D.C police chief rejects ‘zero tolerance’ approach to minor offenses

By Wayne Savage


D.C. Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier in a recent interview rejected a “zero tolerance” approach to minor offenses in the District of Columbia, asserting that such crackdowns alienate people who are needed to help the police solve crimes.

Lanier’s comment, in a Jan. 27 interview on the C-SPAN television program “Q&A,” comes amid a 22-month-old litter enforcement pilot project that targets pedestrians and others who litter in  non-traffic situations. The pilot project began in MPD’s 4th District and was expanded in August to include the 6th District. (See D.C. police expand litter enforcement pilot project, Aug. 23, 2012.)

Police enforcement of D.C.’s anti-littering law historically has faced multiple obstacles. In 2006, the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings – an independent tribunal that hears litigation involving city agencies, boards and commissions – ruled that the police department did not have authority to issue citations for littering, which is a civil offense. The OAH overturned that ruling in May 2007 and now recognizes MPD’s litter-ticketing authority. Working together, the OAH and police officials have devised a violation form that officers can use for littering offenses and a protocol for adjudicating the tickets.

In 2008, the D.C. City Council joined the battle with legislation that requires people who are stopped for littering in non-traffic situations to provide police with their true name and address so that a ticket can be issued. Failure to provide the required information was made a criminal offense. The council also prohibited, for the first time in D.C., throwing litter from a moving vehicle.

Testifying in support of the 2008 legislation, an MPD assistant chief stated that “[n]eighborhoods with a lot of litter are at risk of more serious crime and disorder. Ultimately, keeping streets, sidewalks, parks and vacant lots clean is important for keeping our neighborhoods safe.”

MPD Chief Cathy Lanier

         In her Jan. 27 C-SPAN interview, Lanier said a zero-tolerance approach toward minor offenders succeeded in reducing disorder and crime in New York City, but it “is not one that I think works very well here. … We’ve done it and I think it has kind of the opposite impact here.”

Recalling a zero-tolerance push in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, Lanier said: “We flood the area with police, we tell them to lock up anybody for any little violation of the law – they do – so they’re getting the guy’s that got an expired permit and taking him to jail. They’re getting the person who is out front with an open container of alcohol, taking her to jail. And what we have forgotten is even though this is the area that has the most violence, it is the area that also has the most victims and the most witnesses. And those witnesses are not going to talk to you.”

Lanier expressed a strong preference for foot patrols that allow police officers to build relationships with people in the community who can provide information about criminal activity. In contrast, she said, “zero tolerance to me in my communities alienates the people we need.”

Litterblog asked MPD spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump whether Lanier’s comments mean the chief does not support the litter enforcement pilot project.

“No, it doesn’t mean that at all,” Crump replied in a written statement. “There is a difference between a judicious use of authority, including for community education, and a zero tolerance approach. Additionally, littering is not a criminal offense under DC code. However, we enforce civil violations.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service of Washington, D.C.



D.C. police expand litter enforcement pilot project

A 16-month-old pilot project to enforce the District of Columbia’s anti-littering law against pedestrians has been expanded to include a second police district.

On Sept. 1, officers in the 6th District, which lies east of the Anacostia River and north of Good Hope Road, will start writing $75 tickets to pedestrians and others who litter in non-traffic situations, according to a statement from the Metropolitan Police Department. Warning tickets are being issued in the 6th District during the month of August.

The litter enforcement pilot project targeting pedestrians and others in non-traffic situations began in April 2011 in MPD’s 4th District, which is east of Rock Creek Park and north of Park Road N.W. and Michigan Avenue N.E. The project stems from legislation enacted by the D.C. City Council in 2008 which requires pedestrians and others stopped for non-traffic littering to provide their true names and addresses to police so that tickets can be issued. The tickets are adjudicated by the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings, an independent tribunal.

As of  May 17, only 14 tickets had been issued by officers in the 4th District, and only two fines paid, according to records released by OAH. Most of the persons who received tickets apparently ignored them, resulting in unpaid default judgments. [See “D.C.’s anti-litter crackdown reveals gaps in law” (Posted July 2, 2012.)]

