The Corner Forum
Sunday, March 9, 2003
Issue #22

Drug Activity on 400 Block of 13th Street NE Should Be Taken More Seriously by Police

Richard Sundberg (Duncan Place NE) and Sharon Cochran (Emerald),

Interviewed by Marc Borbely

At last weekend's weekly Corner Forum meeting, Mr. Sundberg and Ms. Cochran spoke about some of their concerns about public safety and quality of life issues in the neighborhood. Mr. Sundberg has lived on Duncan Place for about 12 years. Ms. Cochran has been on Emerald for six.

What are the major issues, living here, in terms of public safety? What are your major concerns?

Richard: My major concerns at the moment are the drug activity in the 400 block of 13th Street NE not being taken seriously or dealt with to end it, and a new generation of young kids who are just coming into their teenage years being drawn into the glamour of that at the corner.

Sharon: I have to add that the folks who get off of the bus at 13th and D who walk down 13th Street — they have to walk through that, and a lot people will go an extra stop just because they're intimidated to walk down through that block at 13th Street.

Tell me, what do you actually — you mentioned drug activity — what do you actually see?

Richard: I see people out there in front of the stores making contact with individuals who apparently want to buy something, and money changing hands, and then somebody going into an alley or pushing back somebody's brick retaining wall to get something out between the mortar joints, and then some sort of interchange going on again.

When do you see these things?

Richard: Well, it depends on when I'm home. I took leave, recently, to work on my house, and I was struck that this begins at about 11 o'clock in the morning and seems to go on until the stores are closed at 10 o'clock at night.

Do you have ideas about what would help?

Richard: Well, I think we need more police presence on the corner. I think the commander of 5D needs to take the problem there seriously, and to have officers there more frequently and in the surrounding area too, so these dealers aren't pushed simply to other areas, like the intersection of 14th and Emerald Street, which typically is what happens, or in the 1300 block of E Street, or the side alleys in the 300 block of 13th Street. I also think the police know who these individuals are. They should go to these individuals' homes and talk to their parents or grandparents — whoever's in the house — and ask them if they know that their children or grandchildren are dealing drugs out there. That would be a start.

Can you tell me, in a personal way, either from you or people you know — how this activity affects your lives or our lives?

Richard: Well, it really degrades the quality of life. It's not as bad as it used to be, simply because the volume of drug dealing and drug consumption and alcohol consumption in the 400 block of 13th Street and the surrounding area has been significantly reduced, thanks to, in large part, neighbors efforts. But still there is trash that is just thrown into the streets by these individuals that are selling the drugs or buying them. They buy food items from either the markets or from surrounding fast-food places, and they typically eat a good portion of it and then just toss the rest of it into the gutters or stuff them into the storm drains. And [then there's] the 30-dollar bottles of champagne, which particularly give broken-glass concerns for both car tires and the kids that ride their bikes around the neighborhood. There's the hypodermic needles that one finds from time to time — certainly not as frequently as we used to. But the debris really — we used to have a very difficult rat problem in the area, and it would be a shame for it to come back simply because these people are hanging out here, treating the area like their own personal trash bin. Also, the urination, and the doing of other things in the alley causes safety concerns besides the stench.

Sharon: I just think if there was just more of a [police] presence — the last time I talked to Richard, an article in the Post had just come out, where the Police chief essentially said [that crime] was D.C. residents' fault. It was a murder at 9:30 in the morning, at the Hess gas station on Florida Avenue. It was caught on videotape. A guy crossed Florida Avenue, shot someone at the gas station, and a person pumping their gas got into the car and drove away. And [Ramsey] was sort of wagging his finger, saying tsk tsk tsk, this is how D.C. residents are — just see these things and walk away, so blaming it on the victims, whereas if that guy had had a thought that there would've been a cop wandering by, he wouldn't have [crossed] the street and pulled out a gun. I mean it happens every week on H Street. You pick up the paper. At noon, someone's robbing a store on H Street. There's reasons why, at 6:30 in the morning, they're [shooting guns] on 13th Street and they are so sure that there's not gonna be a cop that catches them. And that's the real life of this city. It makes me extremely angry, because in real life, nothing's really gonna happen. [Also, the police officers] are always pulled out of the PSA. They're there, they get to know the faces, they know who is who, and they're pulled out to do special operations or something downtown.

Pulled off and then they come back? Or pulled off permanently?

Sharon: A lot of times, they don't come back. Gary, who used to be in our PSA, is now at the training academy, last time I heard.

Richard: Officer Dunlap. He was excellent. He's gone. Joe, who was excellent, was sent over to I believe 6A.

Sharon: At one point, [at the PSA meetings], they started keeping track of how many officers were in the PSA each day. And then they realized half the names the lieutenant [had on his roll] hadn't even shown up for work. It's ridiculous, because in fact they don't seem to have the power — and even if they're assigned to our PSA and they're supposed to be there, they're always called off to go to other, more dangerous areas.

Richard: Or just events at the MCI Center. Or at RFK. And those that are using our neighborhood for illegal purposes know this, and it just provides more of an opportunity for them to do whatever they're doing.

Sharon: Yeah, even when [the police] come up with a good idea, like last summer when they had the walking officer — [the guys on the street] know, oh, this is only gonna last a couple of weeks. It's an inconvenience to them, but it's no sense that that officer is gonna be there every day of the week, and he's gonna be there next month and the month after that.

Richard: [There's] another aspect of this that's irritating: one of the supposed benefits of living in town is to be able to walk to a corner market, instead of driving to a large shopping center to go to a large grocery store. But many people in our community do not patronize [the businesses in the 400 block of 13th] — the two stores and the dog-grooming [business], because of the individuals that hang out in front of there.

You're on Duncan Place. I spoke to some guy that I met — [a] marketing guy. He said that from his talking to people on the street, that was the number one issue — people hanging out at the stores and the drug activity there. Is that your sense, from talking to people on your street?

Richard: Yes. That is one of the concerns, because when I first moved to the block, the activity was up on Duncan Place, and, besides the tremendous volume of trash that was generated by that, there were personal safety issues, because of the extreme violence that was going on at that time, with the crack cocaine epidemic and the associated gun violence. And people are concerned — the ones that have been there for a while — that perhaps that activity could reappear. And then for the newer residents that come into the city and that are in the area — many of them are just amazed that this can go on out there in plain sight, and nothing, apparently, is done about it by the police.

Do either of you have any requests or thoughts about — let's say there are readers reading this and let's say have their own thoughts or feelings — any messages for them?

Sharon: Should we talk about having a community meeting, so that we can try to document, maybe, what are our concerns? I don't think, at this point, it's a good time to talk to the police officers until we can try to get a more organized viewpoint from the community, because a lot of times, when the police are there [at community meetings], they kind of excuse it away.

Richard: Yeah, I think you're right, Sharon, and I'd just like to complete my perspective. It [may sound] dismal, I know, on this recording, but I think [the drug dealing is less of a problem] than it used to be. It shows that if neighbors get together and work together in a consistent manner, they can accomplish things. I think the neighborhood shows that.

Can you tell me, from your experience — because it sounds like you've really had experience on this — what can a neighborhood do, if they do get together, for these kinds of issues?

Richard: I think the neighbors can make the police accountable. Really making the police accountable will take going to some of these meetings. Besides the PSA meeting, there's a meeting [at 5D] every month. [And there is the monthly ANC meeting.] The neighbors can go up there as a group, and not take the PR from 5D that's coming out about whatever's going on.

Do you remember any specific ways in which the neighbors together managed to get things done in the past?

Richard: Well, what really caused the change in the neighborhood were [several] factors, really. One was the neighborhood patrol. At the beginning of the '90s, when there was a really serious drug problem both there and at other locations, under the North Lincoln Park Neighborhood Association, we started an orange-hat group, and we began walking at 14th and C, because at that time that was a major drug market there. And when that group gelled, we came down to the 400 block of 13th. At that point, the police started addressing it, and ever since then, we've been able to chip away at it. Also, the commander we had at that time, who came on board — Claude Beheler — really had a heart for the community. And he was just passionate about creating an environment where the residents were able to walk in their neighborhood without fear — especially the older folk. He really bent over backwards to help them with their problems, so that they could enjoy their neighborhood. [And I almost forgot our ANC commissioner at the time — Larry Broun. He was tireless in his efforts to resolve the problem. He held the responsible officials accountable in a very public way and was constantly on the street himself.]

Sharon: I know that when I moved here, we had PSA Sergeant Cousins — she came in and she did a street cleanup on 13th Street. She got rid of the graffiti — there was a lot of gang graffiti on different buildings, which is now, by the way, starting to reappear, I noticed, on street signs and things like that. She cleaned up all the graffiti, had her officers doing that. Neighbors did the street cleaning, and also officers showed up to do that. She worked on situations where the elderly — she really reached out. She went door-to-door and had citizens coming out to PSA meetings who have not since shown up, since she left. But she really knew all the seniors in our neighborhood. She really reached out and talked to them. She was out, every day. She knew where trouble spots were, and she worked with DCRA and other licensing and housing inspectors, and others to solve problems. Once there was a house on the 1300 block of E Street, where they really had to bring in dump trucks to empty out the trash out the back yard. I mean it was serious stuff. So it can work. It takes a lot of work and commitment.

Richard: Well, I think we're in agreement, Sharon, that one of the primary things that are needed is a commitment by people in authority to address community issues on a consistent, ongoing basis, instead of short-term, band-aid type approach.

Sharon: I'm not sure that our officers really have the support that they need of their supervisors. My general experience has been that the beat cop is committed, but I'm not sure they have the backup they need from their bosses and from the prosecutor. When we started out, there used to be a thing where the U.S. Attorney's office had a pilot program, working with 5D, where the prosecuting attorneys actually knew the neighborhood and they worked with the 5th District police, and they actually knew who was who, so when they were repeatedly arrested, then knew who they were and what was going on, and within the community, that seems to have just totally dissolved on us. They used to show up at the PSA meetings all the time, and call their own community meetings. I've not seen any of that anymore.

Richard: I think a lot of this goes back to management. Because the beat officers — especially those who've been beat officers for a while — really have a heart for the neighborhood. But they can only do so much, and the neighbors have to get [the attention] of management at 5D or higher and have the problems addressed. It's been done in the past, so it can be done in the future. §