News & Politics

DC’s Mystifying Decision to Shut Down Vice Squads

It may have placated some critics, but crime has gone up.

Brian Dennehy plays the baddest gangster in Public Morals, a new cop show that debuted Tuesday on TNT. He’s involved in the basic bad guy trade: gambling, prostitution, narcotics, extortion the occasional murder. We call it vice. Criminals engage in it; cops try to stop them.

Granted, the latest cop show is set in New York in the 1960s. Crime and policing have changed. But vice is still vice all around the District of Columbia, and thugs are practicing every one of the basic crimes.

Which is why Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s decision earlier this year to disband the vice squads in DC’s seven police districts and join them with a centralized narcotics unit is so mystifying. Cops, some residents, and the police union say the rising rate of shootings and murder are in large part a result of the loss of about 20-30 dedicated cops in each unit. “Taking away the vice squads with ears to the ground is a detriment to our safety,” Tiffani Nichole Johnson of the New Brightwoodian Blog told me for a piece on Lanier that I wrote for Politico last month.

Last month I asked Lanier about her decision to centralize vice squads, and the conversation went like this:

Lanier: “The best [crime-fighting technique] we have is human sources.”

“Seems to me,” I said, “you would want to have more vice squads in the Districts.”

“You can’t just rely on vice officers to get information,” she said.

In fact, plainclothes vice cops who work the same turf every day and night have always been the ones who get to know the “human sources” Lanier so values. She said her vice squads “pretty much worked dope,” and the drug trade had changed.

“Some people like to see vice squads show up on a Friday and Saturday night, put people up against the wall, bring the wagon down and take them away, but that’s not getting us anywhere,” she said. “We were arresting addicts over and over again.”

But weren’t those same vice officers building networks of informants?

“We can’t rely only on those vice officers to get information,” she said. “They are connectors.”

Nightlife units, she said, are great sources of information. But she has not replaced the vice cops with any other units capable of developing “human sources.”

What about gambling? She said patrol officers were handling street gambling. Prostitution? Again, specialized units. Who’s left in each of the seven police districts to work the back streets in plain clothes, get to know the good guys and the bad guys?

When I asked Lanier whether her decision to disband plainclothes vice units was in reaction to fear of a confrontation like the ones in Ferguson, Staten Island, or Baltimore going down in DC, she said no.

In an extensive exchange with a resident published on PoPville, Lanier asserted that centralizing vice units has had no effect on the rise in violent crime. “The spike in homicides this year began in March,” she wrote. “The vice units were not centralized until June 16th.” True, but the summer often brings a rise in shootings, with or without plain clothes cops on the streets. And the rash of murders in Shaw and Columbia Heights has taken place in late June, July and August, after Lanier swept the vice units from the community-based districts.

“It could happen any day here,” she said.

Many of the complaints from DC’s activists with Black Lives Matter, who are demanding that police control their use of force, concerned the “jump-out squads” that they accuse of harassing black people without cause. Lanier testified that her department had no jump-out squads. She was correct, in the narrow sense that the units did not go by that name. They were plainclothes vice squads who often came up quickly on a crime scene, swung open the doors and blew out with guns drawn.

Now they are no more. Lanier has placated some critics but left many people in fear. At the basic level, crime-fighting is based on fear, rather than the fine points of corruption explored in TV shows like Public Morals. On DC’s streets the question is: Do the criminals fear the police?

The answer seems to be less and less, especially without the vice officers on the scene.