It's a drizzly Friday evening before Memorial Day and Chinatown is starting to buzz. A man on the street shouts to passersbys that Jesus loves them. A young woman with a baby in a stroller holds a cardboard sign begging for money. Dozens of teenagers have packed a fast-food Mexican restaurant.
And outside on the street, a half-dozen Metro Transit police officers congregate near the closest subway station while D.C. police officers drive around the block and also stand watch on the sidewalk. Even volunteer citizen patrols, known as Guardian Angels, scope out the scene.
The D.C. police department is entering its third year of a program aimed at providing a more aggressive presence in the Chinatown neighborhood, easily one of the city's busiest — especially on weekend nights. Police say the extra manpower has contributed to a drop in crime, at least in the immediate vicinity and in certain categories, and helped disrupt a gang. A side benefit has been closer collaboration between the community and the police, with merchants and condo owners swapping cell phone numbers with officers on patrol.
"We had to basically go down there and clean up the area and make sure it was a friendly place not only for people who live down there but also for people who visit the city and young adults who would go out downtown," said Sgt. Peter Sheldon, who heads the Chinatown initiative.
The program was implemented in spring 2009 in response to concerns from merchants, residents and visitors about nuisances and crimes including assaults and thefts. Now, 12 officers are assigned at night to Chinatown, their duties overlapping with part-time officers and Metro officers.
Chinatown exists as a mini-Times Square, a neighborhood of narrow boundaries forced on weekend nights to accommodate the population of a small village. Sports and music fans regularly file into the Verizon Center, the arena for the city's pro hockey and basketball teams and the venue for popular entertainers. Tourists and residents flock to trendy restaurants, bars and chain stores.
And teenagers, sometimes hundreds of them, mill about, ducking into the megaplex movie theater and loitering outside businesses.
"Community members were extremely concerned about juveniles disturbing pedestrians or tourists or just people going to see a hockey game," said Stephanie Cheng, whose family owns Tony Cheng's, a neighborhood Asian restaurant. Cheng, who is also executive director of the Chinatown Community Cultural Center, said that while there could be an even stronger police presence, she was pleased with the changes.
The police center their focus on Chinatown's heart — the intersection of 7th and H streets, where the Friendship Gate is located. Police department statistics show that crime within a 1,000-foot radius of H Street, between 6th and 7th streets, fell in most categories — including a drop from 66 to 54 in total violent crimes and a drop from 333 to 310, or a 7 percent decline, in overall crime.
Yet theft rose, which Sgt. Sheldon attributes to more people reporting it police, and reports of crime in some categories, including sex abuse, rose within a 1,500-foot radius of that intersection.
Richard Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement, said he considered the policing initiative a sort of insurance policy to make sure the neighborhood's popular restaurants continue to do healthy business. He said the extra manpower could have been added several years ago, but that it wasn't always obvious to some that Chinatown had enough major crime to need it.
"The good news and the bad news was the incidents of crime weren't significant enough to merit, at least in their view, that deployment of police officers," he said. "They looked said, 'There's a lot of people, there's a lot of noise, but we don't see a lot of crime.'"
Last Friday night began relatively calm but with a few hiccups, including an assault inside a Dunkin' Donuts shop. And by the end of the evening, a non-fatal stabbing occurred near the Metro. At one point, Sgt. Sheldon strides briskly into a dark park where about a dozen teenagers have gathered around benches. There's an unmistakable odor of marijuana.
"Who's smoking weed?" Sgt. Sheldon demands. "I smelled it."
All profess innocence and the odor fades. Sgt. Sheldon questions them amiably about where they're from, then moves on without any arrests. He says his officers aren't necessarily inclined to pull out handcuffs; sometimes, he said, a phone call to parent oblivious to their child's whereabouts can be sufficient.
"All of them look at it as a project," Sgt. Sheldon said of his officers. "They get angry and mad at themselves if something happens on the beat."