Councilmember Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, at a 2008 hearing. Photo credit: thedccenter on Flickr.It's a statement that is a bit troubling, particularly when it comes from the official who chairs the DC Council's Committee on Public Safety and Judiciary, Phil Mendelson.
It came in response to an e-mail from a concerned resident who wrote his elected officials asking for help after two daytime shootings on Wednesday. The first occurred at 4pm at the Shaw metro stop located at 8th and R Streets NW. The second occurred just two hours later near 7th and N Streets NW. My understanding that no one was hit in either shooting, but falling near a metro stop and a school, it's just sheer luck.
Few, if anyone, would disagree that crime is far more than a legislative issue. Solving gang violence requires sufficient police resources, committed officers and detectives, and a clear strategy. It requires effective prosecutors and judges who don't accept insufficient pleas for violent crimes. It requires a community that is not willing to tolerate those involved in the shootings. It also requires creating an environment that does not attract crime -- by addressing vacant properties and well maintaining the streets. In the long term, reducing crime requires improving our schools, providing job training and work opportunities, providing positive recreational options, and formal and informal mentoring.
But addressing gang violence is also a legislative issue. It is the DC Council that is responsible for giving the police the tools they need to most effectively do their job and providing prosecutors with the leverage to obtain pleas or convictions that keep violent offenders in jail. Obviously, as residents of my neighborhood face day-to-day gunfire, something is not working.
The recent anti-crime bill included several tools to address gang violence. Some passed. Other important elements did not. For instance, Councilmember Mendelson led a vote against civil gang injunctions, which would have allowed prosecutors to obtain court orders prohibiting "known gang members" from engaging in a range of activities, such as associating with other gang members. Some cities have enacted such laws, which have begun to have an impact. Councilmembers who agreed with Mendelson expressed concern that it would give too much discretion to police, might lead to racial profiling, and would label kids as gang members forever. Alternatively, Councilmember Barry suggested continuing to give millions away to groups like the Peaceoholics, you know, the organization that received $10 million of taxpayer funds and a fire engine to the Dominican Republic in recent years, among other infractions, with no accountability for results.
But that's not all. During deliberations over the bill, Councilmember Mendelson also expressed reluctance to support an amendment that would have made it easier to keep in prison those who are charged with gun crimes while they await trial. He showed his utter lack of understanding of what is happening in our community when he claimed from the dais: “It’s not clear how real that revolving door is." It's quite clear from my front door, however. Fortunately, the Council passed that measure.
In his e-mail to the concerned constituent, Councilmember Mendelson also restated his opposition to enacting an anti-loitering law for DC, saying it is plain 'ol unconstitutional. True, ten years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Chicago law because it was too vague and provided too much discretion to police, but that law has since been rewritten. DC's version of an anti-loitering law are those "drug-free" or "prostitution-free" zone signs. They give the police the ability to order those lingering about and who appear to be engaged no good to move on. But their impact is highly limited to a small area for a few days at a time. I often hear the question, "why isn't it always a crime free zone?"
Several members of the Council support enacting a broader anti-loitering law including Jim Graham (Ward 1), Jack Evans (Ward 2), Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), Yvette M. Alexander (Ward 7), Kwame R. Brown (At Large), and David Catania (At Large). That's six of the thirteen member DC Council. Having the chair of the public safety committee on board could make the difference.
Finally, for good measure, it is also worth noting that Councilmember Mendelson was a proponent of reducing, then eliminating, the vacant property tax that was finally, FINALLY!, having an impact in moving vacant row houses and lots that plague Shaw back into productive use. More to come on that in a future post.