Charles last wrote about Bladensburg, MD.
I think everyone who’s lived East of the Park for more than a year has found him or herself in the basement of a house party or bent over a bar, bitching about the DC cops, particularly how slowly they respond. Two women, with the support of neighborhood organizations in Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights, are trying to take this conversation out of the repertoire, however, with Operation LiveLink.
Operation LiveLink puts cell-phones in the hands of beat cops who take calls directly from people who are witnessing suspicious activity or a crime in progress, or have been a victim of a crime. It doesn’t replace 911; you have to call 911 first. What it does is short-cut the multi-step dispatch process, which significantly increases the odds that the responding officer will arrive quickly and be familiar with your neighborhood.
It turns out that while the responding officer gets the blame for being slow, a lot of times it’s the dispatch system that’s screwed up. Bad information gets passed from 911 to the dispatcher to the cop, or the dispatcher doesn’t make the call a priority. Marika Torok, who has coordinated Mt. Pleasant’s LiveLink since its beginning four years ago, tells of an incident when an officer showed up long after the truck which had rammed four cars on her block had disappeared. The problem: the dispatcher didn’t understand that the crime Malika reported was still in progress, and had instead sent the officer to investigate a burglary that had occurred the night before. “911 doesn’t work right. That’s why the program is needed,” she declares. Continues after the jump
It’s hard to measure LiveLink’s success. Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association President Cecilia Jones, the force behind that organization’s year-old bi-lingual effort in PSA 302, issued a report in December recording a low of 25 and a high of 217 calls in her program’s first six months. In Mt. Pleasant, the record-keeping is less formal, but Marika estimates 25-50 calls per month. Both Marika and Cecilia report enthusiastic anecdotal support, and both neighborhoods claim arrests and convictions for crimes ranging from check fraud to armed carjacking to unlawful entry. And LiveLink appears to have significant preventive value – reports of suspicious activity are answered by a local officer who knows the territory, rather than indifference from a dispatcher who considers “suspicious activity” a low priority.
Both operations face challenges. Probably because of its association with the controversial MPNA financial support has been hard to come by, forcing Marika to pay for the cell phones out of her own pocket. “I’m no Bill Gates,” she says. The business community and Mt. Pleasant Main Street have been particularly noticeable in their failure to support a program which – for Pete’s sake – only costs $120 and month. Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham has shown interest, but has yet to earmark funds.
In Columbia Heights, in Cecilia has found funding from the neighborhood but also indifference, suspicion and even hostility on the part of the police. On a ride-along, she noticed that the officer didn’t even know why she had been issued the phone. “Officers don’t know what it is or why they have it.” In some months, less than half of LiveLink calls were answered or returned. But, Cecila has “kind of gotten over the shock and the outrage.” She writes in an e-mail “Operation LiveLink would probably be more successful if we could persuade the MPD to operate it through their existing systems and procedures, and integrate Operation LiveLink performance into their regular set of criteria for appraisals and rewards.”
Getting word out is also a problem. The program depends on eyes on the street. But, despite passing out thousands of flyers and (in Columbia Heights) hundreds of refrigerator magnets, too few people have the Livelink numbers tucked into their wallets or punched into their cellphones (I wonder if the mugging related on PoP the other day – they guy who was almost garroted on Park Road – might have ended slightly better if LiveLink had been called in addition to 911). Both Marika and Cecilia would like to see signs similar to the Neighborhood Watch signs throughout their neighborhoods, and Cecilia is working with the Tivoli North Business Association to try to get signs in business windows, while hoping to do door-to-door outreach in English and in Spanish.
But both are hoping to see the effort expand, as well: into Petworth and south as far as Logan, suggests Cecelia, and into neighborhoods around the city, under the aegis of a dedicated nonprofit, suggests Malika.
Does the program work? I don’t know for sure, and I’m curious to hear if anyone else has experience with this. But, for all he smoke everyone from the Mayor on down has been blowing about “community policing” (for at least 15 years) this is the real, if on a limited basis. And, after talking with Cecilia and Malika I’m going to kick at least a week’s worth of Starbucks into the Mt. Pleasant effort, and put the numbers into my cell.
And, how does it work?
First call 911! A recording of your call is needed to support potential prosecution. LiveLink officers will not respond unless 911 is called first.
Then call the appropriate LiveLink number, identify yourself to the officer and give a brief description of the crime or suspicious activity to which they are to respond.
Donations can be made on the Mt, Pleasant Neighborhood Alliance Website (specify “LiveLink” on the PayPal form) http://www.mtpalliance.org/ and on the Northwest Columbia Heights Community Association site, www.nwchca.org/index (PayPal as well).
In Mt. Pleasant, numbers vary according to shift:
Sunday-Thursday 10:00AM-6:30PM 202-689-4278
Sunday-Thursday 2:00PM-10:30PM 202-689-4277
Friday-Saturday 6:00PM-3:00AM 202-689-9913
In NW Columbia Heights, numbers vary according to language.