D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey today will announce a crime-emergency plan that commanders said will give them more resources to target juvenile auto theft, a problem that has resulted in three fatal wrecks in recent weeks.
Ramsey declined to comment yesterday through his spokesman, but high-ranking police officials described the plan as a scaled-down version of one that the chief implemented last year. The officials said the plan will give commanders more flexibility in rescheduling officers' shifts, vacations and sick leave.
The plan will affect about 350 officers in specialized units, or about 10 percent of the 3,700-member department. The affected officers work in plainclothes and street-crime units, investigative squads, the youth division, the helicopter and K-9 squads and the forensic division.
Police commanders said the emergency scheduling policy will allow them to conduct more undercover operations.
City officials said the changes are part of a broader initiative to combat juvenile car theft that Ramsey and Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) will announce tonight at a community forum in Northeast Washington.
Last year, as the District battled a flare-up in crime, Ramsey declared a crime emergency and announced changes in scheduling policy that affected the entire force. Today's announcement comes as the city is on track this year to record the fewest homicides in nearly two decades, and crime overall is down about 12 percent.
High-ranking police officials said Ramsey wanted to jump on the auto theft problem before it got out of hand.
"This is a scaled-down version of last year," said a high-ranking police official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to preempt the mayor or Ramsey. "We don't want to get to the point where we start to lose momentum. We want to do everything we can to deal with this issue."
Top police officials said that though auto theft is down by about 4 percent this year, they have noticed a 10 percent increase in the number of juveniles being arrested for the crime. The officials also have been tracking an increase in robberies -- many committed by youths and young men -- in several police districts.
Union officials and a D.C. Council member questioned the wisdom of declaring another crime emergency.
"It's not necessary," said Sgt. G.G. Neill, chairman of the D.C. police labor committee with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 1.
Neill said Ramsey and other top city officials could do more by loosening restrictions on police chases. In general, officers are not permitted to chase stolen cars unless the drivers are fleeing a serious crime.
"All these bandits know that if they get a car, they are going to get away," Neill said. "They are more brazen."
Ramsey and other police officials have said that chasing car thieves, especially inexperienced juvenile drivers, would lead to more crashes and would not curb auto theft.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the department needs to permanently shift resources to combat persistent problems. Crime "emergencies are just a temporary, marginal solution," Fenty said. "Let's stop with the gimmicks and do something that is real and sustained."
In recent weeks, four people have been killed in crashes allegedly caused by District teenagers driving stolen vehicles.
On Wednesday, a 50-year-old schoolteacher and one of the thieves, a 16-year-old boy, were killed in Charles County during a head-on collision. On July 2, a 21-year-old District man was killed when the moped he was riding was struck head-on by a stolen van that police said was driven by joy-riding youths. And last month, an activist for Haitian causes died when the car he was driving was struck at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW by what police said was a stolen Jeep driven by a 14-year-old.
Besides the crime-emergency plan, city officials said the mayor today will highlight efforts by other city agencies to reach youths before they steal cars and will enhance programs to deal with the youths after they have passed through the courts.
One city official yesterday likened the approach to the creation of "hot spot" zones in some crime-plagued neighborhoods. Under that program, teams of social workers, police and other District employees work together to fight crime and issues that fuel it.
"We can't always just say this is a police issue," City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said yesterday. "We are going to turn up the heat . . . with other city agencies and the community itself."
Bobb said he is especially interested in expanding programs aimed at increasing the parents' role in keeping their children from stealing cars and committing other offenses.
"Their parents need to take responsibility for what is happening," said Bobb, pointing to emergency legislation passed last week by the D.C. Council that will allow judges to require parents to participate in their children's rehabilitation programs.