“We still haven’t had enough tickets written to know what kind of an impact it’s going to have [and] whether the process is going to work,” said Sgt. Keith DuBeau of MPD’s Office of Strategic Change.

But initial reports from the 6th District are encouraging, according to DuBeau.

“The people over there really seem to be excited about” the pilot project, he said. “We have a lot of warning tickets already.”

DuBeau said it is unclear if more littering occurs in the 6th District or if the officers there are more engaged in the enforcement effort.  Warning tickets will be issued through the end of this month, DuBeau noted, “[t]hen we’ll see how many real tickets we get.”

The 2008 anti-litter legislation also gave D.C. police, for the first time, the authority to stop vehicles for littering and issue tickets. The fine for littering from a vehicle is $100.

Since the law took effect in March 2009, MPD’s 6th District has led the department in the number of tickets issued for vehicular littering. According to the police department’s annual reports for 2009 through 2011, a total of 79 such tickets were issued in the 6th District during those three years. The second largest total, 73 tickets, was reported in the 7th District, which is east of the Anacostia River and south of Good Hope Road.


 −Wayne Savage



For further reading: Metropolitan Police Department Special Order SO-12-19 (July 25, 2012) Littering Enforcement Pilot Project Program Phase II


D.C.’s anti-litter crackdown reveals gaps in law

By Wayne Savage


More than three years after the D.C. City Council enacted ground-breaking anti-litter legislation, an initial burst of enforcement activity has slowed. Police are ticketing fewer motorists, and a pilot project expanding the crackdown to pedestrians appears stalled.

The Metropolitan Police Department issued 225 tickets for littering from a vehicle in 2009, the year the new legislation took effect. Since then, enforcement numbers have plummeted. There were 63 tickets issued in 2010 and 64 in 2011. Of the 352 tickets issued over the three-year period, 62 were dismissed.

Headquarters for the Metropolitan Police Department's 4th District, where a pilot project is underway to enforce D.C.'s anti-littering law against pedestrians and others in non-traffic situations. (Photo by Wayne Savage)

On May 1 of 2011, amid a splash of publicity, MPD further implemented the new legislation by launching a pilot project in its 4th District to target pedestrians and other persons who litter in non-traffic situations. Initially envisioned as lasting a few months, with citywide enforcement possibly coming as early as the fall of 2011, the pilot project remains confined to the 4th District, which is east of Rock Creek Park and north of Park Road N.W. and Michigan Avenue N.E.

Only 14 tickets for non-traffic littering had been issued through May 17 of this year, with the most recent ticket dated February 4, according to records released by the D.C. Office of Administrative Hearings. Only two fines had been paid.

The Office of Administrative Hearings ― an independent tribunal that hears litigation involving more than 40 city agencies, boards and commissions ― adjudicates tickets for littering in non-traffic situations. Tickets for littering from vehicles follow a separate legal track, with adjudication by the Department of Motor Vehicles.


                                                      Law expands police powers


Enacted with police backing, the Anti-Littering Amendment Act of 2008 outlawed, for the first time in the District of Columbia, littering from a moving vehicle. That’s right, the police used to have no legal authority to stop a driver who tossed a greasy Big Mac wrapper or, for that matter, the Big Mac itself from a moving vehicle. Now the police can stop the offending driver and issue a ticket that carries a $100 fine.

The new law also requires pedestrians and others stopped for non-traffic littering to provide their true names and addresses to police so tickets can be issued. Persons who refuse to identify themselves can be fined up to $250, although the law does not require them to show police officers any documents to establish their identity.

The fine for non-traffic littering is $75.

Although other crimes are more serious, “littering is still an important offense against the community,” said MPD Assistant Chief Joshua Ederheimer in testimony to the city council’s public safety committee in 2008. “Neighborhoods with a lot of litter are at risk of more serious crime and disorder.”

Ederheimer’s assessment follows the so-called Broken Windows Theory of urban crime. First proposed by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in 1982, the theory holds that signs of social disorder in an urban community ― such as vandalism, littering, and graffiti ― encourage more serious crimes. Though not without controversy, the Broken Windows Theory was touted by New York City Mayor Rudolf Giuliani and his police commissioner in the 1990s, and it is now widely accepted by law-enforcement officials.

