Pubdate: Sat, 13 Jun 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Authors: Clarence Williams and Peter Hermann


Residents' Responses Range From Praise to Skepticism

Citing disappearing open-air drug markets and new ways narcotics are 
being sold, D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier says she wants her 
detectives to concentrate on suppliers and not streetcorner busts 
that have long been a staple of policing across the country. The 
strategy shift, outlined at a community meeting Thursday, will 
eliminate most of the plainclothes operations police have used for 
decades to target outdoor drug sales, magnets for drive-by shootings 
and other violence. Coming at a tense moment in the nation's 
relations between police and the public, it could also ease 
confrontations involving officers not immediately identifiable as law 
enforcement. It is an admission that some tactics - which were viewed 
by some critics as heavyhanded even when the crack epidemic sparked 
record numbers of homicides - no longer make sense amid a decline in 
fatal shootings and the availability of synthetic narcotics sold over 
the Internet, through social media and in convenience stores. "Our 
main goal is the supply," Lanier told about three dozen residents at 
the community forum in Northeast Washington. "We don't want to focus 
police efforts on just people who are addicted. We want to be 
focusing on the people who are bringing the stuff in." In an 
interview, she added: "Our criminal environment is changing rapidly. 
We have to keep up." The plan would eliminate District vice squads - 
each with about 20 detectives and supervisors - and shift 
higher-level investigations to the centralized Narcotics and Special 
Investigations Division.

Police will continue undercover operations, but as much as possible, 
Lanier wants police to be identifiable when making arrests.

The changes are resulting in praise from experts pushing for 
innovation in policing, guarded optimism among activists who have 
complained about aggressive police tactics and skepticism from the 
head of the union representing the District's rank-and-file officers.

Although D.C. police have escaped the controversies and tumult other 
cities have experienced after the deaths of black men at the hands of 
law enforcement - such as in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and 
Ferguson, Mo., - critics have complained that in the District, 
plainclothes officers jump from unmarked cars to roust suspected 
people, innocent and not, on street corners. Lanier has said 
specialized "jump out" squads have not been used in some time. She 
has previously said that in some cases, officers are responding to 
911 calls or searching for particular suspects. Residents may also 
see officers from other agencies, she has said.

Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the Washington office 
of the American Civil Liberties-Union-whose staff has said D.C. 
officers are too aggressive in poor, high-crime neighborhoods-called 
Lanier's changes a "good first step."

"It is a very clear message that the strategies employed by the MPD 
have not been effective, whether it has to do with the changing 
nature of crime, of drugs or the community response," Hopkins-Maxwell said.

But Delroy Burton, chairman of the union that represents the 
District's officers, said there could be a negative effect on 
neighborhoods. The changes mean that police district commanders 
"won't have as many options to deal with minor drug problems" that 
don't merit attention from the larger squad focused on the city.

Lanier said she wants to focus on drugs that pose major public-safety threats.

Police say they believe that PCP, club drugs such as MDMA (also known 
as ecstasy or Molly) and other synthetic drugs are the latest 
problems and require new approaches. The Internet is used in the 
supply line for many of those drugs. Heroin also has caused concern 
because of a high number of overdoses nationwide.

Authorities in the Washington area have traced PCP from the West 
Coast, club drugs like MDMA to local bathtub labs and synthetic drugs 
from as far away as China, Lanier said. Police have been able to 
seize large quantities of synthetic drugs in recent years, including 
137 kilos in 2013, 120 kilos in 2014 and, so far this year, 25 kilos.

Marijuana, although still illegal to sell, is legal to possess in the 
District and use in small quantities, and police have largely stopped 
targeting the drug.

Police say that in the early 2000s, they identified 210 open-air drug 
markets in the District. Today, few operate in the open, Lanier said. 
Homicides have also decreased. The District recorded annual killings 
in the 300s and 400s during the late 1980s and through much of the 
1990s, when crack was rampant. Those numbers are now in the low 100s.

"The criminal enterprise has changed. The criminals have gone 
high-tech, so our methods have got to go high-tech, too," Lanier said.

The chief has hinted at the department's changes during community 
meetings and before the D.C. Council, and other cities have taken 
similar approaches. Among the first was High Point, N.C., a city of 
about 110,000 outside Greensboro, which created its Drug-Market Initiative.

Police there identified drug markets and arrested the handful of 
dealers with the most significant records. They told others to change 
or face jail time and then started working with residents to address 
the smaller, quality-of-life crimes. "Like every other police 
department, we would do a zero-tolerance sting or a street sweep," 
said Capt. Tim Ellenberger, who runs High Point's major crimes division.

"While those operations seemed on the face of it productive, they 
clogged the justice system, felonized people not driving the violence 
and angered the people who lived there. . . . We weren't making 
anything better."

Now, Ellenberger said, "we target the people responsible for the 
violence surrounding a drug market. It's fairer to the residents. 
It's smarter policing."

John DeCarlo, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal 
Justice in New York and a former police chief in Branford, Conn., 
said that "focused deterrence works better than a general war on drugs."

The retired 34-year police veteran said "the whole face of drug 
markets has changed. . . . On the dark Web, you can buy and have 
delivered to your house just about any drug you can think of. It's 
child's play."

Reducing confrontations between police and residents who often feel 
under siege will have added benefits, DeCarlo said.

Lanier has made no secret that the changes are, in part, to help 
improve relations with the community, saying she is "committed to a 
strategy that focuses on less crime and less arrests."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom