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2015: Looking to Startups for New Solutions to Public Safety Problems

Cathy Lanier

Chief of Police, Washington Metropolitan Police Department

Over the last several years, Washington, D.C., has been experiencing a staggering amount of development and growth.  The most recent population estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau notes that the District now stands at 658,893 residents, which represents a 9 percent increase—or over 53,000 new residents—in just four short years. This welcome growth means more areas of shopping, restaurants, bars, offices and residences, all of which require expanded police attention.  So how do city leaders and municipal police departments address these new challenges in a smart, efficient and cost-conscious way?

The District is no longer a weekday-working, commuter city.  In addition to the record number of tourists visiting the city each year, more and more residents and workers are spending time enjoying the many diverse entertainment and nightlife options. There are now a large number of thriving nightlife areas, including H Street NE, Barrack’s Row, U Street, Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle, which attract thousands of patrons to numerous establishments through the evening and into the early morning hours.

These environments pose a number of public safety challenges from increased robberies to public drunkenness and nuisance complaints. In response to these new challenges, the Metropolitan Police Department established a Nightlife Unit, composed of several specially-trained officers, who provide dedicated police services in the burgeoning nightlife areas. These officers not only provide heightened visibility, but they also develop strong relationships with the business owners, patrons, and local residents. As a result, robberies and nuisance complaints in those areas have dropped precipitously since the unit was first deployed last year.

Other areas of the city, such as Southwest Waterfront, the WHARF, Capitol Quarter, CityCenter and NoMa, have seen dramatic increases in residents, workers and visitors. Many of these areas have existing public space or plan to significantly expand the public space available for outdoor activities. Residents and visitors may enjoy a walk along the newly-renovated portion of the Anacostia Riverwalk, a family outing at one of the public parks or outdoor concert venues, or a leisurely bicycle ride along the Metropolitan Branch Trail. All of these environments pose unique public safety challenges.

The Metropolitan Branch Trail, for instance, is an eight-mile trail that runs from Union Station in NoMa to Silver Spring, Maryland. The trail, which passes through a number of historic D.C. neighborhoods, presents an especially difficult challenge from a policing perspective. There is a portion of the trail running through NoMA and Eckington that is paralleled by railroad tracks on one side and warehouse buildings on the other, with few access points to the neighboring streets. MPD conducts frequent police patrols along the trail and partners with the community; the D.C. Department of Transportation, which oversees the trail; and other local organizations, such as the NoMa Business Improvement District, to research best practices and develop innovative crime prevention strategies.

Unlike the nightlife areas, which are large areas centered within the community with consistent and predictable peaks in patrons and visitors, the walking/biking trails like the MBT tend to be much smaller, individual, and isolated environments with inconsistent peaks in usage. Thus, a specialized or dedicated unit for the MBT and similar trails is neither a practical nor efficient approach. The installation of emergency call boxes similar to those found on college campuses or subway stations may be a solution, but they can be costly to install and maintain and their effectiveness in preventing crime is not fully known.

Nevertheless, MPD also seeks to present this type of issue to people and organizations who are willing to take a look at difficult problems and come up with innovative, advanced, and cost-effective solutions; ones that we may have never even begun to imagine. As recently as 2006, MPD officers completed their reports on paper. Today, officers can use their laptops or tablets to complete their reports without having to leave the street.

So how do we continue to leverage technology to serve as a “force multiplier” when police resources may be stretched thin?  How can others help us create practical solutions to difficult problems? How do we engage those who may have a potential solution to a problem, but do not possess the platform by which to fully explore potential solutions? By actively seeking out and engaging organizations such as 1776, which is made up of many incredibly intelligent and determined minds, police departments may be able to gain additional insights and answers to difficult problems.

So the challenge has been presented: What are some innovative, cost-conscious and effective strategies for preventing crime in those unique public spaces such as walking/biking trails? And how can we continue to pose additional public safety challenges on which we can work together with new organizations to find cutting-edge solutions to remain a growing, safe and “smart city”? We’re looking to startups for answers.

Cathy Lanier

Chief of Police, Washington Metropolitan Police Department