At Penn Quarter Meeting, Police Chief Cites Rise of Encampments and Synthetic Drugs

Crime and policing issues wear different faces in different places in the District of Columbia, as Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier well knows.  

At an Oct. 27 Penn Quarter Neighborhood Association breakfast meeting, Lanier spoke to residents and business leaders and owners in the constantly changing Penn Quarter area, where policing, it turns out, was often not so much about violent crimes and robberies, but about noise, the homeless and a rising issue with homeless encampments, and the spread of the sale and use of synthetic drugs.

Both the rise of encampments and the spread of synthetic drug use and sales have become larger problems throughout the city as a whole. The presence of encampments—at construction sites, on door fronts of businesses and alleys—are at odds with the city government’s avowed long-term strategic plans to all but eradicate homelessness.

According to Lanier, the police now operate under an “encampment protocol,” which assesses what an encampment is, how , if and when to deal with it. Per police missives on reporting a homeless encampment, the “objective of the encampment protocol is not only to clean the site, but also to build relationships with our most vulnerable residents and ultimately bring them into housing.”

As the the protocol statement explains, “an encampment” is a set up of an abode or place of residence of one or more persons on public property or an accumulation of personal belongings that is present even when the individual may not be.”

Residents complained that  Penn Quarter also has a noise problem coming often from street musicians, gatherings of people who are shouting loudly, or gathering on the street, blocking passage.

“Some of this comprises first amendment issues,” Lanier said. “Some of these activities are not per se illegal. It’s complicated, especially in this area.”

Lanier expressed concern about the spread of synthetic drugs among the homeless.  “The trade has moved out of the stores, and now individuals are selling the drugs, one at a time,” she said. “The chemistry and chemical content of the drugs change so often, we don’t even know what’s in the drugs, or its effects. It’s one of the most dangerous drugs around now, precisely because of that.  And to make it worse, the people selling the drugs have taken to selling to the homeless one item at a time for a dollar or two dollars. That makes it more difficult to deal with homeless people who may be using the drugs.  It’s a real issue and problem.”


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