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Public Roundtable “The Metropolitan Police Department’s Safe Homes Initiative”

Monday, April 7, 2008

Public Roundtable “The Metropolitan Police Department’s Safe Homes Initiative”

Statement from the Metropolitan Police Department

The following statement was presented by Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier to the District of Columbia Council Committee on Public Safety & the Judiciary, Honorable Phil Mendelson,  Chair, on April 7, 2008, at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC.

Good evening Chairman Mendelson, Councilmembers, community members, and guests. I am pleased to have this opportunity to discuss with you the Safe Homes initiative. I appreciate the perspectives offered by members of the Council and community who feel so strongly about this initiative, and who have taken the time to express their views here tonight.

Gun violence involving our youth tears at the fabric of our community and destabilizes efforts to strengthen the future of our neighborhoods.  As a community-oriented police department, the MPD has an obligation to identify and undertake innovative violence-reduction strategies to protect our youth who represent the future of our City. The Safe Homes initiative is part of such a strategy, and is an example of how community trust encourages a partnership where residents can reach out to its police department and seek assistance in reducing youth gun violence.

Simply put, Safe Homes is another way for residents who are raising children under the age of 18, to contact the Department directly if they need our help to keep guns out of the hands of their children.  It’s another means of communication – just as the new toll free tip line and our upcoming text messaging option.  As Chief, it is my job to make sure residents have as many ways possible to reach out to me and to my Department.  Not every call is an emergency, but every call to me or any member of my Department from any of you is a call for help. 

When first launched, innovative strategies can often lead to confusion and misunderstanding.  I believe this is the case with the Safe Homes initiative.  Tonight, I would like to dispel some of the confusion about the program, and help people feel much more comfortable about MPD’s efforts.  I will explain what the initiative is, clarify misconceptions, explain efforts to finalize and implement the program, and share what the Department hopes to accomplish from its implementation. 

The Safe Homes Gun Amnesty Program

No matter what anybody’s views are on gun laws or individual rights, I think we can all agree that children under the age of 18 should not have access to illegal guns. The stakes are simply too high.  It was with this in mind that the Department decided to incorporate the Safe Homes program into our larger strategy for reducing gun violence.  The aim of Safe Homes is to save lives.  Just one gun removed from the hands of a young person could mean fewer lives touched by tragedy.  If an illegal gun is located during a safety check, residents will not be charged with an illegal gun possession offense.  However, there will be a limit to this amnesty if the recovered firearm is linked to a violent offense.  If residents would like officers to be accompanied by community members, clergy, and/or representatives from social service agencies that is certainly an option that will be made available to them.

The voluntary Safe Homes gun safety checks will only be conducted by a select number of trained and certified police officers.  These officers will clearly understand--and be able to communicate--the rights of residents seeking to take part in the program.  Once consent is given for a gun safety check, officers will ensure that residents are informed of their rights, including what amnesty will be honored if guns are located.

Once a Safe Homes gun safety check has been requested, officers, and if requested, community stakeholders, will arrive at the scheduled time to conduct the safety check.  Once they arrive, the team members will review the program details, to include consent, amnesty, scope of the area to be checked, completion of applicable administrative forms, and answer any additional questions.  At the conclusion of the safety check, officers will document for the resident exactly what, if anything was removed from the home and where it was found.  When applicable, before the gun safety check team leaves a location, they will advise that representatives of family and/or social service support organizations may contact them within 72 hours to offer other types of assistance.

Like the new toll-free tip line and upcoming text messaging options, the Safe Homes strategy is simply another tool available to help residents keep guns away from the children they are raising.  As Chief of Police, I believe it is my responsibility to ensure that residents have as many ways as possible to reach out to me--and to the Department—to obtain such assistance.

Clarifying Misconceptions about the Safe Homes Program

I am aware that quite a few people have raised concerns about the Safe Homes program.  There was a misconception that police officers would be randomly knocking on doors asking people to search their homes.  This is not the case.  The Safe Homes program gun safety check is completely voluntary, and will only be implemented upon request from a resident, and only after an appointment has been made for the safety check to be completed. 

