Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and City Administrator Robert C. Bobb furiously scribbled notes as David Branch described lawless behavior that threatened his $1.5 million investment in Southeast Washington.
Branch and his partners in the Brandywine IV group have spent about $10,000 per unit in the past year to buy and upgrade the Brandywine Apartments. They improved lighting, added secure front doors and identified problem tenants.
But most prospective renters hang up the phone when they find out the buildings are in the 700 block of Brandywine Street SE. Branch said an area of "lawlessness" keeps his current tenants living in fear, with open-air drug dealing and the sound of gunfire preventing them from even inviting friends to their apartment.
"If we're going to make the investment . . . we need the same investment from the District," Branch told about 100 people gathered in the basement of the Congress Heights Methodist Church for a Ward 8 crime forum.
"If we can't make our money there, we'll have to invest our money in Prince George's County, or in Virginia," Branch said.
His tale resembled those of others at the forum, called by D.C. Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8).
Robin Adams complained that gunfire is common in the 800 block of Southern Avenue, where she manages an apartment building. "Let me give you a scenario: 'Boom! Boom! Boom! Mommy, get down!' " Adams said, stomping her foot, imitating the sounds of gunshots. "This is not one night, this is every night."
Many people in Allen's ward expressed concern after 18-year-old Antonio Blakey was shot dead on May 3 in the 2800 block of Robinson Place. The shooting, which occurred in the middle of the afternoon, marked the latest escalation of violence between rival groups in Barry Farm, Condon Terrace and other areas.
"We have a serious, serious little gang war going on here," Ramsey said. "All we do is suppress the problem; we don't solve the problem."
In response, Ramsey pledged last Wednesday that his officers would develop action plans to curb crime and that he would face residents in 90 days to measure police progress. In an interview after the meeting, Ramsey said he would give 7th District police officials until May 20 to develop strategies to address several problem areas.
In the past six months, Ramsey has made at least two other crime-fighting pledges to communities in Northwest. Shepherd Park and Takoma residents saw patrols focus on eliminating an open-air drug market in the 7700 block of Georgia Avenue. And after a pair of multiple shootings in Petworth during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, police took action to reduce drug dealing in that area.
The chief promised to walk through Southeast neighborhoods this week with property managers to take a personal look at the problems near the apartment buildings.
Ramsey urged residents to work with tenant associations to combat problem renters in apartment complexes and to form neighborhood watch patrols. He also suggested that residents try creative approaches, such as having all residents sit on their front porches one night a week or hold neighborhood barbecues.
"Nobody's going to save us but ourselves," Ramsey said. "We can take back the streets; we can't hold them for long."
Many in the crowd voiced skepticism.
"It's a bunch of empty promises," said school board member William Lockridge, who complained that police officers don't challenge truant students who roam Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue near Ballou High School and throughout Ward 8.
"We've got to enforce the law on this side of town," Lockridge said.