Margaret Quick was worried when she noticed a liquor store in her Southeast Washington neighborhood selling single-edge razor blades, the sort favored for cutting cocaine.
The store seemed to be encouraging crime, Quick said yesterday before a classroom full of law enforcement officials and community activists.
So she spoke up, voicing her concerns to the store owner. On her next visit, she didn't see the razor blades. Perhaps they were gone altogether. More likely, she said, they were just out of sight.
Quick works for the court services and offender supervision agency and once served on the city's parole board. Yet even she acknowledged the limitations of individual activism. Her experience was one illustration of the challenges neighborhood leaders and law enforcement agencies set out to explore yesterday at a day-long conference at Catholic University, organized by U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Wainstein and his office.
The city's top prosecutors, police officials and probation administrators sat with each other and with many of the city's stalwart neighborhood activists to talk about how residents can help make their neighborhoods safer.
After opening remarks by Wainstein, Paul A. Quander Jr., director of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency; D.C. Attorney General Robert J. Spagnoletti; and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey each offered a few words.
"I think all of us recognize our work is far from done," Ramsey said.
For the roughly 300 conference participants, the chief's words were the marching orders for the day, and they quickly plunged into panel discussions on real-life problems.
From a discussion of drug nuisance properties to a session on juvenile car theft, the panels focused on the quality-of-life crimes that many residents face every day and that are frequently a gateway to more serious crimes, including robbery and homicide.
It was during a talk on regulating shops and restaurants that sell alcohol that Quick recounted her encounter at the liquor store. Others quickly chimed in with concerns about stores that sell the small sheets of paper that some use to roll marijuana cigarettes and the small glass pipes that end up being used to smoke crack cocaine.
In a city where many poor neighborhood have too few shopping options, the goal isn't always as simple as shutting down a business, she said. "I'm not interested in closing the store, just in modifying the behavior," Quick said.
During a discussion of problems at some stores that sell alcohol, a panel that included both city officials and residents explained how establishments are licensed and the role residents can play.
The process all but demands that people have a say if they expect their concerns to be addressed, said Rob Halligan, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission official in the Dupont Circle area. "The law is written so the citizens have to be proactive," he said. Because many of those at the conference were law enforcement officials, the questions seemed to come from a handful of activists -- many of them advisory neighborhood commissioners.
But many of the problems defy simple solutions and test residents' patience. Often, officials are torn between coming up with a quick fix and confronting the underlying social issues.
Prostitution, the subject of another panel discussion, was precisely that type of issue. With its public sex acts and discarded condoms, prostitution infuriates residents.
One resident who lives in the 6th Police District said he was fed up with seeing the same women repeatedly soliciting sex on Minnesota Avenue. "I just want to know what can be done to get them out," he told the panel.
"With a lot of these women, it's a revolving door," responded Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy L. Austin. And that, he said, is why prosecutors want to focus more on the people who run prostitution rackets and less on the prostitutes themselves. "The problem of prostitution is bigger than locking them up," he said.