In a city where one's address can make a difference on school applications, on party lists and in real estate prices, a hot new neighborhood has emerged: B26.
Nestled in the middle of Capitol Hill, B26 is named for a police beat that stretches from Seventh to 14th streets SE and from East Capitol to E streets SE. Born in January of the D.C. police department's interest in community involvement and nurtured by an enthusiastic sergeant, the neighborhood holds town meetings, involves residents in their security and publishes a monthly newsletter devoted to crime news.
Many who live in B26 readily identify their area by the new name.
Residents say much of the program's success can be traced to Sgt. Wally Bradford, who has become the unofficial mayor of the neighborhood. When assigned to improve community relations in the area as part of a new department program, Bradford seized the opportunity, seeing it as a chance to return to police work as he knew it in the late 1960s.
"Twenty years ago, we were more involved with the residents," the 22-year sergeant said. "Everyone started as a foot-patrol officer, knocking on doors, getting to know people. But we got away from doing that in the '70s and the '80s."
Although he now supervises other officers rather than pounding a beat, Bradford acts much like a foot-patrol officer of old.
Resident Joel Sarfati said he was startled one day last spring to find a uniformed officer standing in his open doorway. It was Bradford, who was going house to house to introduce himself to the residents of B26.
"He said, 'Your door is open. That is not a good idea,' " Sarfati said.
Bradford meets residents for coffee and stops to chat with business owners. He has found "captains" for 75 percent of the blocks in the area and is determined to have one for each block.
Initially, Bradford depended on community meetings to spread the department's message. But the last gathering drew 250 people, too many for a discussion. Now he meets with the block captains, who in turn meet with their neighbors. Either way, the message is the same: Lock your doors, watch for strangers, call the police if you need help.
Bradford's supervisor, Deputy Chief Gary Abrecht, said he assigned a sergeant to each of the scout car beats in his district and told them to create a program.
"Only beat 26 really took off," he said. "Wally is the most involved and has shown the most visible results."
The newsletter that has done much to define B26 as a distinct area grew out of Bradford's first community meeting, held in February. By the end of the evening, resident Ruth Schena had volunteered to write the newsletter.
The first newsletter explained the concept and listed the crimes for February without identifying the addresses; the most recent edition, edited by Sarfati and his wife, Susan, includes a map showing where each crime took place.
Bradford said he supplies the statistics to the editors, who write the lead crime story. He writes a column on safety tips.
When crime increased greatly in August, the Sarfatis responded with a hard-hitting headline: "CRIME EXPLODES 62% IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD. CRITICAL MEETING SEPTEMBER 25!!"
Bradford said some officials criticized him when the headline appeared. He said he told them it was not his newsletter.
"It wasn't an accident that I made it a community newsletter rather than a police newsletter," he said. "By making it a community newsletter, it is hard for the department to dictate what goes into it."
Bradford said he thought the department's credibility was enhanced by the controversy.
"We showed the citizens that we are willing to let them know all the news, good and bad," he said.
No one, including Bradford, is sure how the crime rate has been affected by the emergence of B26. But he said the stronger sense of community can help residents better protect themselves by being more aware of strangers and unusual activity.
The newsletter takes on a folksy note with a list of safety tips contributed by residents. In the October issue, readers were told, "If you have bars on your doors/windows, try a little Vaseline. It makes the bars hard to hold and makes fingerprints easy to see."
Not everyone is pleased with the image presented by a newsletter devoted to crime. Real estate agent Don Denton said he believes the newsletter is too narrowly focused and tends to frighten people.
But Vickie Henderson-Zegar, another real estate agent who also is a block captain, disagrees.
"It is smart to be informed," she said. "The newsletter is about protecting yourself and your property."