Georgetown University Students ‘Feel the Bern’ at Gaston Hall

November 30, 2015

Democratic presidential contender Senator Bernie Sanders spoke to a packed room at Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall Thursday, Nov. 19, in what was billed as “a talk on democratic socialism in America.” What followed was a reiteration of points Sanders has made throughout his campaign for the presidency about wealth inequality and an explanation of how he would deal with terrorism and the problems plaguing Syria.

Anticipation for Sanders’ was running high at the Jesuit university. Students waited in long lines in the rain to see the independent senator from Vermont, and the excitement only ramped up once they made their way inside Gaston Hall. When Mo Elleithee, the head of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, a part of the McCourt School of Public Policy that was established in June, made his way to the stage to commence the program, students whooped and chanted, “Feel the Bern,” a Sanders-derived meme that has almost become slogan to the senator’s supporters.

Sanders received a standing ovation on his way to the podium before beginning his speech by harking back to the times of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “He saw tens of millions of its citizens denied the basic necessities of life,” Sanders said before describing mass poverty brought on by the Great Depression. “He saw millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children. He saw millions lacking the means to buy the products they needed and by their poverty and lack of disposable income denying employment to many other millions. He saw one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.”

Sanders continued, describing the steps Roosevelt took to alleviate poverty, like instituting Social Security and Medicare, in the face of critics who called him a socialist. Then, he juxtaposed the past with economic conditions today, particularly inequality, the cost of health care and the hollowing out of the middle class, calling for a combative approach in dealing with what he called, “the ruling class,” one similar to the approach Roosevelt took while he was president. “The billionaire class cannot have it all. Our government belongs to all of us, and not just the one percent,” he said, before quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. in arguing that, “This country has socialism for the rich, and rugged individualism for the poor.”

Returning to Roosevelt, Sanders recited items from the 32nd president’s proposed second Bill of Rights, highlighting, “the right to a decent job at decent pay, the right to adequate food, clothing, and time off from work, the right for every business, large and small, to function in an atmosphere free from unfair competition and domination by monopolies, the right of all Americans to have a decent home and decent health care.”

“We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men,” Sanders quoted Roosevelt.

Sanders emphasized, “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy,” before calling for young people and working people to start a democratic movement that would further the second Bill of Rights and challenge the power of big political donors like Charles and David Koch.

“Democratic socialism means,” Sanders said over and over again as a lead up to expressing support to progressive policy proposals like a $15 minimum wage, universal single-payer health care and paid family leave, which he argued are all popular policies that have not been enacted because a lack of widespread political engagement in the U.S. “It is extremely sad that the United States, one of the oldest democracies on earth, has one of the lowest voter turnouts of any major country, and that millions of young and working class people have given up on our political system entirely,” he said.

Smattered in between the policy proposals, all of which Sanders has raised before, were bits attacking the GOP, Wall Street and industries that profit on fossil fuels. “I believe in private companies that thrive and invest and grow in America instead of shipping jobs and profits overseas. I believe that most Americans can pay lower taxes – if hedge fund managers who make billions manipulating the marketplace finally pay the taxes they should,” he said before expressing his support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

As in his opening statement at the last Democratic debate, Sanders used the tail-end of his G.U. speech to talk how he would deal with the threat ISIS presents to the West. He stressed international cooperation as a key factor in eliminating ISIS, saying, “We must create an organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century – an organization that emphasizes cooperation and collaboration to defeat the rise of violent extremism and importantly to address the root causes underlying these brutal acts.” He called on “Muslim nations” to lead the regional effort against extremism in Syria and Iraq.

In the end, what was billed as a big speech defining Sanders’ campaign ended up being a long, winding speech, featuring a smorgasbord of past policy proposals and talking points in addition to fresh foreign policy details. This was not the star-quality charisma or soaring rhetoric of President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012, but Georgetown University students seemed pretty pumped nevertheless.

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One Suspected Assailant Arrested in NE “Twerk” Assault

November 19, 2015

D.C. police have arrested one of two suspects in an Oct. 7 sexual assault case that went viral after video of the attack was posted online and spread rapidly on social media.

The assault occurred back on Oct. 7 at a convenience store on the 1700 block of New York Ave. NE. A man talks on the phone while he waits in line to checkout when the woman in front of him backs into him and begins twerking, a dance move that Urban Dictionary defines as “the rhythmic gyrating of the lower fleshy extremities in a lascivious manner.” Then, her friend approaches the man, grabbing at him and hugging him and not letting go.

D.C. police post videos of crimes like this one on YouTube all the time to assist in finding suspects, but few have garnered as many views and bring about as much debate as this one. At time of print, different iterations of MPD’s video had racked up over a million and a half views on various social media outlets. Viewers wrote thousands of comments, poking fun at the assault and questioning the victim, an area teacher, for pressing charges.

