Sirens wail in the night. Emergency lights flash red and blue through the windows as a Lincoln Navigator and Ford Crown Victoria rush through a red light in Northwest Washington, the cars ahead of them slowing, pulling to the curb. The big, black vehicles speed past, straddling the solid yellow center lines, a mile or so from the White House.
Are they outriders for the president? Is he headed this way?
Is it the vice president? The king of Siam?
It's Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. And he's late for a citizens meeting near Anacostia.
At the moment, he should be standing before a police advisory council meeting in Ward 8, facing the packed pews of Faith Tabernacle of Prayer. But he and his police security detail are still more than eight miles away, barreling down 16th Street NW.
Thus the sirens and flashing lights.
Since taking office Jan. 2, the District's triathlete mayor has been determined to show up at as many community meetings as possible, and he won't let traffic get in the way. Crisscrossing the city to churches and neighborhood halls, schools and recreation centers, Fenty's entourage uses the sirens and lights to cut his travel time, running red lights and often exceeding speed limits, a practice that other big-city mayors say they try to avoid.
On a recent Monday night, standing outside a meeting of the Crestwood Neighborhood League in Northwest Washington, where he arrived with lights and sirens on, Fenty (D) said he uses the emergency equipment "on a case-by-case basis." The D.C. police officers in his security detail, including the driver of the Navigator in which Fenty rides, use lights and sirens "so I can get from one place to the next in a timely manner," the mayor said.
Overhearing the mayor's answer, Crestwood resident John Lewis said he was pleased that Fenty makes community events a priority.
"It's his home ward," Lewis said. "I hope he gets to our meetings on time."
A Washington Post reporter observed Fenty traveling throughout the city several times in recent days, including to his appearance at Verizon Center for a women's health event.
As the Navigator waited on Seventh Street NW and Fenty roamed the exhibits, two Crown Victorias, their emergency lights flashing, drove fast along the street and parked behind the Lincoln. Fenty's wife, Michelle Cross Fenty, emerged from one of the cars and quickly made her way into the arena.
The mayor and his security detail departed minutes later, sirens blaring and lights flashing. They sped through a red light and made an illegal left turn onto H Street NW as Fenty hurried to get to a luncheon awards ceremony at the Madison hotel a few miles away.
The mayor said he uses the lights and sirens only when he is on official business. But he used the equipment en route to a fundraiser for a D.C. Council candidate in Ward 4 one night.
His two-vehicle motorcade rushed up 16th Street NW to get to the event at a former council member's home, where Fenty was scheduled to speak.
No rule prohibits the mayor from traveling in that fashion, said Carrie Brooks, a spokeswoman for Fenty.
"If he's on time and there's no rush to the next place," Fenty doesn't use the lights and sirens, she said. "But for good or for bad, people do expect him to be all over town during the course of the business day. It's a little easier to get around on the weekends when there's no traffic."
Fenty's predecessor, Anthony A. Williams (D), rarely used lights and sirens when he traveled, said Tony Bullock, who was a Williams media secretary. He recalled his boss using the emergency equipment only once -- after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when Williams attended a meeting at the White House.
"As a day-to-day, get-through-traffic utilization, that was not permitted and wasn't done," Bullock said. "He liked to make phone calls and read in the car, and it's hard to do that with the 'whoop, whoop' of the siren."
When council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) was mayor, he once traveled with lights and sirens on while the ABC News program "Nightline" was taping a segment about him. He was headed to Hains Point to play tennis.
Barry would not comment on Fenty's travel practices. "I'm busy trying to be a good legislator," he said.
Fenty has flown across the country to learn the best practices of other big cities. A few of the mayors he visited said they avoid using lights and sirens in their cities.
In Los Angeles, with its tangle of crowded freeways, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) generally does not use lights and sirens because when other cars pull over, the city's notoriously bad traffic gets worse, spokesman Darryl Ryan said.
"We want to continue the flow of traffic," Ryan said. "The mayor considers himself a regular commuter, just like everyone else."
Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino (D) also refrains from using lights and sirens except in public safety-related emergencies, spokeswoman Jennifer Mehigan said.
The result: "He's always late," Mehigan said.
One night this week, Fenty tried to make a quick exit from a meeting of the Central Northeast Civic Association in Ward 7, but residents did not want him to go. The mayor, who had two more events scheduled that evening, said he might have to cut back on his outreach.
"I told my staff, I said, 'I think I can go to about three community meetings a night,' " Fenty said, addressing 30 people at Ward Memorial AME Church. "We're finding out it's tough to do three community meetings, provide answers and travel."