Two out of every three small-shop owners in the District have been victims of crime, but nearly half never bothered to call the police because of long waits for a response, language barriers and other problems with D.C. officers, according to a new survey that largely concentrated on the city's many Asian American merchants.
The survey of 114 store owners concluded that crime remains the top concern of the merchants almost six years after the unrelated shooting deaths of nine Asian storekeepers in 1993 prompted a wave of fear and anger among these business owners and led police officials to promise to do more to protect them.
The string of killings also led Asian American activists in 1994 to conduct the first survey of the city's small-business owners--about one-half to two-thirds of whom are Asian--to document their complaints about D.C. police. Last month, activists polled the merchants again to see whether anything had changed.
Store owners said crime is down and more police officers are on patrol. But they continued to complain about slow responses to 911 calls, a lack of bilingual officers and a failure of officers to report the outcome of investigations.
"The situation is better than it was five years ago, but there's still more the police can do," said Francey Lim Youngberg, director of the Access to Justice Partnership, a coalition of community groups working with federal funds to improve the access of Asian Americans to the District's criminal justice system.
She said volunteers visited groceries, liquor stores, carryouts, dry cleaners and beauty salons in selected neighborhoods in six of Washington's seven police districts and interviewed store owners in person. About 40 percent of the merchants identified Korean as their native language, 18 percent spoke Chinese, and 5 percent spoke Spanish. About 30 percent were native English speakers.
Theft and robbery topped the list of crimes shop owners said they have experienced, followed by vandalism and assault. Yet 40 percent of the merchants said they didn't report crimes committed against them, nearly twice as many as said in 1994 that they didn't report crimes.
Only one storekeeper cited fear of retaliation from criminals as the reason for not calling police. The vast majority of the other merchants complained about how long it takes officers to respond to calls and expressed frustration about D.C. police performance. Most who make reports said they never heard back from officers about the outcome of investigations.
"It's not worth it to call the police. It's no use. They just take a report and nothing happens," said Su Dao Gui, 30, the owner of a Chinese carryout near Howard University.
He keeps the business cards of various officers taped to a wall near the cash register, with several police report numbers scribbled on each one. But he said he never heard back from any of the officers.
Su said his deliverymen are robbed once or twice a year, and drug dealers often loiter inside the restaurant and get in fights or harass his employees. When he does call the police, he said in Chinese, "you wait and wait, and by the time they arrive, the people involved are gone."
D.C. police spokesman Joe Gentile said the department is "very concerned" about the survey's results and continues to recruit Asian officers.
"We created the Asian Liaison Task Force to address some of these concerns, and crime is down, but we know there's more to do," he said. "We're continually working to serve the needs of all citizens, and that includes improving our response time and providing better training for our officers."
One in four merchants surveyed said it takes 30 minutes or more for police to respond to a serious crime such as robbery or assault. Five years ago, nearly half of them complained that it took more than 30 minutes for a response.
Ha Chung, 43, who owns a liquor store near Su, said he hesitates to call police in part because his English is limited, and there are no police officers in his district who speak Korean.
"The officers want to help, but they can't," he said. "I try to explain, but I don't know if they catch it or not."
James Yim, president of the Korean American Grocers Association, said some police officers will believe a shoplifting suspect's version of events over a merchant's simply because they can't or won't try to understand what the merchant is saying.
"The language issue is a big problem," he said. "The police don't listen to the store manager. They just listen to the customer."
Yim and others agreed that police performance has improved and that crime is down. And while most merchants surveyed could not name any of their beat officers, two-thirds said they see officers walk by their stores daily or weekly.
"It used to be a very bad situation, but it's getting a little better. Korean merchants are getting closer to the police officers, and they're getting better service," said Sang Lim, president of the D.C. Korean American Chamber of Commerce.
Yong Song, 58, the manager of New Seven Market in Southeast Washington, said his convenience store has become "a regular stop" for police officers.
"Before, there weren't much police," he said. "Now . . . sometimes, there are six or seven of them in here. We let them use the bathroom and drink coffee."
Store Owners and Crime
A recent survey of District merchants found that while nearly two-thirds of them had been victims of a crime in their shops, 40 percent never reported the incident to the police. More say they have been victims of serious crimes such as theft and robbery.
Have been victimized by crime
Yes 89% 64%
No 11% 32%
No answer 0% 4%
Reported the crime
Yes 78% 60%
No 22% 40%
Type of crime
Shoplifting 28% 39%
Theft 16% 39%
Robbery 18% 37%
Vandalism 20% 28%
Physical assault 7% 22%
Average time it took for police to report to a serious crime:
More than 30 minutes 46% 25%
Never heard from police again after crime was reported 68% (1999)
Told of the outcome of the case 32% (1999)
SOURCE: Door-to-door survey of 114 stores in six of seven police districts, July 31, 1999, by the Access to Justice Partnership.