According to [ABC7[(, the victim wishes to remain unnamed “because of the backlash he’s seen on social media for filing a police report against the two women.” He added, “They were all over my chest and grabbing me. If I would have done that obviously I would have been arrested, thrown to the ground, probably 20 years in prison, no out. You know, it’s not the same thing.”

United Bankshares Buys Bank of Georgetown

November 16, 2015

On Nov. 9, United Bankshares announced that it is buying the Bank of Georgetown, a privately-held bank headquartered in Georgetown, for an estimated $269 million, effectively creating the area’s largest community bank.

According the Washington Business Journal, the all-stock deal would grow United Bankshares, which owns United Bank and has headquarters in McLean and Charleston, West Virginia, to $5.4 billion in local deposits and $8.6 billion in local assets. The Bank of Georgetown brings $1.2 billion in assets to the table with 11 branches and 3 business development offices in the metro area. The bank was founded in 2005 by Mike Fitzgerald and the late Curt Windsor III.

Retailers, Restaurants Roll Open at the Shay off U Street Corridor

November 12, 2015

A flashy new development in Shaw, the Shay, is buzzing with life as retailers and restaurants open their doors and residents begin to move in to condos upstairs. To many, though, the new, modern buildings, replete with pricey condos, luxury stores and millennial-friendly eateries, seem out of place. At the busy and crime-ridden corner of Florida Ave. and Georgia Ave. NW where the development starts, a giant unfurled banner depicting a modern version of a big-haired Marie Antoinette caricature announces, “She Has Arrived.” It’s not clear who she is exactly, but recent openings provide a clearer picture of what the Shay will bring to Shaw.

Just across the street from popular gay sports bar Nellie’s is Warby Parker, the eyewear brand that opened its first D.C. store at 3225 M St. NW in Georgetown. The space is a bit larger than the Georgetown store with a more modern aesthetic and a bright, nearly-neon mini marquee that shouts the brand’s name from the corner of 9th and U streets NW.

Another formerly online-only retailer Frank & Oak has also moved in over the past few weeks. The Montreal-based company is known for its reasonably priced, fashionable menswear, which is designed in-house, and has been expanding its brick-and-mortar operations over the past few years with store openings in Chicago, Boston, Toronto and Montreal.

A few doors down from Warby Parker, Chrome Industries, an outfitter specializing in durable apparel and messenger bags, opened last week. On Wednesday, over on the corner of 8th street and Florida Avenue NW, employees from Steven Alan, were moving in merchandise, stocking the shelves with what appeared to be mostly luxury menswear. This chic retailer also has a presence in Georgetown with their storefront in Cady’s Alley.

Other highlights at the Shay include a newly opened Compass Coffee and a huge, window-front space for Kit and Ace, a new brand from the family that owns Lululemon. Much of the relatively hip apparel is made with what the company calls technical cashmere, a machine-washable blend of fabrics that mimics cashmere but requires little maintenance.

There are a few tenants that have yet to open, but those that already have provide a clear picture of what the Shay is aiming for: to become a new center of gravity on U Street. Not only will restaurants bring in the millennial cavalcade but also the new retail outlets will likely make the Shay a fashion mecca, particularly for men. (It’s not a coincidence, then, that the development is located across the street from two of the most popular gay nightlife destinations in D.C., Nellie’s and Town Danceboutique.)

Until foot traffic moves in though, the Shay, will mostly turn heads and cause Washingtonians to wonder about the direction this city is headed. They won’t need to think about it too hard though as Atlantic Plumbing, another luxury-focused development up the street, comes online in the coming weeks too. First to open there: a lavish movie theater-cum-cafe-cum-cocktail bar on the street level.

Sidwell Friends Braces for Westboro Baptist Protests

After protesting countless funerals, concerts and Pride parades with vitriolic speech and obnoxious signage, the near-universally hated hate group the Westboro Baptist Church is headed to the Sidwell Friends School on Wednesday for a Veterans’ Day picket, according to school officials.

The Topeka, Kansas-based church, which is primarily opposed to LGBT rights, announced the picket of the Northwest Washington private school in a bizarre, rambling Oct. 26 press release that criticizes President Obama for supporting abortion rights and “fag marriage.” The release also states, “expect signs like ‘God Is Sovereign of All,’ ‘God Hates Fag Enablers,’ ‘Divorce + Remarriage = Adultery,’ ‘Marriage = 1 Man + 1 Woman 4 Life,’ ‘God Hates Proud Sinners’ and ‘You’re Going To Hell.'”

Sidwell Friends is no stranger to the hate group: a mass of students and faculty greeted a 2009 Westboro Baptist picket with silence to counter their protest. In an email to students’ parents, Sidwell Friends headmaster Bryan Garman suggested that the school’s community is planning a similar response for Wednesday. Garman also wrote, “The group’s ideology is antithetical to the testimonies on equality and community and violates the central Quaker tenant that the divine is present in each person.”

