He's a soft-spoken federal prosecutor, on temporary assignment to the District government. Few D.C. residents have ever heard of him, but Erik P. Christian has become a point person in Mayor Anthony A. Williams's new effort to reduce the drug-related crime and violence that plague some neighborhoods.
It is Christian who was chosen by Williams to be a liaison between the mayor's office and a cluster of public safety agencies, including the D.C. police department and the Department of Corrections. Christian's official duties are numerous: to help formulate a long-term plan to reduce drug-related crime, identify ways to curb substance abuse in a city with an estimated 65,000 users, get residents involved in the mayor's program and work with police to close drug markets.
But perhaps Christian's real job is this: to help make sure Williams's effort is not all style and no substance, like so many showy anti-drug sweeps orchestrated by D.C. officials in recent years. Those well-publicized efforts largely amounted to temporary crackdowns by D.C. police on open-air drug markets; soon after the television cameras went home, it often was business as usual.
Christian, like Williams, believes those initiatives failed because they did little to address the reasons that drugs have such a foothold in several low-income neighborhoods. Generations of addiction, a lack of drug treatment and job opportunities, and few recreational programs for youths have combined to make the buying, selling and taking of drugs an insidious part of the city's culture.
That's why, Christian says, the Williams administration's anti-drug plan, aided by a $15 million federal grant, will involve increasing drug treatment, education and mentoring sessions for youths, frequent meetings between D.C. officials and community groups, and the resurrection of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a panel that will give residents another way to air their concerns to city officials.
And yes, there also will be persistent drug raids and patrols, focused initially on a half-dozen particularly troubled areas across the city.
Christian acknowledges that the mayor's program will face pressure to quickly show results from within D.C. government and from some residents, but he insists that neither he nor the mayor's office will support the type of quick-fix policies that have doomed previous anti-drug efforts.
"We want more police presence on the street," Christian said. "The first thing we hear in the community is that there are not enough officers on the street.
"But it's important to find the right solution," to the various social problems generated by drugs, he added. "Whether it takes a day, a week, or over a six-month period, it's important for us to have a sound plan. We want the right solution, and we want a quality approach to the problem."
Christian, 38, will remain a special assistant to the mayor after his original 90-day assignment ends in a few weeks. D.C. officials say that Christian's move from the Justice Department may wind up being permanent; he is widely considered to be the top candidate for deputy mayor for public safety, a position Williams hopes to create soon.
D.C. residents have seen anti-drug initiatives come and go, and Christian said he understands the skepticism of those who wonder how Williams's program--and its prospects--could be so different from the short-lived crackdowns of the past.
Williams's program is different, Christian said.
"This particular strategy has community participation," he said. "The community is directly providing us with the means by which we can abate open-air drug markets. It's a community approach; it's not the mayor and the chief of police telling the community how they are going to handle the problem. That's the difference."
Leroy Thorpe, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 2 who for years has been part of a community patrol in the Shaw neighborhood of Northwest Washington, agreed that involving the community is crucial in anti-drug efforts, but said that the Williams administration should get the community even more involved than currently planned.
Thorpe said, for example, that city officials could do more to support and learn from citizen patrols that operate in troubled neighborhoods like his, where Thorpe says such patrols have helped close about 50 crack houses.
"You need residents involved in the anti-crime initiative," Thorpe said. "You need people who will come forth as witnesses and citizens who will give police information. We need citizens to give us information, to tell us where the drug boys are, what they look like and what kind of cars they are driving. Without community involvement, the strategy will be a failure."
Williams's initiative reflects not only his attempt to revitalize long-blighted neighborhoods but also pressure from Congress, which has told D.C. officials that it will consider the District's progress in reducing crime and improving access to drug treatment next year when it reviews the city's budget for fiscal 2001.
Williams said federal grants, along with an additional $9 million in city funds, will allow the District, among other things, to put 200 more officers on the street and to increase its narcotics investigations unit.
The mayor also is proposing a variety of after-school programs and other youth initiatives and wants to increase the city's capacity to offer drug treatment. Recently there were about 1,000 D.C. residents on the waiting list for treatment at the city's Addiction Prevention Recovery Administration (APRA).
Complaints about APRA within D.C. government are giving Christian a glimpse of some of the political challenges he and Williams face.
D.C. Council member David Catania (R-At Large) believes the mayor's strategy should include an overhaul of APRA. Citing what he called widespread organizational problems in the agency, Catania is calling for Williams to remove the agency's administrator, Deidra Y. Roach.
Catania's complaints have annoyed Williams's office, where aides said the council member never told them he had such concerns when he expressed support for the mayor's program.
"Personnel issues should not be used for political fodder," said Ken Snyder, a spokesman for Williams. "David Catania should have brought this issue directly to the mayor before stating it to the press. The fact that he did not indicates that he may be more interested in bringing attention to himself than this important issue."
Christian, who has worked in the U.S. attorney's office for 11 years and rarely has been in the public spotlight, now finds himself on the front lines of such political wrangling, and under scrutiny from residents such as Samuel Foster, who are demanding safer streets.
"It's long overdue," Foster, executive director of the Concerned Citizens on Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Ward 8, said of Williams's plan. "The police are doing a good job, but they are not consistent. We need to let [drug dealers] know that these days are over."
Christian, a D.C. native who grew up in Ward 4 and still lives there, said being from the District gives him "extra incentive to make the city a better place."
Williams is counting on him.
"Erik has a keen eye for integrating approaches and policies, and he understands execution," the mayor said. "Most games are won not because of new plays but because of execution. I have every confidence in Erik."
CAPTION: "We want more police presence on the street," said Erik P. Christian of the anti-drug initiative, which will also focus on getting input from residents.