D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey told a packed public meeting on crime yesterday that he would insist that all his uniformed patrol officers spend at least an hour a day outside their cars listening to residents.
Both Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who oversaw the forum, defended the city's efforts to fight crime. But they acknowledged concern among the public, especially over the 12 percent increase in homicides last year.
"You are telling us crime is still too high. And you're right," Williams told about 300 community activists, religious leaders and others at the morning meeting at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington.
The forum resulted in few specific plans. But it gave residents a chance to berate the police and city officials with complaints of unresponsive officers, open-air drug markets and insufficient police presence.
At one point, an angry advisory neighborhood commission member, Sheila Carson-Carr, accosted the mayor in a hallway as he was visiting breakout sessions devoted to different topics. She thrust a poster board at him listing problems such as car theft, homicide and drug markets in her neighborhood, Benning Heights in Southeast.
"For Ward 7, we got to get on TV to get some help," Carson-Carr complained, as media crews filmed away. The mayor promised to look into her concerns.
In another part of the hallway, residents lined up to talk to Ramsey. One of them, Cleronn Jacobs, 59, said she was optimistic the forum would have results.
"There seem to be a lot of people here with a lot of issues. I think the mayor and Chief Ramsey will have to address them," said Jacobs, who was concerned about an apparent lack of officers in her neighborhood in eastern Capitol Hill.
Ramsey said the 911 emergency telephone service was being improved with the addition of officers to take calls, especially at peak hours, and by technological changes to unclog the lines. In addition, he pledged to ensure that officers are more polite and respond more quickly and to weed out what he called the few officers doing a poor job.
People complain that "we just don't see [the police], we just don't touch them," the chief said. So he will insist that uniformed patrol officers spend at least an hour a day getting out of their cars and meeting residents, he said.
Ramsey said a similar program had been tried in the past but wasn't consistently enforced. "You have to make time" to contact residents, he said. But, he added, there is a limit to how much officers could be out on foot or bicycle, since it could take them longer to respond to crimes.
In the breakout sessions, officials from the police department, court system, schools and city agencies answered questions and listened to complaints. Williams circulated among the sessions, listening and occasionally pointing out improvements in the city. He and other officials appealed to residents to get more involved in fighting crime.
Residents complained about a wide range of issues: drugs, burglary and services such as tree trimming.
Rodney Newman, an ANC commissioner from the Greenway neighborhood in Southeast, complained that police were more diligent about fighting drug trafficking in rich neighborhoods than in struggling ones, sending the wrong message to poor children.
"They know we'll continue to have open-air drug markets in communities east of the [Anacostia] River. You're not going to have that in Georgetown!" he declared.
Police officials denied they ignored narcotics crimes. They said it took time to obliterate drug markets through sting operations and the courts rather than simply chasing them into other streets.
Terry Goings, 43, an electrician who lives in the Lamond-Riggs neighborhood, called on city officials to provide more social programs to help struggling families keep their children away from crime.
The forum, he said, "is better than doing nothing at all -- just to get the people involved and hyped enough to want to do something." He pulled out a shiny police brochure and said he planned to use it. "They gave us this beautiful information. Let's try and call these people up."