According to the Washingtonian, Westboro Baptist was last in D.C. in June 2014 to protest Wilson High School’s then-principal Pete Cahall’s coming out. But on that occasion, the church was vastly outnumbered by Cahall and Wilson High supporters.

Inside Bill Dean’s Waterfront Miami Compound

November 5, 2015

After renovating his P street home and building the award-winning Oyster House in the northern neck of Virginia, Georgetown’s best-known bachelor Bill Dean set his sights on something bigger: a waterfront compound in Miami Beach.

Dean checked out the sprawling $8 million property in Miami Beach, which was built by Sebastian Spering Kresge of K-Mart fame, for the first time in 2009. Shortly after, he flew in local architect Dale Overmyer, who spearheaded Dean’s earlier architectural projects, to take a peak. After the two talked over the necessary renovations, Dean bought the place and Overmyer got to work upgrading it, reportedly costing Dean over $32 million.

“We ended up completely rebuilding every inch of it,” Overmyer says.

Photos from the site in 2010 show something that looks more like a warzone than a construction site. (Overmyer says, “We saved two trees but there wasn’t a blade of grass left [post-construction.]”)

The finished project, on the other hand, is unrivaled by even the Playboy Mansion, with 11 bedrooms (and even more bathrooms), a number of courtyards, several swimming pools, a tennis court, a Grotto, a nightclub, a spa, a gym and much more. (“Ballers,” a fictional show glamorizing the lives of NFL players, shot two episodes at the compound.)

“I got to work with some wonderfully exotic materials,” Overmyer says of the project, touching on the handmade shells that cover the interior of the Grotto’s roof and the circular tiles that look like suction cups in the compound’s “Octopus Room” before noting the master bathroom’s Roman tub.

Check out selected images from Bill Dean’s Miami villa below and be sure to read our feature on Overmyer architects in the Nov. 4 issue of The Georgetowner.
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Georgetown’s Dale Overmyer

Dale Overmyer is a star architect in Georgetown. His tailored suit goes with the role, but his modest, soft-spoken demeanor seems out of place when he’s discussing the 100-plus renovations he’s done in Georgetown, the homes he has built in Palm Beach and the Hamptons and the architectural work he has done for Georgetown engineering executive Bill Dean, a.k.a. the “Jay Gatsby of Miami.” (Dean hired Overmyer to design both his Oyster House in Virginia’s Northern Neck and Terra Veritatis, his 11-bedroom Mediterranean-style villa compound in Miami Beach.)

In Overmyer’s telling, he was born to build in Georgetown. His grandfather, a general contractor, passed on some carpentry skills to his father, who, says Overmyer, “was talented at drawing and painting but never pursued his artistic interests.” Overmyer was raised “with tremendous focus on art and drawing” — which came in handy growing up in West Africa without TV or radio. “Legos were the only toy I had,” he says.

As Overmyer got older, he became more and more interested in building things: forts and tree houses and go-carts. When he was 8 years old, his dad gave him a jigsaw. “Who gives their kids power tools at 8 years old?” he reflects now.

Born in Venezuela, Overmyer was always on the move with his family, which exposed him to breathtaking structures on several continents. He recalls being struck by architecture everywhere he traveled: by the majesty of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, by the mix of modern and traditional architecture along the Angolan coast, by the urban landscape of London, by the monumental and symbolic buildings at Dulles Airport, by Georgetown’s history and character.

He came to the U.S. every year or so to visit his aunt, uncle and cousins on Reservoir Road in Georgetown, his “home in America.” That was when Overmyer fell in love with Georgetown.

Ultimately, his family moved back to the U.S., settling in Houston when he was 13. Overmyer stayed in the area through college — he earned his Bachelor of Architecture degree at the University of Texas — then moved to Georgetown with his wife Melissa “immediately after school.” For his thesis project, Overmyer had used Georgetown as a model for creating a pedestrian-based, sustainable community.

While other architects may shy away from working in Georgetown, fearing the seemingly all-powerful Old Georgetown Board, Overmyer cherishes the challenges. “A lot of people consider it to be a real briar patch, but it’s my briar patch and I really enjoy it,” he says of the process of building and renovating homes in Georgetown. Though the rules can be burdensome, “they have made Georgetown, and kept it, a good place.”

Lately, Overmyer has been dealing with the Old Georgetown Board on his own behalf, proposing renovations for his family’s new home on S Street. “The Old Georgetown Board described the new home as ‘a dog’s breakfast of a house,’ which only makes me happy, because I love potential,” he says with a smile.

The new digs provide more room for his kids — ages 9, 19, 21 and 23 — and there is a first-floor master bedroom to accommodate him and his wife as they age. (Plus, it has a parking space, a hot commodity in Georgetown.)

Excerpts from The Georgetowner’s recent interview with Overmyer, edited for clarity, appear below.

The Georgetowner: How do you approach the renovation of an older home in a historic district? Is the process limiting?

Dale Overmyer: It’s limiting, but it’s also educational. Everyone that lives in a house exerts some influence on it. We try to draw out things that are unique and creative about our clients with the architecture we do — of course, being mindful of the people that came before them and their expressions.

