PoP Exclusive: Interview with Councilmember Phil Mendelson, Chairperson Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary – “Crime is at an Unacceptable Level”

Phil Mendelson, originally uploaded by thedccenter.

I had the opportunity to meet with Councilmember Mendelson at his office in the Wilson Building last Friday afternoon. We spoke for an hour and a half about the problem of crime in DC. We discussed the complexity of the issue and ways in which the council can and can not solve the problem. I don’t consider myself a journalist. Rather, I wanted to meet with the Councilmember so I could express some of the anger and frustration a regular resident feels when crime, particularly violent crime, is all too frequent in many of our neighborhoods.

I asked the Councilmember what his impression was of crime in the city. He replied that as he is an at large member of the council he visits the whole city. He has witnessed crime firsthand and was even a victim himself many years ago. He stated crime is at an unacceptable level put as chairperson he doesn’t want to be alarmist. He also noticed that many crimes have actually gone down over the last year. Nevertheless, he did acknowledge that crime was indeed a big problem facing many of the District’s residents, “my belief is that crime is unacceptable and we don’t seem to be getting the bad people off the street.”

He expressed on a number of occasions that the issue of crime cannot be solved by the legislature (City Council) alone. He cited the 2006 Omnibus anti crime bill where “we had virtually everything prosecutors and police asked for”. Mendelson believes that what needs to be addressed is the issue of the revolving door where the bad guys get arrested but don’t end up in prison. He offers a variety of reason to explain this phenomenon: Continues after the jump.

  1. Police work “if we are going to get the bad guys off the street the police can do better”. 25% of cases are “no papered” because the arrest “wasn’t good”.
  2. The prosecutor needs to improve. For example with homicides in 2005 out of 15 homicide prosecutions 11 charges were dropped due to pleas. This is the decision of the prosecutor.
  3. The courts. Violent offenders can’t be released after arrest. Given the presumption of innocence, there is no bond in the city, the person arrested will only be held if he is considered a danger to the community or a risk of flight. In April of last year the US attorney asked for 46 to be held due to a danger to the community but the courts only allowed 16. In August the prosecutor asked fro 49 to be held and only got 21.

I asked the councilmember about mandatory sentencing for gun crimes and he explained that in many instances there are already mandatory sentencing guidelines. However in reality what happens is that the prosecutor says they need to be able to accept pleas because then they can get evidence on other crimes. This results in the prosecutor often charging the criminals with crimes that don’t have a mandatory minimum.

Mendelson believes there is a lot more to fighting crime than just the sentence. He believes the sentence itself is not a deterrent rather the value comes in taking the offender off the street. “We need to make sure that the charging decisions are changed to improve the closure rate so that more people are doing time”, he said “the biggest deterrents are getting caught and doing time. The closure rate is more important than the length of the sentence.”

I asked the Councilmember his thoughts on mandatory minimums for anyone caught with a handgun. Mendelson does not advocate a minimum for carrying a firearm without a liscence (CPWL) because there can be mitigating circumstances. He cited the case of Carl Rowan Sr., which took place a number of years ago. Carl Rowan Sr. came outside his home with an unregistered handgun when he thought he heard a burglar. In this case Mendelson believes that Rowan Sr. would not warrant a mandatory sentence. Current law recommends a first offense gets 6-24 months and a second offense gets 10-28 months.

Mendelson wanted to set the record straight on the Omnibus Anti Crime Bill of 2009. The next hearing is March 18th. He explained the delay because, “The mayor took two months to reintroduce his bill which was the cause for the delay”. He anticipates there will be a second hearing in May. Mendelson is hopeful that this bill will be moved before the summer recess. For comparison he said the 2006 bill took three readings and a took a year to pass. Mendelson said it’s not as easy as Peter Nichols would suggest “it’s a good bill just pass it” there are a whole range of opinions that must be worked out.