Others have claimed that the program is simply a ruse for police officers to conduct unlawful searches of residents’ homes.  Again, this is not the case. The Safe Homes program is designed to allow residents to narrowly focus the areas in that they wish to be checked by police, and residents will be fully informed that they can stop the check at any time.  Should officers see drugs or other items in plain view which are illegal to possess, they will be obligated to confiscate the items. Another misconception about the Safe Homes program is that information about students, undocumented residents, and inhabitants of public housing would be shared with other agencies.  This is unequivocally incorrect.  Residents can be reassured that the MPD will not share information stemming from gun safety checks with school, immigration, or public housing officials.

There was also some criticism that certain residents and neighborhoods would be unfairly targeted by police.  Although initially conceived to launch in designated Focused Improvement Area, the Department will implement the Safe Homes program citywide, and will make it available to all residents and communities simultaneously for any person who voluntarily chooses to participate.

Finalizing & Implementing the Safe Homes Program

There are still a few details of the Safe Homes program that are being finalized.  The Department is continuing to meet with community and criminal justice partners in order to ensure that stakeholders are comfortable with the final components.  This will be a two-phase process. 

The first phase of the program has already been initiated, and will continue as the program is finalized.  Already, the MPD has;

  • Identified a team of officers that will participate in the program, and we have  conducted small group meetings with them to discuss training and implementation;
  • Developed scenarios that will be exercised through roll-play activity with officers participating in the program;
  • Held meetings with the United States Attorney’s Office and District of Columbia Office of the Attorney General to clarify legal issues and develop consent forms; and
  • Met with the advocacy and community organizations to explain the program and solicit input, including the Fair and Inclusive Policing Task Force[1],   Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, members of the Clergy, as well as representatives from Peaceaholics, the Senior Police Academy, and the Consortium of Universities, among others.

Phase Two of the process focuses on raising awareness of the Safe Homes program.  This will be accomplished utilizing a variety of methods, and like many of our programs, will be customized as much as possible to each individual community.  For example, in some areas, Full Stride program foot patrol officers will go into the community and explain the program and leave brochures with residents informing them how to schedule gun safety check appointments via a crime tip line.  In other areas, police officers disseminating information will be assisted by community organizations and neighborhood stakeholders such as Peaceaholics, members of the Clergy, and others.  It is important to note that during this awareness and information dissemination effort, no search will be requested or conducted.[2]  

As the Safe Homes program is implemented, MPD will ensure that its crime tip line is staffed 24 hours a day.  Personnel in the Department’s Command Information Center will be trained to answer program-related questions, and obtain necessary information to coordinate a Safe Homes gun safety check.  Moreover, Police District Station Personnel and call takers from the Office of Unified Communications will be prepared to redirect callers to the Crime Tip Line that may have mistakenly connected with them.

Conclusion

In closing, I cannot predict all of the potential outcomes of this program; and indeed those outcomes are going to be dependent on how widely used the program is.  However, I am confident that there is tremendous potential here to help drive our City’s gun violence down even further by keeping guns out of the hands of children.  We will continue to meet with community members and legal service providers to ensure that the rights of residents are being protected at all times. There are many residents in the District of Columbia who are tired of living in fear of gun violence, and want to be part of the solution.   I believe that many of these residents do not feel comfortable having an officer come to their home to address concerns about illegal guns.  We are making as many options available as we can for residents to ask for our help.  The Safe Homes program is an example of how the MPD is willing to try innovative strategies to get guns out of the hands of our children.  

I understand that the Safe Homes program, and perhaps some of the other policing strategies I have implemented, are apart from what is commonly instituted here in our city.  However, I strongly believe we need to think out of the box and be creative in coming up with effective solutions for breaking the cycles of violence that impact our families.  It is this philosophy that has driven all of the programs that I have implemented during my tenure under the new Administration.

I am beginning to see reforms take hold—both inside and outside the Department.  Programs such as our Strategic Crime Briefings, Chief Concerns web access, Operation Full Stride, Operation FREE, and All Hands on Deck have led to a more efficiently operated and better trusted police department.  Most importantly, I believe these efforts are making our neighborhoods safer.  We must be willing to try new strategies to continually achieve success.  The Safe Homes program is a reflection of this philosophy.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts on this important program.  I am happy to answer any questions you may have at this time.

[1] Formerly the Biased Policing Task Force
[2] We will be prepared for situations where a resident may ask for police to conduct a search immediately. In that case the officers will make contact with the CIC and Program Manager to see how quickly they can arrange to have trained staff assist.