It must be an intimate process.

It really is. When we work, we want to understand how our clients want to live in their house. We think about who is in there, how many people and what are they doing. We want your environment to perfectly fit your lifestyle.

That information must be important when you’re building a house from scratch too, right?

When we build something new, we are looking back into our clients’ childhood dreams and fantasies. We imagine what a beautiful place to live in the new home could be. It’s really more of a guide service. We want to take people to places they’ve dreamed about but where they can’t take themselves. We want to take them farther than they imagined.

Who is your typical client?

Our typical client is somebody who always wanted to be an architect themselves. That is almost universally true. The typical client is someone who has been very successful and is very interested in being creative, but they are usually in a field that doesn’t yield the kind of creativity that they like. So they enjoy the creative process of design and building, and it gets that inner architect out of their system. We really enjoy working collaboratively with clients to draw out as much experience, talent and creativity as possible. It just enriches the project.

If they have the capacity, what people find is that investing in good buildings is a good investment. It’s one they can enjoy personally and it adds value to their portfolio. If they can, they build as much as they can. It’s an expensive pastime but it’s a good investment.

What is the typical project in Georgetown like?

A lot will just have a small addition and need a lot of interior work. A house will really need to have a complete reworking every 50 years, especially if it hasn’t really had infrastructure done in the 20th century. Some previous owners have gotten away with doing very little in terms of air conditioning and plumbing. So we do a lot of gut jobs.

In addition, some homes in Georgetown have been carved into the tiniest little rooms. Our effort is often to simplify those small, cramped spaces into fewer, bigger, simpler spaces. Fewer, bigger, simpler is my mantra.

And what are the usual results?

One of the things we do a lot of work on is rewriting the social equation for modern living. Since the late part of the 20th century, Americans moved into more informal lifestyles. We do our own cooking and we do our own cleaning now. Congregating in the house typically happens around meals, so the family room and the kitchen are really the new heart of the home. Those rooms used to be hidden away and given as little space as possible. Now they are the main area of living in the house. So we are rewriting a formula to respond to how people live now.

In fact, I just interviewed for Julia Child’s house. I don’t have that job yet, but I would love to play out the possibilities there, because shows like hers turned the act of preparing a meal into part of the entertainment and the kitchen into a community space. That would be a neat way to tie up a lot of the things that have kept me busy over the years.

What is your favorite house in Georgetown that you haven’t worked on?

We are basically living in a museum. And the museum has so much variety of time and style. It’s entertaining that many houses are similar, but every one is absolutely unique and has a story to tell and has usually been taken care of by people that love them. I think of the whole neighborhood being the real gem.

I describe it as a quaint village within a big city. It has the best of both worlds. It has everything that a child or teenager or student or young adult or someone in their midlife or someone aging in place could want. It’s a vital and relevant community wherever you are in life. It also has probably the most interesting collection of citizens past and present of any neighborhood in the world.

I’ve always lived and worked in Georgetown. That’s the model for how people should live. [gallery ids="102345,125535,125546,125541" nav="thumbs"]

Georgetown BID To Shut Down, Reconsider GroupMe Thread

October 19, 2015

The Georgetown Business Improvement District said it will take its GroupMe account offline following an August investigative report by The Georgetowner and a follow-up piece by the Washington Post that identified a man who was wrongfully arrested because he resembled a known thief flagged by users of GroupMe.

BID chief executive Joe Sternlieb wrote last night:

“Georgetown is one of the most diverse retail districts in the region, and its merchants work hard every day to welcome visitors — regardless of race, ethnicity or income.

Over the last several days Georgetown has received a great deal of attention stemming from a news story that evaluated the use of a smartphone app called GroupMe that the BID, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), and retail merchant community launched as a pilot in 2014. The intent was to provide real-time communication as part of a public safety partnership to reduce shoplifting.

While the app has been effective in deterring shoplifting, the news stories and the dialogue that followed have brought up legitimate concerns about the use of the app and its potential to wrongfully identify shoppers as shoplifters. The overriding goal of our retail community is to ensure that everyone who visits Georgetown feels welcomed, comfortable, safe, and that their civil rights and individual dignity are protected and respected. So long as there are questions about how this app is being used, this goal cannot be met.

The BID’s Executive Committee and staff have decided to take the app off-line in order to do a top to bottom review of the public safety communication program associated with it. Our mission going forward will be to develop a new set of rules and protocols for use of real-time communication tools that may help us meet our mission; to develop a robust anti-racial-profiling training program that would be required to be completed before anyone gets access to a future version of such a tool; and an analysis of the appropriate size and membership criteria of the group. Only after this work has been completed, and we can determine that a tool like the GroupMe app can be deployed to effectively meet the highest standards of professionalism and protection of all Georgetown’s customers, will we revisit putting it back on line.”

