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.