"The rash of crimes presents [Mayor Anthony] Williams with the first crisis of his six-month-old administration that does not involve sifting through budget spreadsheets and negotiating numbers. . . ."
-- The Washington Post, June 29
Whoa! If we're going to start talking about crime, crisis and folks caught in a sorry plight, let's expand the list beyond the mayor. The roster of groups put on the spot by crime in our city is about a mile long. The spotlight should be shining on more of us, including the police, the press, affected families and neighborhoods, and the faith community. And that's for starters. Let's go:
Police. Are the District's finest the best we have? Are they up to nabbing and making good cases against thugs?
Recently 53 detective-grade members of the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) attended a basic detective training program. Fourteen of the veteran plainclothes officers -- more than 25 percent -- flunked the course. "Discouraging," said Police Chief Charles Ramsey in an interview Thursday.
A general lack of standards has allowed some officers to rise in the ranks without proving their skills, he acknowledged. "How could you pay detectives to do a job when they lack the skills to pass a general investigative class?" Ramsey asked. Until those who failed successfully pass the course, they will have to work under the supervision of a senior detective. "They won't lead any investigations," said Ramsey. And if they flunk again, they're back in uniform," he declared. Sadly, detectives may not be the only MPD members short on skills.
Press. "How is Tony Williams doing?" is the media's top guessing game. The question is low on my list. The rash of shootings presents more pressing issues. Near the top: the media's coverage of violent crime and how it influences the daily lives of people in the city.
Until Post staff writer John W. Fountain's account of mothers teaching their kids how to survive the ever-present gunfire in East Capitol Dwellings appeared in last Saturday's Metro section ["Survival 101: `Get Down,' " June 26], readers unfamiliar with the situation in D.C. public housing might have thought that the trials and triumphs of D.C. Housing Authority receiver David Gilmore were the whole story -- since that seems to have drawn much media focus in recent years.
Fountain's dramatic account brings out a different truth. He tells us about children in the capital of the United States who are being forced to live the lives of war-torn refugees under hostile fire. That awful reality, which existed in our city long before grandmother Helen Foster-El was struck down by bullets, has intrinsic news value and should have taken precedence over many other public housing stories. It's the kind of hard-hitting reporting that needs to be shoved down this city's throat until the politicians gag -- in my humble opinion.
Suppose the press had been probing the brutal reality of life in public housing weeks ago, not with sensationalism but with Fountain's sensitivity. Would we be writing about Helen Foster-El today?
Where are the fathers? East Capitol Dwellings, the city's largest public housing complex, has about 474 households. It's home for more than 900 children. Buried in the initial story about the shooting of Mrs. Foster-El is the sobering fact that 436 households, almost the entire complex, are headed by women. Average annual income: $7,000.
We're talking about hundreds of kids sleeping in homes without fathers. Hundreds of children forced to grow up without the kind of emotional and material support that a father can bring; about boys learning on the streets what it takes to be a man because there's no man at home to teach them; about girls learning firsthand about abandonment from the first man to enter their lives.
We're talking about kids in East Capitol Dwellings and similar District communities who -- because of the circumstances of their birth and surroundings -- are more likely to quit school and commit crimes, more likely to become crime victims, more likely to be poor and more likely to become mothers and fathers well before their time.
These are kids who go to school emotionally damaged by the trauma of their communities; children who never see a man leave home to go to a job; children who live in the midst of pistol-packing drug dealers living at the margins; children who come to school often alienated, sometimes pained, frequently unready to learn.
The Million Man March has come and gone. So have the fathers.
Where is the faith community?
If too many fathers are missing in action in the fight against crime, what about the churches? Finding an inner-city church open and ready for business daily, from Monday through Friday, especially after sundown, is about as easy as finding a deadbeat dad. Next to banks, the most buttoned-down building in the neighborhood after dark is often the church. Unfortunately, those are the very hours when many children need a hand, or healing or a refuge. But those are the hours when the church -- like the cop on the street -- is nowhere to be found. And that's because -- get ready now -- many pastors and elders don't live within five miles of where they preach.
And when they drive in from the 'burbs to reach the pulpit, instead of stepping up to some of the real problems tearing at the community -- the disengaged father, the put-down of marriage, the need for reconciliation between moms and dads, the importance of holding parents accountable for their children -- they feed their mostly female congregations a steady diet of escapist "I'm-but-a stranger-here, heaven-is-my-home" sermons. The church has got to get real.
Downtown folks, judges and spectators. And while most of the gunfights and mayhem are confined to the inner city, the rest of the District, particularly the business, legal and professional communities, cannot remain oblivious to what's going on. No one -- a single mom or a father -- can fulfill her or his financial or familial responsibilities without work.
Message to presidents, CEOs, partners and office managers: Roam the hallways, look in your offices, examine your rosters. Ask yourselves if you or your companies, firms and agencies are doing your part to extend job opportunities to residents of this city, especially those with addresses east of 16th Street NW. There's nothing like a good job to turn people from the streets -- and beef up their marriageability, to boot.
And D.C. judges, please leave those ivory towers and visit the youth homes and halfway houses that you seem to love so well. Live by the law but also listen to the victims.
Memo to D.C. spectators: There's a crying need for mentors, Big Brothers and Big Sisters. The kids can use your help.
In short, crime-fighting in the District of Columbia is about more than Tony Williams. It involves all of us.
Well, I'm about out of space. Did I leave any toes unstomped? Okay, bye.
P.S. Have a happy Fourth.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.