About 100 local police officers and their supporters huddled together last night to rally against the tide of rising crime, stagnant salaries and a criminal justice system whose revolving doors, they say, are spinning out of control.
The mood was hopeful, and Attorney General William French Smith was the featured speaker, but the meager turnout at the D.C. Armory disappointed organizers who were left with several thousand empty chairs spread out in neat rows facing a speakers platform flanked by red, white and blue bunting.
"Who gives a damn? I think that's the attitude," said a D.C. police detective, shaking his head wearily during the rally for police officers' rights sponsored by the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. "But you know what? It can't get any worse. It's going to get better -- it has to."
Also appearing on the program were Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.) a former police officer, and Peter B. Bensinger, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The FOP had distributed several thousand fliers throughout the area announcing the rally, and hoped for an attendance of 3,000 to 5,000.
The issue was police morale -- said to be at an all-time low, locally and otherwise, due in large part to "all the emphasis that's been placed on the rights of the people who rob us and rape us and kill us as a community, seemingly ignoring the rights of law officers," said Gary Hankins, a D.C. police information officer who moderated the rally. He nodded toward the empty seats. "That's one of the saddest comments right there," he said.
Despite the disappointing turnout, however, there was a signal of hope to be found in the presence of such men as Smith, Biaggi and others, said FOP chapter president Thomas Tague, who addressed the crowd just before the two-hour rally ended at 9 p.m. Tague said he had a "nice long speech" written for the rally, but junked it.
"I underestand that a lot of policemen and firemen just don't care," Tague said. "Over the past years, nobody's bothered to help them -- why should they attend something like this?What they don't understand is there are people like the leaders who have spoken here tonight, who are now in a position to help."
Smith was critical of the Carter administration's law-enforcement policies.
"During the last four years . . . drug enforcement simply was not a priority of the previous administration," he said. "Law enforcement did not receive the federal attention it deserves and requires as a fundamental function of government. In this administration, the enforcement of the law -- and in particular, controlling the traffic in narcotics -- will be a major goal."
Biaggi promised to push through Congress his Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which provides officers under investigation by their own departments the same rights as accused criminals.
"You go down to court someday and listen to those judges and it'll make you sick," D.C. police officer Chaulis Jones said as he left the rally. "We can only do so much, you know."