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Public Spaces

Confusing Park Police rules scuttle Fort Reno concerts, Mall food trucks

The National Park Service's difficult and sometimes inscrutable regulations for events in parks may have claimed another victim: Long-running summer concerts in Fort Reno. The same day, Park Police also cracked down on food trucks along the Mall.

Photo by Dale Sundstrom on Flickr.

The organizer of the Fort Reno concerts, Amanda MacKaye, announced yesterday that the concerts are canceled for this year. She says that's because the National Park Service and the US Park Police changed their requirements at the last minute in a way that would double the cost to host the free concerts.

The park, located in Tenleytown in upper northwest, had hosted the concerts since 1968 and was always a showcase of regional talent for a wide variety of bands. The shows were put on by volunteers and are generally low-key affairs even if the bands themselves are loud.

But in a note on the series' website, McKaye said instead of receiving the expected permit like in years before she was told that organizers had to pay for an extra US Park Police Officer to be at every concert. She says,

Park Police cited differing reasons as to why this had come up after all these years. The reasons felt vague and when asked for specifics, none were given.

I requested a sit down meeting with NPS and USPP with the hope that our long standing (very good) relationship with NPS coupled with people seeing that we are just folks having a small community related event would bring about a better understanding and resolution.

Two messages to schedule went unanswered and when I did reach someone, a meeting was scheduled for the next morning (yesterday). The meeting happened but none of the invitees attended except myself and one extremely kind NPS employee who works in the office where meetings are held but despite being familiar with the park and the concert series as being an annual event, knew nothing about why the permit was being stalled.

She went on to say that she was not aware of any announcement of a policy change over the past year that would have alerted her to this.

There are valid reasons for requiring measures like extra police presence at events. Large crowds can potentially be dangerous, and many different venues require them all the time. But organizers deserve to know about these requirements up front, and hear well in advance if something has changed from one year to another.

In a statement, NPS spokesperson Jennifer Mummart said,

Today, the National Park Service (NPS) was notified by the permit applicant for the Fort Reno concert series that she intended to postpone the concerts. The United States Park Police (USPP) reached out to the applicant today. The NPS and USPP are reviewing the details of previous permits and previous law enforcement needs related to the concert series. Our primary goal is public safety. Both the NPS and USPP recognize the importance of the concerts to the community and look forward to further discussions with the permit applicant.
If McKaye's account is accurate, this wouldn't be the first time NPS' bureaucracy has created confusing policy or frustrated volunteers trying to use parks for community gathering spaces. The Dupont Festival is a group of people who volunteer their time to organize many kinds of events in the Circle. Just yesterday, they packed the circle to watch the US men's World Cup team play Germany (they lost, but the US did well enough to advance out of its group anyway).

Photo by John Jack Photography on Flickr.

The Dupont Festival folks have gotten a handle on navigating NPS' arcane and complex permitting processes as well as built relationships with permit officials, but when they were getting started they ran into many obstacles that sound a lot like the Fort Reno ones. Besides requirements for police, NPS also imposed last-minute requirements like insurance, didn't get the details of their permit until the last minute, and yelled at an organizer for showing up early.

The Park Service has been making many big and positive strides to be more responsive to residents and more open to making DC's parks, from the Mall to ones in neighborhoods, actually serve the functions of urban parks, such as including playground or welcoming people for special events.

Though food remains a problem. Yesterday, Park Police also drove away food trucks which park along streets like 7th Street as they cross the National Mall. While DC gives permits to the food trucks, NPS officials claim that trucks parking along streets with federal property on both sides is subject to federal rules rather than local ones.

This is a different issue than concerts in local parks, and it's no sudden revelation—NPS has been saying this for years, though it's not clear why there was a sudden crackdown yesterday. Hopefully NPS can find ways to accommodate food trucks, perhaps in select zones as DC has done downtown. They are a tremendous asset for hungry tourists.

Recently-retired NPS National Capital Region director Steve Whitesell said that the agency used to make "no" the default answer, and is evolving to work with people to find a way to "yes." Music fans will have to hope that the organizers and NPS can resolve their issues by next summer, while tourists on the Mall can wish for some solution to offer better food.

Public Spaces

Visitors will walk far to MLK, as they do to most memorials

On August 28th, an estimated 400,000 people will attend the dedication of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. They will experience what thousands of visitors find every day: it's hard to get to the memorials.

