson said rhetorically, then added: "I think the public pressure is the same in these kinds of heinous events. We were relatively sure we were going to catch them. We've all got sisters and daughters and mothers. Certainly we're all concerned about that."
The lesson to be learned here is that communication links to the community must be improved. Many women were potentially in unusual danger. The police knew that. Why didn't we