I pressed Mendelson to explain how crime can be reduced in the city if not by legislation from the council. He explained that the solution is a coordinated strategy between the council, all public safety agencies, the attorney general, and the courts. He said, “People should realize that legislation is not the answer to reducing crime. Rather it is the quality of police work, closing cases and charging decision, it’s the courts, the coordinated approach, the back of the system”, (What we are doing for the criminals before we release them from jail, ie vocational training). The 60% recidivism rate is unacceptable to Mendelson and he sees it as “low hanging fruit” that should be addressed right away. He did say that Police Chief Lanier has done a good job instituting the Most Violent Perpetrators (MVP) program that targets getting the most violent criminals off the streets.

Mendelson concluded that, “It is frustrating to everyone when some who commits a crime doesn’t do any time.”

He encourages all who are interested to attend the Public hearing March 18th at 10am, Hearing Room 412, John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Bills that will be addressed include the “Omnibus Anti-Crime Amendment Act of 2009”, the “Public Safety and Justice Amendments Act of 2009” and the “Hot Spot No Loitering Zone Act of 2009”.

I think the Councilmember did a very good job explaining all the problems and roadblocks that exist in resolving this issue. He did a good job of explaining where improvements need to be made. However, I wasn’t left with a lot of hope that these improvements would be made. I agree with his assessment that the council in and of itself will not be able to solve the issue. However, I would have liked to have left the meeting thinking, ok- the problem is recognized and very smart and capable people are working on resolving it. I was left, simply, with the feeling of continued frustration. Yes, it is not just the council’s responsibility but, well, I just wanted some hope that the situation was going to improve. Perhaps this was an unrealistic expectation of mine. Despite Mendelson’s dedication and understanding of the issue I was left thinking this problem is so complicated that it’s going to continue for many years to come regardless of when the proposed bills are passed.


30 Comment

  • When is crime ever at an acceptable level?

  • I know what the real answer to the revolving door issue is. I am convinced I know exactly what the problem is.

    I know and am sort of friendly with a family of criminals on my block.

    Last year I saw a WMATA cop in full uniform talking to them. I thought for sure they were going to be arrested for drug possession. As I walked closer I could see her laughing with them. The main drug dealer who has a myspace page where he flashes wads of bills and brags of “slinging weed” introduced her to me as his cousin and I could see she was flirting very heavily with another one of the drug dealers.

    A WMATA cop in uniform sitting on the stoop with crack dealers.

    The reality is that if you grew up in DC under Barry then you should be automatically disqualified from working in law enforcement. Too many cops are secret drug dealers, drug users or former drug abusers.

    I know and sort of trust police lieutenant. We talked for about two solid hours over the last year. He told me his life story and how he became a lieutenant- he saw his cousins and brother do drugs, get beat up by dealers, and all that. While I think he means well, I know for a solid fact that he accepts drug dealing gangs as being normal and something the police battle instead of being something shockingly low class.

    I seriously believe that he accepts drug use as part of what it means to live in DC. People from outside DC who never saw any public drug use (I was straight edge throughout high school and only knew a few drug users) are of course horrified by the acceptance of crews, drugs and drug violence on the part of the police and the politicians.

    Quite simply put- Fire DC cops from DC and hire them from Nebraska, Oregon, Arizona, Ohio and anywhere where drug dealing gangs are viewed as ugly and stupid instead of “something my Dad was a part of.”

  • Big shock. Police blame legislation, prosecutors and the courts. Prosecutors blame police, the courts, and legislation. And Phil M. points the finger right back. Until each starts taking responsibility for what it can do to incrementally improve the situation and stop wasting their breath pointing fingers, things will NEVER change.

  • God, I love how Mendelson brought up Carl Rowan. Dude used an illegal gun to shoot a kid pool-hopping in his back yard. Never mind that Rowan was a HUGE proponent of mandatory minimums for firearms violations. Hypocritical sack of sh*t. Classic case of the laws being for little people. Since he was a rich public figure he got off without doing a day of jail time.

  • The Rowan example is a joke. How stupid. Phil, get a clue, especially if you want to keep your job!

  • i agree with neener here

  • I mean, this hasn’t happened in a while, but how many witnesses have been given up because a court clerk is the accused’s cousin, ex-girlfriend, etc? The problem is that crime used to be so ingrained in DC culture that for people of a certain generation they really don’t understand how, let’s say, Montgomery County handles drug gangs.