Photo by jpatrickmadden on Instagram.

The nearest Metro stop is Smithsonian, 0.8 miles away. In a special guide for those heading to the dedication, Metro wisely suggests not using this one, which will be mobbed. It's entirely possible that overcrowding will force the Smithsonian stop to close periodically.

Instead, Metro recommends walking from Farragut West and North, L'Enfant Plaza, Federal Triangle, McPherson Square, or Arlington Cemetery. (They discourage using Foggy Bottom due to ongoing escalator repair.) An extra ten minutes of walking may be faster and will certainly be less aggravating than coping with the crowds transferring to the Orange and Blue lines.

Dr. Gridlock tried the walk from Arlington Cemetery, and found it an inspirational one, with the walk over Memorial Bridge giving great views of the Lincoln Memorial. The trickiest parts are around Memorial Circle, where unsafe crosswalks and the Park Police's response make pedestrian crossings difficult.

WMATA also strongly recommends purchasing fare cards prior to the trip. Quite commonly at major events, people waiting to purchase cards for the return trip cause backups at Metro stations.

What about biking? Certainly the crowds around the Memorial itself make biking an inconsiderate choice in close proximity to the ceremony, but bike parking and/or a bike valet a short distance away would allow people to bike to the event and reduce Metro congestion. Unfortunately, there appears to be no bike parking at the memorial at all.

According to Shane Farthing of Washington Area Bicyclist Association, "WABA always looks forward to providing bike valets that allow bicyclists to more easily access major events. In this case, unfortunately, we were not contacted by the organizers, and generally we do not seek to provide valets without the support of the event organizers."

That's not terribly surprising, as the MLK, Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation website makes no mention of biking whatsoever. It appears as if biking was not even considered as an transportation option. In contrast, the a shuttle bus for drivers is provided from the parking lots at RFK stadium.

No bikes will be allowed on the Metrorail system on the 28th (even for reverse direction trips far from the memorial), due to the expected large crowds. Cyclists can still use the bike racks located on the front of Metrobuses, however.

In the end, despite all of the advice, people will surely stream from the Smithsonian Metro in droves. If past events are any guide, the shared endeavor of making the hike together will simply heighten the experience, as people from around the country share a common sense of excitement to commemorate the man who marched on Washington on that very day 48 years ago.

But when the newness fades, and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial becomes just one of many, we will have a new crop of visitors who discover that many of the memorials just aren't that easy to get to.

A standard walk around the Mall traverses 3.5 miles, from the Smithsonian Metro, taking in all the memorials, and ending at the Foggy Bottom Metro. National attention is focused on the obesity epidemic, and we've all seen visitors having a hard time on the Mall. Large numbers of our fellow Americans are disabled for any number of reasons, elderly visitors may be past their prime walking years, and small children just aren't ready to walk that far yet. There is not, nor should there be, a physical fitness requirement to exploring our common cultural heritage.

But what are the other options?

One could drive, of course. Many of us do. But parking in the area is, at best, chancy, and it's typically only an option for locals who are comfortable with the very confusing road layout. I don't recommend it to visitors, nor is more parking in the area realistic or desirable.

Riding a bike is an increasingly popular option. It does little to help disabled and elderly visitors, but a 3-mile bike ride is far less daunting than a 3-mile hike.

Bike infrastructure on the Mall lags behind the rest of the city. Bike racks are few and far between, and events such as the upcoming dedication show that bike planning is not yet as fully integrated as it could be. Like so many things on the Mall, Congress has a responsibility to properly allocate funds for improvement, but a cultural shift in the Park Service's mentality would go far.

The Park Service should immediately drop their intellectually weak objections to Capital Bikeshare and recognize that participating in the program is a low-cost way to increase access to the Mall for visitors and locals alike.

There's no reason for the Park Service to be perceived as anti-bike. After all, they lead free bike tours of the Mall right now. This is an easy fix and is in keeping with much of the excellent programming the Park Service offers.

Better integrating taxi service, both traditional and pedicabs, would be another relatively low-cost way to improve access. Traditional taxi cabs are generally not at all difficult to hail, but designated taxi pick-up points, discreet signage and perhaps even a cell phone call-in guide on how to use a cab would better marry tired visitors with cab drivers looking to relieve them of their cash. Believe it or not, many of our exurban visitors find the cab system, or cabs in general, daunting.

