Residents in many of the District's poorest neighborhoods routinely wait hours longer for police to respond to non-life-threatening calls than do residents in affluent areas, a review of police operations shows.
Although police service across the District has deteriorated partly because of inadequate funding, the collapse has fallen overwhelmingly on low-income, high-crime, predominantly black neighborhoods, observation of the city's police emergency response system and interviews with police officials and dispatchers show.
On busy nights, when officers are tied up with time-consuming violent crimes, callers in many of those areas -- such as Congress Heights and Washington Highlands in Southeast Washington and Trinidad in Northeast -- can wait five to eight hours for police to respond to non-life-threatening but serious calls such as missing person reports and burglaries.
The longest waits are often in the department's 7th District, which encompasses much of far Southeast Washington. It is the poorest of the city's police precincts and is about 91 percent black, according to U.S. Census figures. Callers in the 5th District, which includes many lower-income, high-crime neighborhoods on its eastern boundaries in Northeast Washington and is about 90 percent black, also routinely wait hours for police to respond to calls.
By contrast, the 2nd District, which includes Georgetown and other neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park, is 88 percent white and is the wealthiest district in the city, residents generally receive prompt service, waiting 30 minutes or less for police to respond to calls that sometimes take eight hours in other districts.
The primary reason for the disparity, interviews and a review of operations show, is that police in high-crime districts are tied up with violent crimes such as shootings, leaving few or often no officers available to respond to calls for problems such as domestic violence and disorderly conduct.
Because of officer absences for such reasons as sick leave or administrative leave, the city's most violent police district -- the 7th -- has operated at times in the last year with as few as one-third of its assigned officers on an average weekday and even fewer on weekends, according to roll call numbers the department provided to the D.C. Council. In May, the 7th operated with less than half its available officers, according to the department.
Police response to life-threatening incidents and crimes in progress generally is prompt across the city, although slower than in the past. Police arrived on the scene of high-priority calls -- life-threatening situations or crimes in progress -- in an average of 7.2 minutes in 1995, compared with 6.7 minutes the year before, according to police department statistics. But on busy nights in the city's high-crime districts, some callers reporting crimes such as break-ins in progress are waiting 30 minutes or more for police.
The disparity in response times across the city points to a failure on the part of the District government to move police resources to areas with the greatest needs and a lack of resolve from elected officials to face political pressures that would come with efforts to reallocate crime-fighting resources, critics say.
"The D.C. police department has a reputation for not doing enough resource allocation," said Sidney Greenberg, director of the Police Executive Leadership Program at Johns Hopkins University.
More fundamentally, the review shows inadequacies in the city's division into seven police districts, whose boundaries have not been altered for 25 years. Some top police commanders acknowledge that it may be time to redraw district boundaries.
"I'm not so certain that we don't need eight or nine districts," said Deputy Police Chief Charles Bacon, the department's commander of patrol area south, which includes the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 7th districts. The commanders of all the police districts have been asked to make recommendations about adjusting the boundaries, Bacon said, but no major redrawing of the police districts is planned.
Police officials say the department does not measure response time by district. However, officers and dispatchers readily acknowledge large disparities in response time among the seven districts.
The gap is on display virtually any night in the 911 communications center at police headquarters, 300 Indiana Ave. NW. Typically, the 5th and 7th districts are swamped with backed-up calls, while few if any callers are waiting in the 2nd District.
Many Wait in 5th
Early on a Saturday morning in late May, for example, 132 calls across the city were waiting for a response -- 49 of them in the 5th District. In the 2nd, only four calls were awaiting service.
"Seven D has a lot to do, with few officers to do it," said 911 operator Luis Lovell. "Most of the districts are undermanned, but 7D is where you see it the most. One D, 5D might roll for a while, but 7D is just constantly hot."
Said D.C. Council member Bill Lightfoot (I-At Large), chairman of the council's Judiciary Committee: "You talk to citizens, they call for a cop, they're happy if a cop comes, much less on time. It's not a question of commitment. A cop's going to go to a crime in progress. He's never going to make it to one that's already occurred."
It is a problem that police officers in the 5th and 7th districts readily acknowledge. "The dispatcher will say we have the following runs pending: a disorderly at this address, a fight at this address, a burglary at this address, and nobody's able to respond" because all officers are tied up on previous calls, said Sgt. William Middleton, a midnight supervisor in the 7th District.