    And MoCo is far from perfect and all jurisdictions are dealing with suburban gangs, particularly MS-13 or Gangster Disciples in Minnesota, behaving unlike anything they’ve seen before (traditional Maryland drug gangs were bikers like the Pagans). Then add in the rural meth epidemic.

    But what I’ve seen from the many police I’ve spoken to is that too many can tell me about a sibling or cousin or relative who is a criminal. Too many. Something is just wrong there and I think it affects who they arrest and who they slap on the wrist.

  • I haven’t lived in DC long enough to know if cops are really turning a blind eye to drug dealers and crews right in front of them, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the case considering how much of it I see out on the street. That being said, if someone sees what Neener apparently witnessed, cops joking around with drug dealers on the corner, then I think they should notify the appropriate authorities, which would be AFT and the FBI. If there is a systemic problem with DC cops not enforcing the law, I think the only way it can be fixed is with investigations and forced changes from outside federal agencies.

  • Ok, I’ll bite.

    How, exactly, does getting rid of police officers (and a huge percentage of them at that – since we are proposing to oust all MPD that are from DC) going to increase police productivity? This isn’t exactly some bloated program that can benefit from cutting the fat.

    And we are going to replace them with cops from all over the country? Ones that are just itching to come work in the now depleted ranks of MPD? To serve and protect a group of people to whom they have no connection? Uproot themselves from their home to come live in a place that got so allegedly bad that it needed to put out an SOS to the rest of the US for straight cops?

    Those we have might not be perfect, but I will take them. I hope we can add to their numbers, too. Every profession is going to have it’s dirt bags. MPD is no different I am sure. That doesn’t mean that most – or even a significant number – have conflicted interests to the point of incompetence.

  • I’m more or less suggesting that the once-ingrained culture of crime in the 1970s-80s is affecting how arrests and prosecutions work in DC. Obviously the full-scale firing of anyone hired under Barry is impossible. However I think that’s the root of the problem.

  • So, in other words, the Councilmember’s interview may be summed up thusly: “I pass the buck.”

    I had a much longer post about the idiocy of his argument relative to prosecutors and the courts, but that got eaten by WordPress and I don’t have the time to re-write it. Suffice it to say that I found his argument about plea agreements particularly disingenuous. If he really thinks the way to lower crime is for prosecutors to charge the highest crimes, take them to trial, hope the cop work was all by the book and the same witnesses who wear Stop Snitchin’ shirts show up and tell the truth, and then pray a DC jury agrees with the cops and lawyers, he is delirious and dangerously so. Particularly when the other option is to enter a plea agreement that puts criminals behind bars, even if for a lesser offense (remember, Phil: it’s not how long you go to jail, it’s that you do — your words, not mine), conserves prosecutorial resources for more cases, and requires the bad guys to cooperate with the government. I am reasonably confident that no prosecutor in the DC US Attorney’s office (where many of my friends — but not me — work) would plead out a homicide case in a way that doesn’t put the defendant in jail for a nice long while. It just doesn’t happen that way.

    His position may be savvy politics for an at-large councilmember, who has an unfortunate number of constituents who see the cops as the bad guys and the lawyers and courts as unable to mete out justice, but it is downright crummy policy for public safety.

  • And Phil, if you want to write a good law that allows for mitigating circumstances while still creating a mandatory sentence for possession of an unregistered gun, it can be done. In fact, it’s arguably your job to do it! But keep telling us the same overused Carl Rowan anecdote instead … it’s much easier that way.

  • Neener, not asking for your exact address here, but I’ve seen a lot of your posts talking about heavy dealing activity in your neighborhood–can you give an approximation of where you live? I’m thinking about buying in Petworth in the next year, and if you wouldn’t mind sharing some more troubling spots to avoid, that’d be great. Thanks very much.

  • Neener’s experience seems very easy to believe. I ask everyone — if you’ve had experience with an officer, how often was that individual articulate, enthusiastic, or helpful.

