A birthday party with a DJ spinning hip-hop and R&B at a Barnaby Woods home led to the detention of the 41-year-old host and put strain on a Northwest Washington neighborhood that cherishes its tranquility.
The woman who threw the party in her rental home, C. Nicole Mason, is a noted public speaker and author on social justice and women’s and minority rights, and she said her Chevy Chase neighbors and the police singled her out because she and most of her party guests are African American.
Barnaby Woods is one of the District’s most exclusive neighborhoods, home to doctors, lawyers, judges and Cabinet secretaries. It is where Mike Pence rented in the days leading up to his swearing in as vice president.
At least one of her immediate neighbors is defending Mason, calling her May 28 party loud, but not over the top. Others, none of whom would consent to be identified by name, described the party as “horribly loud.” Many of her detractors were surprised to learn she was taken away in handcuffs but all said they were pleased the music stopped.
Mason said she filed a complaint May 31 with the D.C. Office of Police Complaints, an independent civilian oversight panel. The director, Michael G. Tobin, said he could not confirm the filing because names on all complaints are kept confidential.
Most of Mason’s complaint centers on her belief that police did not give her enough time to turn down the music, but she also said that one responding officer, who is white, appeared “not friendly and a bit hostile” and seemed “surprised that it was me, an African-American woman, that had come to the door.” The other officer who responded is black.
Investigators will be left to sort through diverging accounts of what happened starting about 10:30 p.m., when authorities said they received several calls complaining about loud music at the party in the 6600 block of 31st Street NW.
In an interview, Mason said she turned down the music within seven to 10 minutes of police showing up at her door and that “it was completely off before he put me in the squad car.”
A D.C. police spokesman said an officer waited in his cruiser for 21 minutes after making initial contact and saw Mason standing in her yard, but not taking any steps to comply. As the time approached 11 p.m., the music remained at the same volume, police said. The spokesman, Dustin Sternbeck, said the officer decided an arrest was the only way to resolve the issue.
Mason said she was handcuffed and taken to the Second District station, fingerprinted, photographed and briefly jailed. She was later released with a criminal citation ordering her to court. She said guests at the party, including lawyers and doctors, followed her to the station in a show of support.
“There’s not a lot of black people in the neighborhood, and I think people responded to the number and volume of black people at the party,” Mason said, adding that she moved from New York to the Barnaby Woods subdivision of Chevy Chase in September because of the District’s progressive reputation and quality elementary school for her two children.
“I thought it would be a great place to raise a family,” Mason said. But now, she said, “it feels smothering. It doesn’t feel as welcoming as some indicated it would be. It is not as progressive as it looks on the outside.”
Many of the homes in Mason’s neighborhood began flying gay pride rainbow flags and posted signs with the message “Hate Has No Home here” when Pence moved to nearby Tennyson Street ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Mason took issue with neighbors who complained but first called the homeowner, who lives down the street, and not her directly.
The owner of the house declined to comment.
Noise in residential neighborhoods in the District must be kept below 55 decibels between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., the equivalent to a conversation in a restaurant, office or a quiet suburb. A shout from one back yard to another could easily be unlawful, and while some residents believe the decibel level cutoff too low to be practical, others demand strict adherence, attaching the same social norms as in an Amtrak quiet car.
The ordinance states that police must give a potential violator a “reasonable time” to comply, though that period is not defined. Conviction is punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to 10 days in jail.
Police can enforce the law by issuing a criminal citation. Most of the time, that happens at the scene, but police can take someone into custody and issue the citation at the station, as they did with Mason. Police said 37 people in the District have been taken into custody so far this year on allegations of violating the noise ordinance.
Sternbeck, the police spokesman, denied race played a factor in the call and said the officers who responded to Mason’s house advised her to turn the music low enough that it couldn’t be heard from the street.
Sternbeck said when the music hadn’t been turned down 20 minutes later “the officer had sufficient probable cause to support an arrest. He felt that just issuing a citation would have been ineffective in abating the loud music.”
Mason countered: “There was no reason for an arrest. No escalation. No argument. No resistance. There was nothing except seven minutes that elapsed between the time he told us to turn it down and we did.” In her complaint, she said she was arrested 15 minutes after the officers first arrived.
Before the party, Mason said she distributed gift baskets to her immediate neighbors informing them of the party and inviting them to attend. The baskets held wine, chocolate and ear plugs.