The D.C. police department believes in doing things in a big way.
Late last year, in a joint operation with the U.S. Marshals Service, the police department invited 3,000 fugitives to a Sunday morning "brunch" at the Washington Convention Center. Having offered these felons free Redskins tickets and chances to win a trip to the Super Bowl, law enforcement officers, some wearing tuxedos and a deputy marshal in a chicken costume, arrested 101 who took the bait.
Riding the crest of that success, police planned what was to be the largest raid ever attempted in this city, designed to crack a network of allegedly secretive, heavily armed, largely Jamaican Rastafarian drug dealers. Planning the operation took more than 16 months. Police bought $40,000 in drugs to establish their case and prepared a 30-page handbook setting forth raid details.
"I wanted to know when it was going to end because we were running out of money to buy drugs," Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. said later of the meticulous planning.
Then, just before dawn on Saturday, police struck. With 540 city and federal officers and backup personnel and even some members of the news media on hand to watch, they descended on 69 locations in Northeast and Northwest Washington.
Instead of uncovering mammoth caches of illegal drugs, automatic weapons and 75 suspected major drug dealers police arrested only 27 persons (but not one of the suspected 75), found $20,000 in drugs and nine guns, none of them automatic weapons.
The police department had egg on its face. Not only did this grand-scale raid fail to net many criminals, but to make matters worse, police ended up raiding homes of perhaps some innocent people -- including a former lieutenant with the police department's own Special Operations Division who retired three years ago.
"It was like the Allied troops landing at Normandy," said Ewan Brown, 45, of the 3400 block of Oakwood Ter. NW. Brown, a Jamaican and part-time employe at The Washington Post, said police trashed his home and found nothing. Brown added that neither he nor the nephew who lives with him is involved with drugs.
Awakened by a doorbell and a sledgehammer that eventually knocked off their front door, one Adams-Morgan resident who asked not to be identified found herself looking into the barrel of a police shotgun.
"They demanded to know where my mate and I kept the weed," she said. "I told them we didn't have any marijuana. But they said they would search until they found some."
"I was extremely angry," she said, "and I let them know it. Then one of them took my mate's telephone book from a file and examined it. Seeing an African name, the policeman said it was 'a strange name' and said he had to investigate it, taking the book. I protested, saying it is a sad state of affairs when you, a black policeman, of African descent, find an African name strange. For that, the officer threatened to arrest me."
In the wake of this debacle, chagrined police officials have apologized to one family for tearing up their home. The police department has a crew of workmen who repair doors and windows damaged if police raid the wrong property, officials have said.
That's mighty decent of them, especially in view of the fact that the District has no legislation that compels monetary compensation for innocent persons whose property is damaged as a result of mistakes by the police. The city needs such legislation.
I can understand that the raid might have gone astray because drug dealers were tipped off, but I cannot understand how police could target the homes of possibly innocent people.
"Someone should take a careful look at the affidavit that justified searches," said Arthur Spitzer, legal director of the local American Civil Liberties Union. "It needs to be determined if people were tipped off, if police swore falsely, if informants made things up in order to garner police favoritism or even if . . . . typographical errors were made that could have sent police to the wrong house." The affidavit has been sealed by a D.C. Superior Court judge.
While maintaining law and order is the responsibility of the police, there is no justification for the damage done to apparently innocent citizens. This crime-fighting effort should make our police department stop and think, for here was an instance in which they failed to protect the innocent or to arrest the guilty.