During the time I spent looking into the Metropolitan Police Department, I found myself immersed in two different narratives. One was written by the people in which it serves, the District government headed by Muriel Bowser, the city’s mayor. The other one was written by myself, an American University Freshman from a small town in Utah. The narrative written by the District is one of great detail. It paints a picture of positivity and order; a picture that would make the community it serves proud. Everything from a written history of the Police Department to information regarding countless details of Police affairs in the city is but a small piece of the digital puzzle created by the Department. Everything from the meticulous neatness of the lists and links demonstrated in the website to the name of the building itself shows a proud, noble, organized police force. From what I saw of the Metropolitan Police Department was far from impressive, noble, and organized.
The District has had hundreds of years to build the narrative of the police force. The Metropolitan Police began in one form in 1790, when Maryland and Virginia sent officers to patrol the land they called the “Federal City.” It was a disorganized force, consisting of officers from surrounding communities in both states. This system was kept in place for 10 years until a charter granted the District the ability to have its own officers. This centralization of power is where the organization began, even though there were only a total of 16 officers in this police force. The Metropolitan Police Department that is part of our public sphere today was born on August 6th, 1861 under President Abraham Lincoln.
Residing on 300 Indiana Avenue NW in the heart of Judiciary Square, the Headquarters sits amongst the D.C. Federal Court, Veterans Affairs, and several other federal buildings, and it is comfortably close to Pennsylvania Avenue and the Capitol Building, which the Headquarters would respond to in an emergency. It sits between 4th and 6th streets, which are both lined with street vendors, restaurants, commercial, and the occasional residential buildings. The area enjoys a minimal crime rate, possibly due to the proximity to the Police Department. Part of the Department’s mission is “protecting the community.” This community used to be much smaller, and was very manageable with one department. But like all cities, it expanded, and the city was divided into 7 different police districts. According to the information found on the MPDC website, the Capitol, Headquarters, and surrounding area are in District 1. American University is in District 2, and this trend of suburban or affluent neighborhoods continues until we reach the 4th District, which has the first mention of a housing projects, which are generally associated with lower income citizens.
It seems the higher the number of the district, the more there seems to be a focus on crime. Up until the 5th district, there was no mention of criminal activity. The appointment of William Fitzgerald to the chair of 5th District Commander is interesting, considering his oversight of all seven district detective units under the “Criminal Intelligence Division.” Is this an implication that there is a significant amount of crime in this area? While the messages that were on the site from each respective District Commander were still positive, the ones further away from the Capitol mentioned the presence of housing projects and attempts to reduce crime. This is on the Police Department’s website, so this is a rather propagandized way of saying that there is a noticeable problem with crime in the Southeast parts of DC, one example being the troubled Anacostia, which is in the 7th (and last) police district. The Police use very specific language on their website to downplay the severity of crime situation in the area.
Even the Headquarters’ name is directly linked to a crime that took place in the city. The Metropolitan Police Headquarters, or Henry J. Daly building, is named after an MPDC officer that was killed in a November 22 shooting in 1994 along with two FBI Special Agents Martha Dixon-Martinez and Michael John Miller. The shooting took place in the building, which then had little to no security. Still, the Police Department wants to maintain its proud history, naming its building after a tragedy but instead focusing on the officer that died nobly in the line of duty, instead of the fact that he is dead because of an alarming lack of security measures. Bronze statues of eagles are perched on either side of the entrance, high above the concrete barriers that rest near the street in front of the granite building. While I could gather no information as to why the barriers are there, it may be the same reason why cars cannot park or drive directly in front of the White House anymore; The Oklahoma City bombing made major changes in security measures across the country, just like the shooting did for the Department. The absence of security in the building has since been addressed by the installation of metal detectors into the building.
My journey inside the Metropolitan Police Department left me thoroughly unimpressed. I was met with a dimly lit atrium, empty aside from myself and the two security guards who seemed to be annoyed that I had interrupted their conversation. While there were barriers, stanchions, and metal detectors blocking my path, the gigantic atrium felt vacant. After my easy passage through the security measures and brief but thorough interrogation by one of the guards, I was told I had access to only the first two floors. While I think this may have been a mistake on the guard’s part –a sign near the elevator said civilians had access to the first three floors– I followed my blunt instructions. All that I found on the first floor of the building were empty hallways filled with maintenance closets, utility closets, bathrooms, and hearing rooms. I understand the guard’s suspicion and reluctance to let me look around, because I couldn’t give him a straight answer as to why I was there besides I was working on a project for American University. I certainly wasn’t about to outright ask, “Where did the shooting happen?”
The real efficacy of the Metropolitan Police Department comes from their website, which is found under “Public Services” on the District’s site along with Homeland Security, Fire Safety, and the Emergency and Safety Alliance. As it was previously mentioned, the MPDC website is expansive, connecting the citizens of the District to whatever resources that they deem necessary or helpful including information on hotlines, tip lines, the filing of police reports, registering a firearm or registering as a sex offender, event permits, and much more. All of this information is under the “Services” tab alone.
It is clear to me that the Police want to use the site as a community building tool. There are links to Community affairs, youth outreach, and liaison units that help underrepresented groups within the districts like LGBT community members, Asian community members, and those who are deaf or hard of hearing. These are just a few of the options provided by the site. Once visited, each link has more information on each group, which then lead to more links and more information. The amount of information the people who built the site incorporated is amazing. You can dig so deep into the links that I would argue that there are some that many people have never visited. There are also several ways the site benefits the Police Department outside of community building as well. There is a tab named “Get Involved!” on the site, which has several links on how to file a complaint, get a job with the Metropolitan Police Department, volunteer, or how to get involved with Neighborhood watch. If people become more active in their communities by helping police officers, either by volunteering or even becoming law enforcement, they can improve conditions within the city and make the Department’s job that much easier.
While the MPDC website has an impressive amount of detail, the applied use of this information and staying in contact with the community is less than satisfactory. Riverdale City Police Department in my home town in Utah uses Facebook as a tool connecting the department to the community, while the MPDC only uses their Twitter as a live news update of sorts, only posting about crimes in the area. Granted, it isn’t fair to compare the affairs of a police department in a major metropolitan area to a smaller commercial town in Utah, but my point remains the same: even the MPDC social media has no personality.
The District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department has thousands of officers at its disposal, and is not much different than most other law enforcement in major cities across the country. The Department has done well to keep crime away from the Capitol, but on the fringes of the city crime is still rampant. MPDC has built an army of links and information to convince the people of the District that they are strong and organized. The point of this analysis isn’t to claim that the Metropolitan Police Department is impotent or ineffective, but to say that if the Department applied the same effort to their website that they did to treating their officers with respect and making sure they are well-trained and happy, they might be more effective fighting crime in areas like Anacostia.