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Pack Your Street Smarts Going To D.C.

I was on jury duty recently when the judge asked a question that brought the entire jury selection process to a near standstill: “Have you been a witness to, a victim of, or accused of a crime in the past 10 years?”

In Washington, D.C., that just about covers everyone.

As President Clinton has no doubt learned by now, crime is a pervasive fact of life in the nation’s capital. Although the recent shootings outside the White House have shocked even battle-scarred city residents, most people realize that no one is immune.

Only a handful of people on my jury panel, a diverse cross section from the city’s various neighborhoods, said they had had no experience with crime in the last decade. One by one, the rest of us approached the bench to tell of muggings, shootings, car break-ins and other depredations.

When my turn came, I left out the little stuff and focused on three events that made a real impression on me: a mugging with me as the victim, and a mugging and a purse-snatching that I witnessed.

All three crimes occurred on Capitol Hill, a charming residential neighborhood that stretches about a dozen blocks east of the U.S. Capitol. No one was hurt in any of the incidents, although all three victims walked away with a heightened concern for their own safety. (At least, I know I did.)

There’s an old joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I’m not sure about that, but I do know that I never felt quite as secure after having fought someone for my wallet on my very doorstep.

We moved not long after that to a northwest Washington neighborhood where street crime is relatively rare. “Relatively” is the key word here. “Relatively” didn’t help the sales clerk at a nearby store who was fatally shot for no apparent reason.

Perhaps it has ever been thus. In a 1941 book, “Reveille in Washington: 1860-1865,” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Margaret Leech told of rampant crime in the city during the Civil War years.

“The capital continued to swarm with underworld characters from all parts of the Union,” Leech wrote. “A gang of robbers made their headquarters in the Smithsonian grounds, and pickpockets flourished in every public gathering; while gambling halls, illicit liquor houses and brothels were declared by (police) superintendent (James) Webb to be ‘fearfully on the increase.”’

Unfortunately, today’s robbers carry TEC-9 semiautomatics, and illicit liquor has been replaced by crack cocaine. The good news is that the Smithsonian museum complex is virtually crime-free.

In fact, for all the city’s problems, tourists have little to fear as long as they use common sense. Most major tourist attractions are far from the city’s high-crime neighborhoods. The Washington subway system is remarkably safe, even at night.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t stroll the streets at night alone unless you’re in an area with plenty of activity. When in doubt, ask a local or your hotel staff.

In short, pack your urban survival kit. The sad truth is that Washington is like most major cities, where crime is as much a part of the landscape as office buildings.

Carlos Von Doellinger, a recent visitor from Rio de Janeiro, took it in stride when he and the other members of a Brazilian tour group stumbled upon a crime scene during a stop at the White House last week. At the time, investigators were looking for clues in the police shooting of a homeless man who pulled a knife on officers outside the presidential mansion.

“The guide told us it would be dangerous if you walk downtown at night. But I don’t worry about that,” he said. “We have much more (crime) in Rio. We are not shocked by it.”

A homeless man sitting nearby expressed surprise that the slain man was armed only with a knife.

“Those people ought to be glad he only had a knife,” he said of the police. “This is Washington, D.C.”


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