D.C., the 51st Police State

A shocking story of today's high school hoodlums, running wild in the nation's capital!


We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Well, that and anyone under the age of 17.

So follows the logic of the Washington, D.C., City Council, which, in response to a devastating "crime wave," has passed emergency legislation that strengthens curfew laws and greatly expands the powers of the Metropolitan Police Department.

This emergency legislation, passed on July 20, makes it illegal for anyone under the age of 17 to be out past 10 P.M., D.C. resident or not. The law also requires the installation of surveillance cameras in undisclosed residential neighborhoods and grants police instant access to previously-confidential files on juveniles.

The law is effective from July 31 to August 30, although Mayor Anthony A. Williams has expressed his desire to see these changes made permanent when the Council reconvenes for business in the early Fall.

The Enhanced Crime Prevention and Abatement Emergency Amendment Act of 2006 gives the Mayor the authority to set alternative curfew hours. (The Juvenile Curfew Act of 1995 already prohibits 16-and-unders from being out past midnight.) According to a government press release:

Mayor Williams's emergency anti-crime legislation centers on authorizing Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey to deploy officers on a six-day work week. The extra manpower means at least 300 more uniformed officers on the streets. The plan also provided the Mayor with the authority to modify curfew time, and it authorized the expansion of closed circuit television cameras to be used in some neighborhoods for both crime prevention and investigation.

One portion of the new law not mentioned in this press release is that it provides police with immediate access to information on juveniles' involvement with the court system and their experiences with the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency, the unfocused and overburdened agency that has the responsibility of holding juveniles picked up on curfew violations. The Metropolitan Police Department, meanwhile, has not announced specifics on where thee surveillance cameras will be installed, what information will be collected and how this information will be used.

If the Enhanced Crime Prevention and Abatement Emergency Amendment Act of 2006 tells us anything, it's that D.C. government rules not only with an iron fist but with a head full of rocks. The impetus for this expansion of police powers—the deadly crime wave sweeping the streets of our nation's capitol—does not seem to exist.

As of July 31, when the law took effect, D.C. had experienced a 1.9 percent decline in its homicide rate from last year. And compared to other years (last year's number was abnormally low), the rate of violent crime is dramatically lower than is typical for the District of Columbia.

All of this can only mean one thing: it is an election year. Similar measures have been introduced throughout the country. Philadelphia residents recently approved an ordinance that required police to install surveillance cameras in residential neighborhoods, and Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino has voiced his support for curbing all sorts of freedoms, from the random searching of vehicles entering Massachusetts to adopting strict regulations on Boston-area pay phones.

The D.C. law has drawn considerable opposition, and youth rights groups like Facilitating Leadership in Youth have joined with the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the emergency legislation. But hysteria about crime is always an easy sell. A Washington Times editorial compares the current crime wave to the crack explosion of the l980s.

"The sense of urgency guided City Hall toward its shift on law and order," the Times claims. "It was a big step toward fundamental policy change, and we're confident the momentum will shift yet again with the elections. Nonetheless, as we have editorialized before, Chief Ramsey and the Metropolitan Police Department need every available tool at their disposal to prevent and combat crime—regardless of where it occurs."

The Times editorial, which summarizes the argument in favor of the emergency legislation, makes two important, if inadvertent, points. First, it does not hide the fact that this issue is primarily one of political gain. Second, it is unapologetic with regard to the at-all-costs mentality of the "law-and-order" crowd to which the D.C. Council is pandering for votes.

The D.C. statehood movement may be stalled, but the D.C. police-state movement moves full steam ahead.