After the decision was announced in the messaging thread, users defended the app and raised the possibility of starting an unofficial “shadow” group to continue monitoring public safety and shoplifting in Georgetown. One user writes, “The beauty of this app is the instantaneous nature of it – where within minutes, we can protect one another not only from theft & monetary loss but also of danger from individuals likely to use a form of violence,” while another posts, “Really unfortunate. I hope it’s up and running again soon. Thank you for helping to keep our neighborhood safe.”

MPD Officer Antonial Atkins, one of the figures instrumental in setting up the app, wrote in GroupMe, “This app have enabled to have the residents, Businesses and Officers to foster better relationships with each other and strengthen ties in the community by building trusting relationship with each other.”

A neighborhood resident upset with the decision asked, “Is there a way to informally create a new group for those of us in this chat/community who would like to use & continue it – even if it is “unofficial” or unrecognized/unauthorized by the BID?” before stating, “My suggestion is for an interim list from this community/group.”

Another resident, a new GroupMe user, asks, “What resource will fill the breach when this ap [sic] is shut down?” The same user goes on to say, “As long as members first describe suspicious action and then follow up with the person’s description, we will avoid profiling,” adding, “Participants, let’s not let this resource die” and a rally call for users to contact elected officials about the issue.

BID chief operating officer John Wiebenson replies, “All, please recognize that while many of you have positive feelings about this app it has caused some controversy in the community that is reflecting poorly on Georgetown. This is not a chat group and is not the forum to discuss how to proceed. The BID will be organizing community meetings in the very near future to discuss all of the issues that have been raised. Please bring your comments and ideas to that forum.”

The resident who proposed a new group in “the interim” replies saying that members of the group “will be left with no alternative but to create an unauthorized/unofficial ‘shadow’ group.”

The GroupMe Media Frenzy

Georgetown stores are in the business of racial profiling—at least according to a Washington Post report picked up by Fox 5, channel 9, Drudge, Gawker and the Daily Caller. The report details racial bias in a public safety reporting app set up in cooperation with police by the Georgetown Business Improvement District, but media discussion has left out a few crucial details.

The Washington Post story heavily borrows research, facts, and anecdotes from an investigative report I wrote for The Georgetowner’s Aug. 5 issue, all without giving proper (or any) attribution. While we are thrilled that the Post’s sway is causing more media outlets to pick up our story, we are disappointed that one of our city’s best-reputed media outlets has failed to recognize a basic tenant of journalism, citation.

Next, the app is not racist, some users are. Messages on it may contain racially charged or biased content, but the app itself is a simple, real-time group messaging app along the lines of iChat or WhatsApp. Looking through messages in the app, however, we saw an alarming trend; users reported African Americans 15 times as often as white people.

Many posts in the app have led to real arrests of real criminals. That much can’t be disputed. The problem, demonstrated by the catalog of GroupMe messages is that users are more closely watching blacks than whites. Yet, research shows that African Americans are no more likely to shoplift than white people. (Other studies have shown that retail employees are much more likely to steal from their employer than are store outsiders.) Even if in Georgetown, African Americans were more likely to shoplift than whites—the implication of the BID’s recent statements to the press—the disparity between whites and blacks flagged in the app is too big to reflect that likelihood. More likely, white thefts aren’t getting caught.

Looking through the app, you’d think that all of the criminals in Georgetown are black. The constant stream negative reinforcement about African Americans leads to confirmation bias. For example, research on police has found then when officers use race as a factor in criminal profiling based on presumed statistical probabilities, they contribute to the statistics upon which they rely, which helps further justify the profiling of black people. A similarly self-fulfilling, circular phenomenon is likely occurring among GroupMe users in Georgetown.

Using GroupMe to increase communication has serious potential to further public safety. While most posts concern criminal or suspicious behavior, some provide alerts on weather and traffic, and the app as a whole keeps community members connected to each other and to the police. However, there must be training so that app users recognize their own biases before they broadcast them to the group. Since the story was published in The Georgetowner, the BID has indicated that it will take steps to better train users and eliminate bad actors from the group. We look forward to seeing those steps in action and reporting further on this important topic.

The issue raises questions not only for Georgetown but for other places where police, businesses and citizens are implementing new digital communication strategies for community policing with GroupMe, Facebook Chat or the next big messaging app. How do we make sure app users are sending accurate, unbiased, valuable information to the police? When messages demonstrate bias, is a potentially small reduction in crime (neither the police nor BID have any hard data linking arrests and GroupMe posts) worth alienating an entire group of citizens? Perhaps we can begin to answer these questions once racial bias is exposed on more private message boards across the country and our society embraces a culture of honesty and transparency when it comes to the intersection of criminal justice and technology.

Critics Claim Racial Bias in Georgetown Digital Crime Prevention

October 17, 2015

A special investigative report on technology and profiling in Georgetown.

The rapid recent pace of technological innovation has triggered a new era of policing, one in which crime fighting is based almost entirely on data — captured, analyzed and communicated using the latest digital tools.

