The Metropolitan Police Department is moving a liaison unit that works with the city’s Asian community from its longtime home in Chinatown, a quiet change that ignited fears the police chief plans to tinker with another specialized crew despite vows that little will change except where the officers store their gear.
The concerns began when management at the Gallery Place retail complex in Northwest asked the police department if it would consider moving the Asian Liaison Unit out of the space it has rented for $1 per year under a 2004 to 2014 lease, since officers were frequently on patrol and essentially used the area as a locker room, according to police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump and Paul Quander, the deputy mayor for public safety.
Gallery Place is in the city’s Chinatown, a relatively small section of downtown near the Verizon Center defined by the large, ornate “Friendship Archway” that welcomes visitors. While historic, the neighborhood is limited to a relatively small row of Asian shops and restaurants centered on H Street between Sixth and Seventh streets. The area is distinguished by the Chinese characters used on signs by commercial shops compared to larger and more heavily populated Asian districts in cities such as New York City and San Francisco.
But members of the Chinatown community are not happy, saying they fought to secure the popular unit for the commercial corridor because of the language and cultural needs of Asian merchants in dealing with police and fighting spates of crime in the heavily trafficked area. They said the decision was made without their input. As far as they know, their prized and effective unit is moving out of the neighborhood.
“They never told the community,” Tony Cheng, who has owned a restaurant in Chinatown for decades, said Wednesday. “It’s not very nice.”
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said she will meet with community leaders in the coming days to assure them the move will result in no changes to how the unit goes about its business.
“There’s no plans to disband the unit,” she said Wednesday. “It’s a critical function of what we do.”
The police department agreed to relocate the unit — a multilingual body established in 1996 to serve all of the city’s districts — to police headquarters a short distance away in Judiciary Square, although Gallery Place will allow the officers to use an alternative space to fill out reports or conduct other duties on-site, officials said.
While the rent is nearly free at the existing space, Ms. Crump said the city is responsible for about $1,450 per month in occupancy costs, such as water, security and janitorial services. The new space offered by Gallery Place’s management will not cost anything, Chief Lanier said.
The stir in Chinatown arrives days after The New York Times reported on a long-running dispute between the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community and the D.C. police department over its decision to train officers throughout the city in duties that had been reserved for its highly praised Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit. Chief Lanier has insisted, both in the article and in testimony before the D.C. Council, that the department is doing all it can to help the LGBT community.
She said each of the specialized units — the department also has teams to assist the Hispanic population and those who are deaf and hard of hearing — started with a few members before expanding to meet the demands of a rapidly growing city.
The Asian Liaison Unit is composed of five officers and a sergeant, Kenny Temsupasiri, and officials said their use of technology on patrol makes the office space less relevant than it may seem.
“Isn’t it better to have police officers not sitting in the building, but out in the field?” Mr. Quander said Wednesday.
D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat who represents an area that includes Chinatown, said he reached out to Chief Lanier and Mayor Vincent C. Gray this week after he received an email about the issue from Mr. Cheng’s daughter, Stephanie Cheng, who heads the Chinatown Steering Committee.
According to a copy of the email obtained by The Washington Times, Ms. Cheng said community members and leaders “are infuriated and insulted that MPD never consulted or informed us of the decision to move ALU.”
“As you know, you along with Chinatown leaders fought tooth and nail to allocate a space for the Asian Liaison Unit in Chinatown and particularly the Gallery Place complex,” she said. “The [unit]) has been a fixture in Chinatown now for over 10 years.”
Ms. Cheng also said she suspects the unit’s relocation “may be the first move in potentially dissolving the entire ALU in the future.” For his part, Mr. Evans said Wednesday that he is satisfied there will be no changes to how the unit operates.
Several public safety officials stressed they did not ask to leave the existing space in Gallery Place, nor were they kicked out. Korenna Cline, a spokeswoman for the management company that leases the space to police, echoed the department’s version of events in a statement Wednesday.
Ms. Cline said Gallery Place managers discussed moving the unit to police headquarters “because the police officers spend most of their time patrolling the area here in Chinatown.”
“I can assure you that moving forward,” she said, “the police will have access to a fully operational command center located within the Gallery Place building.”