GLAA decries "Zero Intelligence" police abuse

GLAA Decries "Zero Intelligence" Police Abuse

See response from Councilmember Mason

Monday, May 12, 1997

Chief Larry Soulsby
Metropolitan Police Department
300 Indiana Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001

Dear Chief Soulsby:

Late on the evening of Sunday, May 11, my neighbor (and fellow long-time Ward 2 resident) Norman Bott witnessed an extremely disturbing event involving officers of the Metropolitan Police Department's Third District. In the Townhouse Tavern near 17th and R Streets — in what was formerly the Spanish restaurant El Bodegon — two police officers arrested and handcuffed a sixtyish gentleman named Assad who is well known in the Dupont Circle neighborhood as the local "flower man." I understand that the charge against him was operating a business without the proper license. The police then went into Cobalt next door and arrested a man who had been at Townhouse Tavern and had objected to the officers' treatment of Assad. [Since sending this, I have received a clarification from Mr. Bott that the arrest of Assad actually occurred in the street between Townhouse Tavern and Maracas Bay Cafe, which is directly across R Street. Mr. Bott witnessed the event from the Tavern.]

As these events unfolded, first inside the Tavern and then on the sidewalk outside [see correction above], a growing crowd of witnesses looked on in disbelief at the abusive behavior of the police officers — who, unaccountably, even found it necessary to call in reinforcements. One man who was standing next to Norman stating his concern about the incident was approached threateningly by one of the officers who challenged him saying, "Do you have a problem?" The clear implication was that if this citizen did not shut up, he would be arrested as well.

For many years, Assad has been an unfailingly genial neighborhood presence in the evenings as he has walked from restaurant to restaurant with his basket of fresh, long-stemmed roses and his understated and utterly unaggressive manner. If he lacked the proper license, the most that should have been done to Assad was the issuance of a warning or a fine along with an order to cease doing business until the proper permit was obtained — though I must say that even this would represent regulatory overkill in the case of such a small operation as a man walking around with a basket of roses. Considering the abundance of serious crime problems and our city's limited resources, the police priorities demonstrated by this incident make no sense.

As it is, by their abusive and arrogant conduct — which includes acting as if citizens do not have the right to question police behavior — the officers in question have damaged community-police relations, undermined the confidence of many law-abiding citizens in the MPD, and thrown into sharp relief the harm that is being done to our city by your reckless and obnoxious "Zero Tolerance" campaign.

In recent weeks, similar incidents involving MPD officers — which at best indicate insensitivity and overzealousness and at worst represent fascist thuggery disguised as law enforcement — have been reported all over town. As another neighbor of mine said to me this morning when I described this incident to her, "This makes us want to drive the police off with a stick and start looking out for ourselves."

This dangerous situation — in which public confidence is undermined and police increasingly display an arrogant disrespect for the community they are sworn to serve — must be turned around before there is a worse incident that sets off civil unrest. Just a week ago we observed the sixth anniversary of the Cinco de Mayo disturbance in Mt. Pleasant, which was set off by the inept conduct of ill-trained police. I am also reminded of the riot that same year by police against a benign crowd of Halloween revelers on 17th Street. The hot summer months are nearly upon us, and there is no time to waste if we are to prevent our city from boiling over.

The police are out of control. It is time to resist the misguided pandering to citizen's valid concerns about crime, and to seriously reëvaluate your absurdly counterproductive "Zero Tolerance" campaign. It is time to strengthen community policing, not to undermine it or set it aside in some heedless public relations campaign to inflate arrest figures. It is time to teach police officers that the right of citizens to question them, even when they are "performing their duty," has been upheld by the Supreme Court [Houston v. Hill, 482 US 451 (1987)], and that attempts by police officers to intimidate questioning citizens open up the District to lawsuits and expensive liability judgments (and the same can be said of false-arrest lawsuits). It is time to institute effective civilian review of police misconduct cases, and to make clear that abuse of the public trust will have serious adverse consequences. And it is time for men and women of good will in this city to say that we have had enough and to take our city back. There is no just or safe alternative to responsible self-governance.

We demand an explanation of this outrageous incident, as well as a serious reëvaluation of a law enforcement policy that might more appropriately be dubbed "Zero Intelligence." The police are paid to serve and protect the citizenry, not to harass and intimidate us and make us feel like prisoners in our own city. Enough is enough.

Sincerely,

Rick Rosendall
President
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington, DC

Note: Similar letters were sent to Mayor Marion Barry and DC Councilmembers.


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Councilmember Hilda Mason responds

May 20, 1997

Rick Rosendall
Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington
P.O. Box 75265
Washington, DC 20013-5265

Dear Mr. Rosendall:

Thank you for your letter regarding Assad, the flower vender, who was arrested last week in the Dupont Circle area. The incident you described is disturbing. Often there are two sides to a story but if the incident occurred as you describe it then the police did not conduct themselves properly. In order to foster cooperative community-police relations, the police must be respectful and mindful of the rights of citizens and should avoid over-reaction to harmless situations.

I assure you that I will look further into this matter and I thank you for your correspondence.

Sincerely,

Councilmember Hilda Howland M. Mason
Councilmember at-Large

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