Last year, the Georgetown Business Improvement District began using the Microsoft-owned mass-messaging application GroupMe to bolster communication between local businesses and Metropolitan Police Department officers. As John Wiebenson, the BID’s operations director, noted, “Criminals move so quickly, we needed real-time communication.”

MPD Officer Antonial Atkins spearheaded the effort on the police side, glad to replace an endless stream of text messages from merchants and Georgetown citizens with a single, centralized messaging app. Yet Atkins — MPD Officer of the Year in 2013 — was quick to point out that GroupMe “is not a police app,” although he’s proud to call it “my idea.”

The results of that idea, cataloged in more than a thousand messages on the app beginning in March 2014, show a vigilant community working to identify threats and prevent crime. However, the posts as a whole also illustrate a stark racial disparity in how crime and suspicious behavior are reported in the community, raising hard questions about the relationship between community policing and civil rights.

Racial Bias on GroupMe

Most striking within the app is the frequency with which African Americans are reported for criminal and suspicious behavior. Of 330 people described in messages warning of suspicious or criminal activity posted between March 1, 2015, and July 5, 2015, 236 — or 72 percent — are identified as African Americans (often aa on the app).

Data about the percentage of African Americans among Georgetown shoppers is not available, but — given that only a quarter of the residents of the Washington metropolitan area are black or African American (2010 U.S. Census and 2011 American Community Survey) — it is likely to be much smaller than 72 percent. By way of comparison, GroupMe users in Georgetown flagged only 16 white people, less than half of 1 percent of the total, for committing some sort of crime or business disruption.

With regard to pictures distributed on GroupMe of suspects and “suspicious” characters over the study period, 19 photos of African Americans were circulated to the group, while only one photo of a white person was posted. Seventy-six people mentioned in the chat were not identified by race, while the group reported one Hispanic and one Asian man as suspicious.

“A racial bias is pretty apparent based just on the pictures and descriptions [in GroupMe],” says a Levi’s employee who wishes to remain anonymous. Isabel Savage at Hu’s Wear called certain posts on the app “racism at its greatest form,” adding, “the [retail] industry breeds it.”

Savage’s coworker at Hu’s Wear, Hannah Warren, initially agreed with Savage’s representation of racial bias on the Georgetown GroupMe account. But after being confronted with examples of posts labeling black men as suspicious without evidence, Warren explained that one of the men in question “was dismissive,” “standing very close to the racks” and “had a hat pulled down low.” “Better safe than sorry,” she said, before admitting, “a little bit of profiling, I do it.”

Based on The Georgetowner’s interviews with managers and messages on GroupMe, users here have a wide range of triggers when it comes to suspicion. Multiple GroupMe users in Georgetown said that one indication that a customer is likely to shoplift is the carrying of heavy or old bags. (H&M bags are particularly suspicious, according to interviews with store managers).

Sometimes users flag people as “suspicious” without giving a reason, noting “no confirmed theft.” Certain clothes and hairstyles can trip the alarm for a store employee and lead to a GroupMe message. People with dreadlocks, or “dreads,” are often flagged as “suspicious.”

Speaking off the cuff, Atkins, a middle-aged African American man, mentioned that a shopkeeper told him that without his uniform he could look like a shoplifter who was in the store last week.

While Atkins expressed concern over the racial disparities exhibited in GroupMe, he said that by and large he trusts the app’s users to call it like they see it without bias, in part because their posts “will be there for life.”

Joe Sternlieb, the president and CEO of Georgetown BID, offered a similar response. “The underlying assumption here is that people [GroupMe users] know what suspicious behavior is and they just report what they see,” he said, adding, “a lot of security officers at the stores are African American.” (D.C.-based lawyer and ethicist Jack Marshall used the black police officers in Baltimore that arrested Freddie Gray, who died in police custody, as an example that bias can affect anyone.) “It’s not like a law enforcement agency is targeting a specific group of people,” Sternlieb said.

According to statistics provided by MPD, theft is down 10 percent and crime overall is down 7.5 percent compared with year-to-date figures within the BID’s jurisdiction from last year. Atkins attributed those drops to “people getting involved” through GroupMe. When police do catch someone, users celebrate, writing messages like “I love this app” or congratulating police with “Good job!” He said that people thank police in Georgetown for their services, with waves on the street or messages on the app. Officers are “very happy” with how they’re treated by Georgetowners.

The Beginning

The BID, a nonprofit funded by a tax on property owners within its boundaries, launched the app, branding the new group “Georgetown Business Public Safety: Keeping Georgetown Safe,” in GroupMe. At first, most messages came from police officers, including Atkins, notifying store managers about things to look out for, such as thieves, protests and bad weather.

As use has expanded, more and more messages have come from store managers and other employees, reporting crimes to the police and warning one another about criminals in the area. Atkins estimated that, currently, 85 percent of messages “come from the stores.” The group count at press time is 340 people, including 30 police officers.