D.C.’s Anti-Littering Amendment Act took effect in March of 2009. By the end of 2011, the city’s seven police districts showed wide variations in the number of tickets issued for littering from moving vehicles. The 6th District, which lies east of the Anacostia River and north of Good Hope Road, topped the list with 79 tickets. The fewest, 14 tickets, were reported in the 3rd District, which includes Adams-Morgan, Columbia Heights, Shaw, Mt. Pleasant, and Dupont Circle.

Initial enforcement of the law was limited to littering from vehicles. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, enforcement of the ban on non-traffic littering could not begin until further legislation took effect in January 2011 waiving juvenile confidentiality for such tickets adjudicated by OAH.

On April 27 of last year, four days before MPD finally launched its 4th District pilot project to enforce the anti-littering law against pedestrians, Mayor Vincent Gray announced the move in a sternly worded news release.

“Clean cities are livable cities,” Gray said. “But the Department of Public Works can’t be expected to clean up after all of our residents. Sometimes we have to bring the force of law to bear to make sure our residents and visitors treat our city as they would their own homes.”

A year later, with only 14 tickets issued through the pilot project, none of them to juveniles, and only two fines collected, the results seemed to mock Gray’s get-tough talk. Most of those who received tickets for non-traffic littering apparently ignored them, resulting in default judgments entered by OAH.

In his 2008 testimony, Ederheimer, the MPD assistant chief, foreshadowed the lackluster impact of issuing toothless tickets for littering in non-traffic situations.

“[M]ost civil violations are only effective because they are tied to property interests or a privilege that people value,” Ederheimer said, citing as examples property subject to liens, professional licenses, or, most commonly, drivers’ licenses.

“People follow traffic regulations because there are real consequences for not following them ― fines for violations are backed up by the suspension of a driver’s license or revocation of vehicle registration if the fines are not paid,” Ederheimer said.

Not so with littering tickets in non-traffic situations, a theme emphasized by the MPD in its most recent annual report.

“Without repercussions for an offense, the government’s ability to hold violators accountable for this civil offense is limited, and the tickets may not be enough … to change their behavior,” the police department stated.


                                                      Holistic approach to litter                                                      


Efforts to breathe life into D.C.’s Anti-Littering Amendment Act raise the larger question of law enforcement’s proper role in addressing the litter problem. In recommending the 2008 legislation, the D.C. City Council’s public safety committee stated that enforcement against littering should be part of a larger public-education campaign and voluntary-compliance program.

The Alice Ferguson Foundation, which helped coordinate a Litter Enforcement Month involving 10 Washington-area jurisdictions in April, has been nudging the region’s police agencies in recent years to beef up enforcement of anti-littering laws as part of its effort to protect the Potomac River watershed. The foundation views law enforcement as a key element of a “holistic” approach to litter that includes public education, said Clara Elias, a program associate at the foundation.

“We believe by stepping up enforcement efforts we can change behavior,” she said.

A 2008 survey of residents in the Potomac River watershed revealed that only 6 percent thought there was a chance they could be caught for littering, a finding reinforced by focus groups of confessed litterers, according to Elias.

“One of the reasons that we heard over and over again was they thought they could get away with it,” she said.

The foundation conducts training for law-enforcement personnel in litter enforcement and is working with the Metropolitan Police Department to devise a training manual that will become part of MPD’s continuing-education program for officers.

Meanwhile, there appears to be no immediate plan to roll out a citywide version of the MPD pilot project that targets non-traffic littering.

“We are looking into expanding [the pilot project] in the future,” department spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump said. “I don’t know when, though.”


Wayne Savage is the owner of Mid-Atlantic Litter Cleanup Service, a Washington, D.C.-based public space litter-removal company.


For further reading:


“Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic Magazine, March 1982


Mayor Vincent C. Gray news release (“Mayor Gray Announces Kickoff of the Metropolitan Police Littering Enforcement Pilot Program”) (4-27-11)


Metropolitan Police Department Annual Report for 2011 (See Appendix D: Littering Enforcement in D.C.)