And, of course, the Park Service has been needlessly antagonistic to pedicabs. In addition to the press reports, including the highly publicized tasing, I've personally witnessed between overwhelmed and aggressive police officers and confused and frustrated pedicab drivers.

Clear, understandable, and transparent regulations will give clarity to everyone, from visitors to drivers to Park Police officers. Most of the attention has focused on individual Park Police actions, but it seems that individual officers are operating with unclear directives from above, lack of consistent standards, and strained staffing issues.

Finally, the memorials lack anything approaching a true mass transit system, thanks to an exclusive Tourmobile contract which prohibited Circulator service for years. Fortunately, NPS director Jon Jarvis has made it clear that change is coming to transit on the Mall.

When you take your first stroll to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, whether for the dedication or just on any other day, take a minute to chat with a visitor from out of town. All Americans deserve better access to this new memorial, and we should encourage those visitors to call their elected representatives and demand it. We may just have a chance to dramatically improve everyone's ability to enjoy our nation's monuments.


Park Police hassle driver who stops at GW Parkway crossing

Crosswalks along the GW Parkway are very dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists. But instead of fixing the problem, the Park Police are pulling over and criticizing drivers who stop to let people cross.

Photo by Andrew Beaujon on MobyPicture.

TBD's Andrew Beaujon reports that this morning, he was trying to cross the parkway on his bike, and a driver slowed down to let him. In response, Park Police officers pulled over the driver.

The officer then told Beaujon that he had pulled the driver over because his stopping might have led to a collision. Beaujon also says the officer was "very rude."

The Park Police seem to be responding, but in a very poor manner, to an incident last week where one driver rear-ended another who had stopped to let a cyclist cross at a crosswalk. As Stephen Miller explained, this stems from the basic design of the area, which is optimized for high-speed traffic flow instead of to accommodate both drivers and people crossing alike.

WJLA yesterday picked up the story of unsafe crossings here. Their video mentions the same solution Stephen suggested: HAWK signals, which DDOT officials told them have been very effective.

Racetrack-shaped ramps. From Google Maps.
Other residents suggest some kind of stoplight. None suggest responding to the rear-end collision by yelling at drivers who do stop. But that's just what the Park Police did. Whether they're overreacting to dancing, shutting down food trucks, arresting journalists at public meetings, or tasering pedicab drivers, there seems to be a pattern of very poor Park Police responses to issues that arise.

The "Smooth Operator" road safety campaign just sent out a press release entitled, "Speeding belongs on the raceway—not the roadway," citing the Baltimore Grand Prix and its drivers' maneuvers as something appropriate for the track but not for everyday driving. The ramps between the GW Parkway and Memorial Bridge even are oval-shaped like a racetrack; maybe the Park Police got confused.

Correction: The original headline on this article erroneously suggested Beaujon was a pedestrian. He was actually on a bicycle.


HDR time-lapse shows Washington in a new light

Photographer Drew Geraci created this great sequence of time-lapse HDR photos around the District (and surrounding jurisdictions).

Drew reports that he was stopped 9 12 times by law enforcement. It should come as no surprise that the worst offender was US Park Police, who stopped him 6 9 times.

Public Safety

Shocking video shows serious Park Police disregard for rights

Yesterday, Park Police arrested 2 reporters simply because Taxi Commission interim chair Dena Reed wanted them removed. Jim Epstein, one of the reporters, has posted video showing a shocking disregard for constitutional rights from the arresting officer.

The video shows Peter Tucker, the other reporter, insisting this is a public meeting and he's doing nothing but recording it; the officer is telling him he has to agree to stop reporting or be arrested.

Police are supposed to protect the public, not act as the private security force for people in power.

What is going through these officers' heads? Say you're an officer who gets a call from someone running a meeting objecting to a reporter there. You show up and see for yourself that the reporter is just sitting quietly recording or taking notes, not disrupting the meeting. What would make you think that your appropriate course of action is to get rid of that person just because the chair asked?

This isn't an isolated incident. It relates to three troubling police-related subjects: The Park Police becoming very disrespectful toward individual liberty, the Metropolitan Police Department's escorts of celebrities, and numerous stories of officers arresting or assaulting people for legally videotaping events.

The Park Police's troubling behavior. The National Park Service is a paradoxical agency. It operates parks but frequently seems to not want anyone to enjoy those parks, or to be able to travel easily to and from them except by the least environmentally friendly means. It operates the venue that hosts the largest numbers of protests (the Mall), yet its police seem constantly averse to smaller and less intrusive First Amendment behaviors.