When downloaded on a phone (or, less often, a computer), the app allows users to communicate instantly with all the members of their particular group. Messages, which can include photos and other media, appear on users’ home screens instantly. All users then have a chance to respond to the entire group.

Almost every store in Georgetown has one or more employees on GroupMe, but the heaviest users are managers and loss-prevention employees at national retail outlets such as Zara, TJ Maxx, Levi’s, CVS, American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch, Dean & Deluca, All Saints, Banana Republic and Cusp.

Reviews Are In

When asked about the app, managers using it gave mostly positive reviews. Just after chiding a few employees for not joining the group, Brian Edmondson, manager of Sports Zone and a 14-year retail veteran, told The Georgetowner, “Shoplifting is a problem you can’t do much about because the penalties really aren’t that high.” He said GroupMe has helped prevent theft at Sports Zone by identifying known thieves in the area.

Similarly, Alex and Ani assistant manager Gaelle Taku said, “GroupMe is very helpful when shoplifters are headed our way.” A manager at Barbour said the app was “good for organized crime,” referring to group theft and flash mobs (not Tony Soprano’s crowd). A number of employees praised Officer Atkins and his involvement in GroupMe.

Other users gave the app mixed reviews. “[GroupMe] is helpful but I honestly stopped using it because it was just too much,” a manager at American Apparel said. Jillian Berman at Banana Republic concurred. “I had to get off it,” she said, despite it being a helpful communication tool, because she was receiving too many messages on her phone.

Paul Collins, a manager at Rag & Bone, called the app “hit or miss” in terms of getting a police response, and said he thought some users were “too quick” to report people for trivial, non-criminal things — smelling like marijuana, for instance. The Barbour manager said he had to take posts like that “with a grain of salt.”

Rules and Results

That’s not what users are supposed to be posting, according to BID officials. A closed group, “users have to be invited, they have to have a conversation with John [Wiebenson] about the rules,” Georgetown BID president and CEO Joe Sternlieb said. He explained that GroupMe is used “exclusively to report possible criminal activity and known criminals.” As for rules, both BID officials said that merchants are instructed to call 911 before reporting crime on GroupMe. Of particular importance, Sternlieb noted, is that users describe, “where they went, what they look like and what they’re wearing,” with regard to suspects.

In the process of writing hundreds of posts with these details, GroupMe users in Georgetown have developed a coded, text-friendly and abbreviation-heavy dialect. For example, “BOLO” means be on the look out, and is usually accompanied by a description of a crime or a known thief, or a suspicious activity such as carrying old bags or ignoring staff. Often, GroupMe users send out photos taken on security cameras or smartphones of known criminals or people acting suspiciously.

Stores frequently ask officers to perform a “walk thru” to scare off anyone suspicious, and police usually respond “omw” for “on my way.” (If an officer isn’t available, he or she will message back telling the user to call 911.)
Certain behaviors, like being quiet or curt, or looking over to the counter, are deemed suspicious in GroupMe. Walking around at too fast or too slow a pace is an alarm for other employees. Being part of a large group, especially of young people, can also lead to someone raising a flag on the app.

Occasionally, officers make arrests, but Atkins says part of the purpose of GroupMe is to prevent crime. More often though, GroupMe users get it wrong. In most cases, this ends with little fanfare and no mention on the message board.
Here are a few examples:

At the beginning of March, “American Apparel (3025 M St NW) Ayesha Mgr” posted, “3 African american girls, one with curly red dreds, other has bangs and shoulder length hair, and the other.” The text breaks off and Officer DeRuvo responds, “Omw. Walking,” before Ayesha finishes the sentence with “acting suspicious…” The girls return later, Ayesha asks for another walk through and then the messages stop, with no word on the situation getting resolved.

In another post, “TJ Maxx (3222 M st) Carl” wrote “bolo 4 aa males and 1 aa females had a couple of small bags (solbta) came in selecting the same high end jeans and shirts. They did not steal anything. But did Leave the department a mess.” He also posted pictures of four of the men to the entire group, although no crime was observed.

Carl wrote, “Bolo we just had a man taking unusual interest in our front door and letting associates in so be aware about who is near your stores when unlocking the door.” He provided a photo in this instance as well, again without indication of a crime.

“Zara (1238 Wisc Ave NW) Derrick Loss Prev.” frequently posts about African Americans without observing criminal activity. On Feb. 24, he wrote only about “2 suspicious aa males,” providing descriptions and their direction. He then posted, “FYI. If they do steal they are driving in a grey Oldsmobile aroura.” Atkins asks for a tag number “incase a theft occurs,” saying the information will “provide detectives with information to conduct a follow-up investigation.” This exchange took place without any indication of any crime.