Waits in the 7th District for calls other than violent offenses or crimes in progress "could be five hours or more," acknowledged Inspector Winston Robinson Jr., commander of the district. The 7th District has seen a sharp increase in homicides this year -- 49 as of May 30, compared with 81 in all of 1995. The problem is greatly aggravated by the citywide shortage of working police cars, which has crippled the ability of officers to respond to calls for help. Police officials are hoping that new cars ordered last month by the D.C. Council will alleviate some of the strains on the emergency response system.
Each district has about 21 scout cars, but on many nights, because of disrepair, fewer than half the cars assigned to a district are working.
In defending the allocation of police resources among the seven districts, city officials point out that the 7th District has more officers assigned to it than any other. In May, 428 officers were assigned to the 7th, and 389 of them were available for duty, compared with a citywide average of 346. But only 194 officers actually reported for work for all three shifts one day last week.
Officials said it is not uncommon for more officers in the 7th District to be hurt in the line of duty and placed on sick leave or limited duty. "Generally, where the most violent crimes occur, that's where most police get injured," Bacon said.
But some officers abuse the leave system by milking minor injuries and staying off duty for long periods, putting further strain on their working colleagues, supervisors acknowledge. "Lots of new officers take advantage of the system," Middleton said. "The least little thing happens, they go off on sick leave."
Measured against the number of most serious crimes -- homicide, rape, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon -- in each district, the 7th has the fewest officers available per violent crime. The 2nd District has close to 2 1/2 times more officers per violent crime, according to a review of crime statistics from the first four months of this year. The 4th and 5th districts have about half as many officers available per violent crime as the 2nd.
The criteria for dividing resources among the seven police districts are supposed to include each district's total calls for police, its number of crimes, its miles of streets, its geographic size and its percentage of commercial property. Those criteria have been largely abandoned in recent years, and dividing the department's increasingly limited resources has been largely ad hoc, Bacon said.
"The primary [determinant] has been the number of calls for service, and maybe that's something we need to revisit," Bacon said.
Five of the police districts have more total calls for police service than does the 7th, and two have more than the 5th, but none has as much violent crime as those two.
In the districts with less violent crime, "it's things like office theft -- somebody's purse was taken while they were in the restroom. That takes [an officer] 30 minutes," Bacon said. "When you talk about 7D, where three people have been shot . . . that can take hours."
Not all the strain in high-crime districts comes from violence. Much of it is residents calling police for non-emergencies, from petty arguments to drunken tirades. But such calls are often the byproduct of violence, according to police experts. "You often find the most nuisance calls in crime-ridden areas, because the citizens are in fear. So they'll call the police for ridiculous things," Greenberg said.
Bacon acknowledged that the police department should consider moving officers and cars from areas "where, for lack of a better term, business is slow" to districts with the most violent crime. But a large-scale shift of manpower among police districts could raise "a hue and cry like you've never heard before" among police commanders, residents and civic leaders struggling for part of the city's limited resources, Bacon said.
An attempt to redraw the boundaries of the city's police districts could be even more contentious.
Washington's police districts were created in August 1969, when the city merged its 14 police precincts into six districts as recommended three years earlier by a District crime commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
From the start, Southeast Washington was neglected. Everything east of the Anacostia River was lumped into one district -- the 6th. With the greatest population, the most public housing and the largest geographic area, the 6th District soon was leading the city in most serious crime categories. At the urging of Southeast civic leaders, who complained of poor service, the 6th was split in two in July 1971, creating the 7th District. In the years since, the 7th District has emerged as the district with the most violent crime.
D.C. POLICE DISTRICTS BY THE NUMBERS
POPULATION BY DISTRICT
The District of Columbia had a population of 606,900 in 1990. Below is a breakdown by police district.
Percent of non-white vs. white in each district (1990 estimates).
DIST. Non-white White
1 63% 37%
2 12% 88%
3 61% 39%
4 83% 17%
5 91% 9%
6 99% -1%
7 93% 7%
INCIDENCE OF VIOLENT CRIME
as of May 30
DIST. Assault with a deadly weapon Total violent crime*
1 314 1,033
2 105 413
3 228 795
4 428 1,006
5 448 1,054
6 307 564
7 615 1,192
*Includes homicide, rape, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon
24-hour period, three shifts
DIST. Total assigned Number actually reporting
for duty in May to duty Thursday**
1 239 400
2 185 335
3 213 349
4 172 401
5 182 390
6 98 341
7 194 428
**Reasons for absences include officers on temporary duty, sick leave and administrative leave
SOURCES: U.S. Census Bureau, D.C. Police Department
William Casey, director of computer assisted reporting, contributed to this report.
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