The Park Police chose to turn some silent and respectful dancing at the Jefferson Memorial into a major issue, and again overreacted to the subsequent dancing protest. They told an ABC7 news crew they couldn't report from the Mall, which is entirely false. They even shut down all the food trucks at Farragut Square despite them operating completely legally.

MPD escorts. Today the DC Council also held a hearing on news that MPD gave Charlie Sheen a high-speed escorts, with sirens and lights, in contravention of policy, and further that they do this quite often. Our police force is not supposed to be making life easier for celebrities, or helping them reach events quickly and get through traffic.

Its mission is keeping the public safe. That public does include celebrities, but as witnesses argued at the hearing, there was no reason to believe the Sheen escort was necessary for public safety. It seems to simply involve doing the bidding of famous or important people. That isn't far from the mindset that someone like Reed could simply ask the police to get rid of a pesky journalist and that the police would comply.

Nationwide harassment of photographers and videographers. Carlos Miller has documented many troubling cases of police blocking or even arresting people who try to take pictures or video of police activity or other public buildings and objects. Rochester, NY police arrested a women for videotaping from her own front yard. Boston police arrested a man for videotaping in a park.

Los Angeles police kept a teen in prison for 7 months after he videotaped them arresting an unrelated person; they are continuing to harass him despite him being uninvolved in the original crime.

Albuquerque police took away a reporter's camera and deleted footage of arrests at a nightclub; Miami police pulled a gun on a citizen taking video of a police shooting.

It's not just about people actually taping police activity. People have recently been arrested or detained for photographing a TSA checkpoint in Denver, a whale in Florida, and a courthouse in Dayton.

In this region, we've had problems with officers harassing people for photographing USDOT's historic gas pumps, Union Station, and the Baltimore light rail.

Certainly, this is a minority of cases. People probably photograph federal buildings, whales, transit, arrests by police and more all the time without being harassed. People videotape on the Mall constantly and the Park Police doesn't bother them. And for all we know, there have been times when the chair of a meeting asks officers to remove a reporter and the officers properly refuse, saying he or she is breaking no law.

But when there are so many incidents, we can say there's a pattern. There seem to be far more incidents with the Park Police than with other police forces. Police look for patterns of behavior to solve crimes. There's a pattern of behavior from the Park Police having trouble understanding or following the Constitution.

We hear many calls for Congress to intervene in District affairs, often on completely internal matters from those unhappy with an outcome. The Park Police, though, is a federal police force. Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress should be very concerned about their officers so blatantly disregarding the First Amendment. And DC officials should take strong action to correct this kind of behavior from the DC Taxi Commission.

Update: Reed says that Tucker insisted on placing his microphone in certain locations to get a better recording, and claims she was entitled to bar the practice or even to refuse recording entirely.

Public Safety

Park Police arrest people for dancing at Jefferson Memorial

On Saturday, in the temple to America's greatest defender of freedom, Thomas Jefferson, the US Park Police arrested several people who had gathered to quietly dance.

In 2008, Mary Oberwetter and some other people gathered to silently dance to celebrate Jefferson's birthday one night. Park Police told them to stop, and when Oberwetter refused, she was arrested. A federal district court judge dismissed her lawsuit alleging this violated her First Amendment rights, and this month an appeals court agreed.

A number of individuals went to the memorial Saturday to protest the decision by dancing some more. Police told them they would be arrested if they chose to dance, then immediately did arrest one couple who appear to have broken off from the group and started dancing anyway.

That video excerpts from a longer one that shows the officers telling people they'd be arrested without further warning if anyone danced, then turning around and arresting a couple who had started very subtly shuffling back and forth while embracing in a somewhat dance-like way.

You also can see the officers roughing up and even choking a few people during the arrests. However, the man being choked did appear to be resisting arrest. As Don of We Love DC points out, the physical force started once one protestor tried to pull another one away from an officer trying to arrest him.

Like Don, I agree with the protestors' mission. It's ridiculous to preventing quiet dancing at the memorial under the argument that it should be reserved for "quiet contemplation," especially since schoolkids are often quite rowdy. The government has an interest in stopping loud protests that might disrupt others, but to arrest that couple who are silently swaying back and forth in an embrace looks ridiculous. But protestors who physically fight the officers don't help the cause.

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