In some cases, though, users will correct each other and vindicate the suspicious person described or photographed. For example, earlier this year, “Hu’s Wear (2906 M st) Hannah” flagged a black man as suspicious, sending his picture, description and where he was headed around to the group. “About 6 foot. Tats [tattoos] on hands and neck. Very suspicious, looking everywhere but what was he asking about,” she wrote cryptically. Later on that day, an employee named Will at Suit Supply wrote, “He was just in Suitsupply. Made a purchase of several suits and some gloves.”

In another instance, in response to a photo of two black women sent by a user at American Apparel, an employee at Benetton wrote, “Those were the ones from our store as well. Good job on the pics! Only known thieves would smile for the camera” — in response to a photo of two black women sent through the app by the user at American Apparel. The woman smiling in the photo was a store employee. The other, non-smiling woman was the known thief.

Even disregarding the few users who repeatedly report African Americans without indications of criminal activity, the statistics within a roughly 90-day period suggest that there is more widespread bias at play.

‘I’ve Caught Every Type of Person Stealing’

All employees at the most active stores who talked to The Georgetowner acknowledged that users on the app predominantly report African-Americans. But they also all claimed to have caught people of all races stealing from their stores.

A manager at American Apparel who wishes to remain anonymous offered a different explanation. She said she’s witnessed “every type of person” stealing from her store, but that African Americans are “more loud about it” and “more obvious about it.”

Candice Stewart at Benetton offered yet another explanation of why black people are flagged so often in the GroupMe system. “A lot of the known thieves are black,” she said. “It’s the same people over and over again.”

Managers at CVS, Zara, Dean & Deluca and TJ Maxx declined to be interviewed for this article.

“There’s a common phenomenon of a black person showing up in a store, and just because they are black, they look suspicious,” Georgetown Law professor Anthony Cook said when presented with the BID’s GroupMe messaging board. “Now, they’ve basically automated that process by putting it on camera, and not just using that for internal purposes, but now distributing it en masse to other people so that whoever is identified in the chat is guilty to the rest of the group without any kind of interrogating or any benefit of the doubt,” Cook said. “It’s a digital mob mentality.”

According to a host of scholarly work compiled by Rutgers Business School Professor Jerome D. Williams, black people are no more likely to shoplift than members of any other race. Shoplifting comes “in all sizes, shapes and colors,” Williams writes.

Marshall doesn’t call what’s happening on GroupMe in Georgetown “profiling,” though. Instead, he says that bias, racial or otherwise, impairs judgment, and that it “is impossible to correct for” when you’re under the influence of it. “These people [on the app] aren’t bigots, they just need to recognize what’s happening [with regard to bias].”

Marshall says the ethicist in him has a problem with the fact that people who end up being flagged as suspicious or criminal on GroupMe have no way of knowing that they are under observation. Marshall and Cook both said that they could imagine someone flagged on GroupMe being violently confronted by an app user regardless of police warnings on the app not to engage. Without prompting, both experts used George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, as an example of something that could happen in Georgetown because of GroupMe.

Customer Service, Please

However, interviews with store employees paint a far less dramatic picture. Edmondson from Sports Zone said his staff won’t do anything to a known thief in the store other than provide customer service. “Customer service is the best preventative for theft,” he said, a sentiment echoed by a handful of employees at other stores.

Still, Marshall said, “Apps create a lot of power in the hands of people who have not taken necessary steps to be competent enough to wield the power.” In that vein, he suggested training for GroupMe users as a potential solution that “wouldn’t be hard to do” to solve the app’s “bias problem.” When asked about training, Atkins said, “that’s on them,” referring to app users, “not the police.”

Sternlieb suggested that Atkins already trains users with in-person conversations and tips about reporting criminals on posts in the app when asked whether training could eliminate racial disparities presented in BID’s GroupMe account.

Wiebenson said he confronts users who have posted “inappropriate” messages, meaning those with rough language or marketing messages. He also said he removes repeat offenders from the group.

‘The App Should Go Global’

Atkins stands by his claim that the GroupMe model in Georgetown “should go global.” And in a way, it already has. As apps that can be used for mass messaging have proliferated, they have attracted billions of users with more and more communities adopting them to stay connected. It was only a matter of time before police joined the party.

A document released by the Obama Justice Department titled “Community Policing Defined” calls on police to do what MPD is doing in Georgetown by developing “two-way communication systems through the internet” with the public, among other recommendations.

In localities ranging from Odessa, Texas, to Gloucester Township, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, police, businesses and citizens are using the Nextdoor app in the same way that GroupMe is being used in Georgetown. (Nextdoor is also popular in Georgetown, but so far area users of the app have focused more on finding contractors, roommates and nannies than criminals.)

In Georgetown, the Citizens Association is getting involved, urging more area residents to join and use the app for public safety. And in the District as a whole, the idea is picking up steam. Atkins said that police use the app to keep in touch with residents in his neighborhood. He also said that he’s giving a presentation on GroupMe to an ANC commissioner in District 5 in an effort to build a public-private partnership around policing there.

“We are pioneers in starting this,” Atkins said.

This story originally ran in the August 5 issue of The Georgetowner.
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