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Councilmembers Talk Public Safety and Transportation

Present: Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8F (ANC 8F) met on Nov. 28. Commissioners Nic Wilson (8F01), Brian Strege (secretary, 8F03) and Edward Daniels (chair, 8F04), Clayton Rosenberg (vice chair, 8F05). Rick Murphree (treasurer, 8F02) was absent.

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D) and At-Large Councilmember Robert White (D) visited the commission to hear community concerns regarding public safety and transportation. The commission had solicited questions in advance by email.

What was the origin of the current crime wave? queried Chair Daniels starting the discussion.

The roots of the current crime wave lie in the pandemic, responded Councilmember Allen. COVID shuttered rec centers and schools, limiting resources available to at-risk youth. These young people both engage in criminal activity and are traumatized by it, he continued. Having said that, when the violence occurs, there has to be “accountability,” he stated.

Building on Allen’s remarks, Councilmember White pointed out the very real “structural inequities” in the District in regards to housing, healthcare and education. These spawn criminality, he stated. The overarching goal is to make the city safer, he said. Whenever a juvenile commits a crime, we have to hold them accountable, he continued. Detaining youth does not necessarily have the desired outcome because they often emerge more violent, he pointed out.

OAG prosecutes a higher percentage of crimes than the US Attorney’s Office, Allen said. However, the youth detention centers are also over capacity often, he added, by as much as 110 percent.

The public perspective believes apprehended juveniles are given a slap on the wrist, Chair Daniels stated. If a young person commits violence, there has to be certain and swift accountability, Allen responded. Prosecuting consistently and fairly is the key, said White. Neither is now true.

How can the city create interventions before a juvenile commits a violent act? Allen asked rhetorically. For example, rec centers are not currently open on weekends. Yet, this is precisely when youth need their services. Council has passed legislation to address this, he said; and the Dept. of Parks and Recreation (DPR) has now moved to add Saturday hours.

Turning to particulars of policing, White called out the District’s Office of United Communications (OUC), which administers the 911 system. Its operators are not effective in directing police, he said. There are also defects in evidence processing, he continued. “If the foundation is broken, it’s not going to work,” he said. There must be an expectation that if you commit a crime, you should be prosecuted, he stated.

Chair Daniels and Councilmember Allen echoed these criticisms, relating personal experiences with 911 failures. Allen witnessed a fire in Southwest. He called 911 only to be put on hold for five minutes. He then watched a bystander enter the building to check on residents at great personal risk.

“OUC is broken,” Allen stated. It is short staffed and poorly run, he continued. The Council has not sat idly by, he said. It forced out the last OUC director and awarded the agency more resources. Unfortunately, the extra funds were not spent quickly or effectively, he said.

What about the competing public safety proposals offered by councilmembers and the mayor? Strege asked. No one can afford to be an ideologue on these issues, White responded, outlining generally his own proposals on the subject. Effective legislation will require discussion and compromise, he added.

Allen suggested using a couple of metrics to evaluate the competing legislative proposals, offered by councilmembers and the mayor. Will they be effective and equitable? Do they address the faults in the public safety structure? For example, if the US Attorney’s Office is “not papering cases,” how will changing the sentences resolve that? Allen asked. The key, he said, is to create a feedback loop between MPD and the prosecutors that allows consistent arrest defects to be resolved over time.

Allen remains skeptical about the mayor’s proposal for drug free zones. Neighbors have requesting agencies blanket problem areas for years, he pointed out. Chair Daniels raised the issue of the L Street Courtyard, which has seen groups of up to 100 persons partying on the sidewalk. Anti-loitering laws are not constitutional, Allen said. But, the intent behind the drug-free zones is to address these issues, he added.

What is the status of the crime lab run by the Dept. of Forensic Science (DFS)? asked a resident.

The destructive impact of DFS’s loss of accreditation “cannot be understated,” Allen responded. Evidentiary defects are one of the primary reasons cases are not prosecuted by the USAO. The council’s job is to provide funding and oversight over DFS, he continued. Its administration, however, is duty of the mayor, he pointed out.