    With two exceptions, every cop I’ve dealt with has been someone who barely speaks English, is hostile, and seems to have the intelligence of one of the kids on the corner. And those are the 1% who aren’t driving around in their cruisers, seats reclined and windows up, talking on their mobile phones.

  • Anonymous at 12:31: amen and amen.

  • Neener,
    Why do you think Cops are associating with the drug dealers and not the bums? Answer that and you are one step to solving the problem. Simply put, we have to get the money out of the drug dealers hands. Most of them wouldn’t even be bale to buy or obtain a gun if they were unable to make money selling drugs. That is the root of the problem. Start at the root or don’t start at all..

  • Is it because bums often have mental disorders where anti-social behavior is a key trait? Thus they don’t make for the best conversation and so associating with them becomes quite difficult?

    Finally, I get it. The answer at last!

  • Right on, Nate.

  • I live in Mt Pleasant actually. I don’t have HEAVY dealing in my neighborhood, but we have SOME dealers in one house and then some associates in other houses in a block that also includes houses sold for over $1 million. My neighbors and I are shocked that there’s ANY drug-dealing going on, and add in that most of it occurred on DCPS property? don’t start me.

  • CP-

    I know a handful of MPD and most of the ones I know are merely uneducated, but otherwise mostly ok.

    Have I had to explain to the police lieutenant that his email he received was a Nigerian scam and not some kind of local scam? Yes. He recognized it was a scam, but had never heard of Nigerian scams. That seems really uneducated to me. His officers who he has talk to me appear to be “good people.”

    Nate, I would agree with you that death penalties for drug dealers make some sense, but I disagree that’s the solution.

  • Here’s an interesting quote from the current issue of the Northwest Current about a recently solved mugging spree in Georgetown:

    [2nd District Cmdr] Klein moved officers from other units to “beef up patrols” in the affected neighborhoods. The situation was notable, he said, because of the location of the crimes. “It’s unusual to have the residential streets in Northwest targeted,” he said. [/endquote]

    Must be nice to be able to grab manpower from other districts to deal with a few muggings. And, gee, I thought Petworth was in Northwest, yet I read about muggings on residential streets here every day. Nothing new here, but frustrating nonetheless.

  • I have to say that MPD, Park Police and Metro Policy have been doing a good job of increasing exposure on the Ft Totten metro path in light of recent spait of muggings. Granted the exposure is mostly drive throughs, with occasional camping out at the midway point. At least the drive bys keep the pedestrians on our toes!

  • It does not matter how much work police, prosecutors, and the courts do. There is just too much crime to handle. The problem begins well before any of these actors are brought into this sad little play.

    If the system designed by the legislators and the community from which all these “criminals” come from continue to simply “punish” without any thought to rehabilitation, nothing will change.

    I don’t mean to sound like I’m “soft on crime,” but for far too long, legislators have simply claimed that harsher penalties will be the deterrent. They are not. If they were, we’d already see substantial drops in crime. Instead, legislatures continue to create more statutory crimes and harsher penalties, and so more people go to jail, more people become part of the system, and more people lose out on their ability to contribute to society.

    Being “tough on crime” alone is not the answer. And clearly, Mr. Mendleson does not get that.

  • Prince Of Petworth

    future PoP attorney – actually he did mention the need for vocational and other rehabilitation training.

  • We could just stop the crime in DC by actually having the cops do their jobs, like arresting and citing people. But that would probably be asking way too much.

  • Re: vocational training, I could support that for burglars and thieves and maybe even drug dealers. However, I care little about such crime, though I do note the link between dealing and violence (though its not guaranteed). For the shoot em up thugs, no rehabilitation or training, but permanent incarceration. Like mad dogs, they need to be put down. No exceptions, no mercy. Are we not a society? And are they not violently anti-social? Civilization is learned, and when that fails, imposed by force.

  • Future PoP attorney: Nodding along with all the other thoughtful progressives that tougher sentences have no impact isn’t grounded in reality while it may be a popular stance. While there are plenty of fairness, proportionality, disparity, and other arguments to make against the very stiff federal penalties for drug trafficking and guns there is little doubt they’ve had an impact that can be seen very clearly when reviewing federal statistics over the last 20 years. Simply listening to that cool law professor, who happens to live way, way, way up Wisconsin, without investigating the facts yourself will get you nowhere.

