A valuable lesson in Civics 101

“”Safe”” and “”Washington, D.C.”” These are terms that are not usually used in the same sentence when attempting to describe our nation’s capital.

Instead, images of missing interns, serial killers, the uncontrollable crime and violence rates are immediately conjured.

When I arrived in Washington on Aug.25 I had been warned by everyone I knew about the outrageous crime rate there. I was never to walk alone or go out after dark unless I was in a large group.

So, I was on guard. But then the worst occurred: Nothing happened. I had built up this horrible, violent, crime-ridden image of Washington, and nothing I saw matched up to it.

The streets in view of the Capitol were clean, bustling with people and businesses and bars open at all hours of the day and night. The streets were under constant patrol by four separate police departments: the Capitol police, Metro Transit police and Metropolitan police along with the Secret Service.

Life on Capitol Hill seemed perfect: The immediate world in which I walked, ate and shopped was completely safe.

I was lulled into a false sense of safety and security. This illusion was shattered last Friday night when my friend was brutally mugged. A man jumped her from behind, slammed her face-first into the concrete sidewalk, grabbed her purse and ran.

My friend’s mugging was a wake up call because it occurred in one of the purported “”safe”” areas of Washington.

How it works in Washington is that the closer you are to the Capitol, the safer you are, supposedly. Starting from the Capitol, Washington is broken into four quadrants: Northwest, Northeast, Southwest and Southeast.

The entire area of NW is considered the safest, since some of the ritziest areas of Dupont Circle, Georgetown and Adams Morgan all hail from that quadrant. Most of NE is considered safe, but after hitting 10th Street there is no guarantee. This is also the case with the other two quadrants, SW and SE.

The informal rule of thumb I’ve learned from Washington natives is that a person is relatively safe within a 10-block radius in all four quadrants. But that informal rule was blown to bits Friday night because my friend was mugged in NE Washington, within a few blocks from the Capitol.

And this past Sunday afternoon, I received an even more personal lesson in Washington Personal Safety and Crime 101. I had just finished cutting across the Capitol and began to cross the street when a white blazer suddenly swerved, made an illegal U-turn and came to a skidding halt by my side. Then the two men inside physically tried to get me in the car. But I yanked myself away and made a mad dash for the other side of the street where a Capitol police officer was standing.

That thwarted kidnapping attempt and my friend’s mugging made me realize that that crime can happen anywhere, and those neat tricks we are taught about the crime and safety in Washington don’t necessarily work in the real world.

Yet I do believe that there are generally safer areas in Washington than other cities. Sadly, the areas that are considered to be the least safe are in the ghettos, where there is a dramatic disparity of life from that of life on the Hill.

It is not surprising that the crime rate is, in some cases, triple the amount of crime than what occurs in the police districts closest to the Capitol. For example, according to Washington’s 2000-2001 crime statistics, in district 1, which encompasses the Capitol area, there were eight homicides in June. In sharp contrast, in district 4, one of the ghetto areas, there were 27 homicides in June.

As a defense investigator intern, nearly every day when my job takes me into what is considered a ghetto area of Washington, there are some simple safety rules I’ve been trained to follow.

First, lock purse, valuables and legal documents in your trunk before you get to the ghetto. Second, never wave a friendly greeting to anyone in the ghetto, for waving is the signal that a person wants to score some drugs. These simple rules have protected my investigative partner and I thus far from becoming victims of violence.

Yet, the most ironic thing I’ve discovered is that in the areas that are the most openly crime-ridden I feel perfectly safe, while in the areas considered the safest, I do not feel nearly as safe.

I guess this little idiosyncrasy is what makes me love and hate Washington at the same time.

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