The last US Attorney for DC that 57-year-old John Rose can remember is Eric Holder Jr.
Holder, now the country’s attorney general, hasn’t been the US Attorney for more than a decade. But his successors have come and gone without Rose—a longtime resident of Congress Heights in Southeast DC—knowing who they were. The city’s top prosecutor, whom people such as Rose count on to combat violent crime in their neighborhoods, has been just another nameless, faceless government official.
This is one of the most significant challenges confronting the DC US Attorney’s Office. Unlike every other US Attorney in the country, the DC office is responsible for prosecuting local crime in addition to federal-level offenses. The lawyers in the office who try local cases rely on people within DC neighborhoods to act as impartial jurors and, perhaps most important, to come forward as witnesses—a tough thing to do in areas where “snitching” is viewed as a quick way to get yourself killed. In other words, to do their jobs well, prosecutors have to foster trust within the community.
Ronald Machen, the current US Attorney for DC, who was confirmed in February, has consistently touted building relationships within DC neighborhoods as one of his major priorities. And last night, on a basketball court next to a housing project in Barry Farm, a neighborhood southeast of the Anacostia River, Machen was walking the talk.
He was there because his office organized the halftime show for the Barry Farm Goodman Basketball League playoff game being held on the court. The show, called “Stomping Out Violence and Stepping Toward Success,” featured step teams from the Matthews Memorial Baptist Church and from Machen’s college fraternity, Omega Psi Phi. Machen, who went to Stanford University and Harvard Law School, was on the fraternity’s step team during his college days, and though he didn’t participate in the show, he sang and clapped along from the sidelines.
Before the show began, Machen—who was greeted by enthusiastic applause—spoke about the responsibilities of his office and his reasons for wanting to be the District’s top lawyer.
“I wanted the opportunity to try a new approach to law enforcement,” he said. “The goal is to try to influence behavior so people make better decisions, so we don’t have to see you or your relatives in the courthouse as defendants.”
He explained that the members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity step team—all of whom are African-American men—were students at Georgetown, the University of Maryland, and Bowie State University. “They’re strong role models. They’re future leaders,” he told the crowd, which was also largely young and African-American.
There was a huge turnout for the game, mostly from the housing project and the surrounding neighborhoods, but lawyers and staff members from the US Attorney’s office also attended and mingled with the crowd. This is where I met Rose and a number of other residents of nearby areas who said they’d never before seen the US attorney and were glad to have Machen there.
Pastor C. Matthew Hudson of Matthews Memorial Baptist Church partnered with the US Attorney’s office to put on the event. When I asked him what he thought of Machen visit, his response was: “This is history.”
Building trust is, of course, much more easily said than done, especially in communities that have too often been neglected. But Machen, who attends community meetings and other events several times a week, seems to be on the right track.