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Public Safety


Is turnover at the police department contributing to DC's crime wave?

It's no secret that the District has had a hard time fighting crime this year. The job gets even tougher when the people in charge are constantly changing.


Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The Metropolitan Police Department is divided into seven police districts, each of which are further broken down into Public Service Areas. Each district is led by a commander, and each PSA by a lieutenant. There are 56 PSAs in the District of Columbia, and each should provide framework for close engagement between police and neighborhoods.

But In PSA 405, where I'm an ANC commissioner, we have seen the reassignment of PSA lieutenants nearly half a dozen times in the last two to three years. Our area has also seen two different district commanders. Every time there's a leadership change, months of hard work between residents and MPD are completely erased.

While officers are swapped with well-intentioned replacements, they lack any transition guidance, reach back, or context of the previous officer's community engagement efforts. The community is left starting over from scratch and beginning the cycle anew. In my experience, this is a vicious cycle that inevitably ends the same way.

Here are two examples of this happening

Nearly two years ago, 5A residents asked their PSA lieutenant, night watch commander, and the district commander to personally attend our monthly meeting to hear the community's needs. After attending, 5A and the PSA 405 lieutenant agreed to merge the regularly scheduled PSA meetings with the ANC meeting so the wider community could attend and be engaged. The joint meeting happened once, but after that learned that the Lieutenant at the time had been reassigned.


An officer gives a public safety update during ANC 5A's June 2015 ANC 5A community meeting. Image from the author.

Last year, both residents and 5A commissioners began to feel like progress was being made with public safety engagement. A new lieutenant had just arrived and was eager to attend ANC and other meetings. When residents had issues, she would give out her email and cell phone number and encouraged residents to reach out to her.

Over the course of a few months, the new lieutenant became a familiar face around the community while engaging in public safety issues, updating the community and even engaging a local charter school to help improve traffic congestion during drop-off and pick-ups of students. 5A finally had a working relationship that could continue to be effective.

One weekend in late April of this year, I contacted our new lieutenant to get information about a shooting at Webster St NE and South Dakota Ave NE. Not long after I sent my email to her, I received a response I thought we were finally free of: "I apologize… I have been transferred to the First District...".

At the next meeting of ANC 5A the community met our new PSA Lieutenant, a man who was set to retire in two months!

Residents want better

As an ANC commissioner since 2012, I have sat through numerous meetings that have addressed public safety. Over the last three and a half years, I have listened and advocated for increased community-based policing, better access to public safety information, and better communication between commissioners and PSA lieutenants.

I have also listened to residents' requests that police officers become more visible in their assigned community by walking or biking in the neighborhoods they are obligated to protect and serve.

Constant turnover, reassignments, and lack of transition planning are dooming any effort at positive community policing. The constant reminder during public safety meetings of an impending major reduction in force does little to produce confidence in residents of the District of Columbia.

While the Mayor and the Council hold meetings, forums, and introduce new legislation, constituent concerns and requests should not be forgotten.

Roads


Finally, the stop signs residents pushed for... along with some startling news

Residents near the intersections of Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW spent the last few years asking for four-way stop signs at the intersection. Recently, the intersection saw two traffic collisions on the same day. The stop signs followed soon after.


The new stop signs on Kansas Avenue NW. Image by the author.

Whether you were on foot, bike, or car, poor lines of sight made it very hard to cross Kansas via Quincy when there were no stop signs. In asking DDOT to install stop signs in every direction at the intersection, Petworth ANC commissioners noted that they were a feature at almost every other four-way stop in the area.

Still, DDOT representatives refused the neighborhood's requests for a long time, suggesting instead that the solution was to remove parking spaces to make it easier to see. Residents objected, saying doing so would both cut needed parking supply and entice people to drive faster on Kansas.

About a month ago, the community members turned up the pressure after yet another avoidable crash. On Saturday, July 11th, back-to-back collisions in the morning and afternoon prompted a deluge of neighborhood concern, expressed at the scenes of the crashes, over local listservs, and even in the Post.


The aftermath of the first July 11th crash. Image from a neighbor, who lives adjacent to the intersection.

Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, along with representatives from the mayor's office, the police department, and DDOT, were quick to pay attention. DDOT's representatives tracked traffic patterns and deployed a Traffic Control Officer.

On Thursday, July 16th, all-way stop signs went in at the intersection.

Neighbors are thrilled. People on foot no long have to detour around the intersection when walking with their children or pets, and drivers on Quincy have a much easier time crossing Kansas.

When it comes to traffic safety, there's still work to do

Because the second July 11th crash was less serious than the first, officers at the scene didn't file an official police report. When witnesses asked why, they learned that the Metropolitan Police Department doesn't require reports on some minor collisions.

Given that DDOT decision makers consider the number of reported crashes at an intersection in a 12-month period when weighing whether or not (PDF) to install an all-way stop, MPD's policy creates a dangerous information gap.

If crashes go unreported, are decisions that affect safety all that reliable? How many other intersections in DC meet the criteria for an all-way stop?