Are guardians being held accountable for the actions of their charges? asked one resident. We have to hold parents accountable, I just have not figured out what that looks like, White responded.

Transportation
Protected Bike Lanes (PBLs) are creating more issues than they are solving, particularly when used as a “road diet” to slow vehicular traffic, stated Chair Daniels. Allen, who chairs the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment, pushed back. The city has to do a better job of civic engagement, he said, but the objective is to get people where they need to go safely, no matter what mode of transportation they use.

To be multi-modal, we need connected networks across the city, White concurred. The key is engaging the public, but no constituency can have a veto, he continued. White cited the example of an elderly resident, who could not get to Metro Access due to a protected bike lane in Ivy City. In that instance, a tiny Pickup-Dropoff (PUDO) was provisioned in front of her apartment, after his office intervened.

Some of what we see from DDOT are not commonsense solutions, stated Chair Daniels. When such arrangements are queried, DDOT ignores the residents, since the agency believes it is expert and needs no advice. Both White and Allen agree more community engagement is warranted in transportation planning.

In response to Commissioner Strege, Councilmember Allen defended his bill creating pedestrian corridors. The legislation directs DDOT to find three locations by 2026. Half Street SW is a good example, he said.

M Corridor Safety Project Update
Chair Daniels began by pointing out the project has not been completed. The right turns across the M Street protected bike lanes (PBL) have not yet been signalized, he continued. Moreover, the project has been extended without community engagement to South Capitol, which was not originally in the plan, he said.

“We are solving one issue and creating a host of others,” said Daniels, pointing out the congestion on 11th and M Street SE. The project, not yet done, includes dedicated lanes for right, left turns as well as highway and 11th Street straight ahead access, DDOT representatives stated.

DDOT Bicycle Specialist Will Handsfield responded to the chair’s concerns. First, DDOT is closing a lot of the intersections where signals are not planned to eliminate lefthand turns, he stated. It is also working to improve sightlines using signals, flex posts and setbacks.

Safety for all types of transportation is the main agency mandate, Handsfield said. Arterials require protected bike lanes. “Our delivery time table is still too slow,” he said. Protected bike lanes encourage more types of riders. I Street will be completed once the utility work is done, he added.

“This is the first night I understand why you are doing this,” stated Wilson in appreciation. The agency must closely track safety metrics in these projects, he emphasized. Crash rates are the primary agency metric. They are significantly down on New Jersey Avenue SE, Handsfield responded. Add five times more barrels and cones during the remaining construction, suggested Secretary Strege.

At South Capitol and M Streets SE, there is a tapered intersection, which separates turning from straight through traffic, Handsfield said. It is a normal part of reconfiguring intersections to increase safety, not a part of the project. The bike corridor, he continued, will be extended to The Wharf. It serves as an important bypass for the Anacostia Trail, which is plagued by uneven pavement due to riding on 100-year-old piers.

Other Matters
A representative from the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) listened to the commission’s concerns about the agency’s vacant parcels 739, 767, 768 and 8829, which primarily serve as Nats parking lots. DCHA is open to ideas for temporary uses, he stated. Lots 67 and 68 should be used as residential parking lots and employee parking, Daniels suggested.

The commission voted to protest an entertainment endorsement for Tom’s Watch Bar at 1250 Half St SE, pending the successful negotiation of a cooperative agreement to accommodate its exterior garage doors. The commission took no action on a license renewal for the Courtyard Marriot Hotel at 140 L St. SE.

Metropolitan Police Dept. (MPD) Lieutenant Kenneth Taylor and Captain Kevin Harding briefed the commission on public safety. They reported a sharp increase in carjacking and thefts from autos. Most stolen autos are recovered by the police, said Taylor. Both Harding and Taylor encouraged residents to put electronic trackers in their cars such as AirTags.

ANC 8F generally meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month. The next meeting is scheduled for Dec. 19 at DDOT Headquarters at 250 M St. SE. For more information, visit anc8f.org.

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