- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2000

D.C. Council member Jim Graham got it just about right the other day when he said, "People don't feel safe in their neighborhoods. We have no police visibility." The more precise characterization is people don't feel safe because there are not enough police out there. The "people" have been saying that for years, and the Metropolitan Police Department has been unresponsive just as long. The D.C. Council has finally not only heard the people's pleas but decided to answer them.

Lawmakers are trying to force Chief Chuck Ramsey's hand with legislation that would mandate two-thirds of the 3,600-member force be on patrols around the clock. The legislation, which council member David Catania, at-large Republican, drafted in 1999, is backed by a majority of the 13 members. Council member Harold Brazil, Democrat and chairman of the council's public safety committee, said his colleagues are being too heavy-handed. Mr. Brazil has a wait-and-see attitude. That is, he wants to wait until the chief hires more officers and then see if the chief assigns them to street patrol. Mr. Brazil probably will not display such a cavalier attitude come fall when he tries to sway voters toward his re-election bid.

To be sure, the fear of crime is as real as the recent spurts of bloodletting that put the District on par with last year's homicide tally. Equally frightening is the number of school-age children killed since September (18). As for residents' overall rating of the Metropolitan Police Department, a survey taken by Mr. Catania recently indicates most of the city's Advisory Neighborhood Commissions are satisfied with the department. Of the 37 commissions, which advise the council on all matters, 23, or nearly two-thirds, gave satisfactory votes to the department. The complaints, Mr. Catania said in a March 13 letter to Chief Ramsey, focused on the department's "general non-responsiveness to their concerns and lax enforcement."

To his credit Chief Ramsey has made significant changes in what once was a troubled police department. Like other D.C. agencies, high-tech meant typing reports on typewriters instead of computers, and communications meant returning to the station house to make a telephone call. Police cruisers were in serious disrepair and officers often had to spend their own money on basic supplies and equipment. Facilities were run-down, too, and inventory and bookkeeping techniques were obsolete. Firearms training was a casual occurrence and backgrounds checks were a joke. Chief Ramsey changed all those things. He also managed several recent huge rallies and protests.

On the other hand, managing personnel has proven difficult, whether that involved redesigning shifts so that more patrols roll between the high-crime hours of 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. or working with prosecutors so that officers are not tied up in court all day. That scores of officers are tied up handling the gun buyback programs isn't a very smart use of human resources either.

Chief Ramsey, of course, is balking, saying the council is trying to micromanage police affairs. To the contrary, the council's legislation is a line that, frankly, should have been drawn some years back.

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