Bicycling


Driver assaults bicyclist, police ticket bicyclist

Cyclist and photojournalist Evan Wilder encountered a road raging driver on R Street. He says the driver tried to force him off the road, caused a collision, then threw his bike into the truck. A police officer later wrote Wilder a ticket while he was in the hospital. Here is his story:


Image from video by Evan Wilder.

A driver came alongside me on a narrow, sharrow painted part of the R Street bike route just before the entrance to the Metropolitan Branch Trail.

He should not have tried to pass me, since there was no way to pass and give me the required 3 feet minimum. What he was doing was intentional because he kept pace with me then moved to his right in order to broadside me.

I braked hard in order to avoid a collision, but the driver had stopped at stop sign as he swerved right, so I ran into the back of his truck.

He then got out and berated me, yelling and screaming that I shouldn't mess with his truck and that I should be in the bike lane. When I said I would call the police he picked up my bike and threw it into his truck. The bike bounced out and landed on the other side of the truck in the road.

MPD officers arrived and I told them what happened. EMS took me to the ER, and while I was waiting, the MPD officer gave me a $100 Notice of Infraction for "following too closely." The driver got nothing.

The officer wrote the following on the police report:
D1 states he was traveling east bound on his bicycle when D2 drove past him on the left. D1 states D2 passed him too closely. D1 further states that D2 stopped at the stop sign in front of him and he was unable to stop his bike in time. D1 struck the back of D2 with his bike causing a scratch to the right side of D2's tailgate.

D2 states he was stopped at the stop sign when he heard D1 strike the rear of his vehicle.

[Witness] W1 states D2 was stopped at the stop sign and D1 struck his right rear bumper. W1 also states D2 was walking perfectly fine after the accident.

W2 states he came out side of his house after the accident and seen D1's bike behind D2's truck as in a rear end.

D1 was issued an NOI [Notice Of Infraction] for following too closely.

D1 had no complaint of injury but was transported to Howard University Hospital by Medic 17 for further evaluation.


The driver passing Wilder.

This narrative resembles Wilder's, but in a way that is clearly more sympathetic to the driver's point of view. What seems most conspicuous is that it makes no mention of the driver throwing Wilder's bike into his truck. It seems very strange not to include that, since it is certainly also an illegal action. And did the officer ask the witnesses about this?

Wilder says he indeed told the officer, both at the scene and later at the hospital. And he says that both witnesses indeed saw the bike-throwing incident; they came outside after the crash because the driver was yelling so loudly. He writes, "When I asked about it and how that wasn't an offense, he said that it was a separate incident from me being ticketed for striking his car, and that was it."

It certainly seems relevant to the question of whether the driver was in a road rage state of mind before the crash. If you're just sitting stopped at a light and a cyclist for some reason hits your car and makes a small scratch, you usually wouldn't respond in this way.

As it happens, Wilder has a camera on his bike, which captured video of the whole incident. He's not yet ready to release the video, but I've seen it and it seems to corroborate the fact that the driver suddenly cut off Wilder just before stopping. It also certainly shows the driver yelling, throwing the bicycle, and so on. Wilder is initially (and understandably) fairly angry as well, but then starts more calmly talking about calling the police while the driver rages on.

Certainly Wilder was asserting his right to space on the street. Some cyclists would have just slowed way down to give this driver a wide berth. But sharrows on this block mean emphasize that the cyclist has as much right to be in any road space as a driver. Passing a cyclist too closely (a violation of the law) and then swerving in front of the cyclist to stop at a stop sign is fairly clearly an aggressive move that's likely to cause a crash. Not to mention throwing the bike into a truck.


View from the bike as it's flying into the truck.

Cyclists have had constant problems with police officers doing scant investigation, assuming a cyclist is at fault, and going all the way to the hospital to give the cyclist the ticket. It's not one jurisdiction or one police force; this happened just last Monday in Rosslyn with the US Park Police.

We know from Zach T.'s story that many police officers strongly believe that a cyclist is just about always at fault for any crash. We don't know if this officer is one of those people or not, but given Wilder's video, it's clear that either the officer was biased, or else the type of investigation he conducted is simply not adequate to find the truth.

Update, May 20: Here's the video.

Roads


Who has the best anti-speeding ads, New York or DC?

We know that most elected officials are very concerned about people talking on airplanes but aren't willing to do much about distracted, reckless, and just speeding drivers who kill people on US roads every day. Can advertising persuade these drivers to be safe?


Image from NYC DOT.

New York's DOT created a series of ads that highlight the tragedy and loss that comes after a moment of inattention or the rush to get somewhere faster claims a life.


Image from NYC DOT.

Meanwhile, here in DC, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) put together this 3-minute video about the dangers of speeding, featuring MPD chief Cathy Lanier, DDOT head Terry Bellamy, and others.

Former GGW contributor Stephen Miller hopes that New York's next police commissioner, former commissioner Bill Bratton, will show the same level of concern about speeding that Lanier and others at MPD seem to.

Perhaps what we need is DC officials' attitudes coupled with New York's ad-making prowess. The regional Street Smart campaign, which runs ads each spring, has recently garnered more mixed reviews or outright derision.

What kinds of ads do you think are most effective?

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