    Crime, while still of serious concern, is NOTHING like it was 20-25 years ago when laws like the Sentencing Reform Act and a plethora of “get tough” state laws started being enforced. Perhaps you’re too young to remember, but ignoring the very obvious effects of tough sentencing is to be oblivious to very recent history.

    While nothing will ultimately change until DC gets serious about education and directing youths (and youthful offenders) into a positive direction, the idea of yet another “vocational” program having any effect on the recidivism rate of violent and repeat offenders is more than laughable, it’s inane. While non-violent drug offenders and other minor offenders do have a better chance of not recidivating (if not a great chance), the point of the legislation being discussed here is REPEAT GUN OFFENDERS who have a prior felony (at least).

    Another program is not the answer for repeatedly carrying guns and creating mayhem on the streets of this city; swift, sure, and significant punishment is.

    I suggest you take a serious look at recidivism studies before you try to talk about alternatives for repeat adult offenders. While the “better angels of our nature” cause us to want to believe there is “another way” forward for violent and repeat offenders, the experiences of criminal justice experimentation in the 1970’s and 1980’s shows this to be a fool’s errand. Google “Kenneth Allen McDuff”, my young friend. I was in Waco when he was released “rehabilitated” into the community. There is no rehabilitation for some – and that leaves few options.

    There is a lot more to say about this, but I don’t have the time to get into it now. Suffice it to say that while Mendelson’s response is typical and I will have much more on this topic (for those interested) when work and time allows for a more serious discussion.

  • Back to the Mendelson issue, we as DC voters have very, very little leverage on law enforcement in DC. We cannot elect a police chief, nor a prosecutor, and I think we don’t even choose judges and DA’s. We elect a mayor and councilmembers to make at least some of those choices for us (the judges and DA are federal/colonial appointments I’d say). It seems logical that the chair of the councils crime/justice committee (aka Mendelson) is really the best target for our wrath. Followed by Fenty of course. I say both should be voted out ASAP, as a message to other politicians. If we cannot punish criminals via vigilantism, we need to target our elected officials. Mendelson may not be responsible for all the crime problems, but he is certainly the most responsible person we can vote against. And Fenty of course. I’d personally love to destroy Fenty’s obvious federal and possibly presidential ambitions by relegating him to the status of one-term-mayor. Maybe we could get a pic of him smoking rock with a whore while we’re at it…

    Which brings up another point: will we ever have an effective law enforcement regime with a convicted felon continuously winning elections in a landslide and sitting on our highest governmental body?

  • Penny: There is no DA here. Both federal and local crimes (other than juvenile and some misdemeanor matters) are handled by the US Attorney for DC who is, as you note, a presidential appointment. Judges are appointed by the prez too. Most local jurisdictions elect their district attorney or state’s attorney, and some, like Texas, elect judges.

    BUT, I have to disagree with Mendelson that the problems lie with the prosecutors or judges being too soft. As has been noted here before, the Judges follow the sentencing guidelines 90% of the time. The guidelines are a product of a sentencing commission appointed by the council (and a body the Mendelson is a member of). If there is a problem with the sentences imposed it is directly the responsibility of the council and no one else PERIOD. The fingerpointing, while predicible, is unfounded.

  • Thanks O. Also, these issues seem enormously difficult to discuss in DC as we have no real stats on number of arrests versus convictions, number of trials versus convictions, and other such useful data that really describes what’s happening in DC. Do you know of data sources that provide such detailed info? I am also on a Takoma, MD list and am so envious of the stats they put out. They just sent an email detailing internal affairs complaints and results therein. Can you imagine!?

    So, to Odentex and anyone else still reading this thread, is there any reason not to unite against Mendelson and drive him out, ideally to a poorhouse, at the least to to express extreme dissatisfaction with the never ending systemic problems in DC law enforcement? Simple yes or no.

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