In an escalation of the drug war, William J. Bennett, the nation’s top anti-drug official, Monday announced plans to launch an offensive against narcotics trafficking in the District of Columbia, where a wave of drug-related crime has transformed the city into the nation’s murder capital.
The initiative, unveiled just hours after Bennett took office as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, will designate Washington as the nation’s first “high-intensity drug trafficking area,” giving Bennett emergency powers to marshal federal money and manpower against the drug trade there.
The plan signals the onset of a new federal role in combatting street crime, with the government enabled to step in to help local authorities. Among the options under consideration by Bennett and his advisers are assigning federal agents to patrol city streets and arranging for federal grants to hire additional police officers, prosecutors and judges.
The goals, Bennett told reporters Monday, will include “clearing the streets” and “securing the perimeter.”
Any new federal role would require the approval of other Cabinet officers, and Bennett said he has not yet decided exactly which actions to recommend. But he described the initiative as a “test case” that could well be repeated elsewhere and made clear that President Bush had assented to the outline of the plan.
Washington was chosen as the first local front in the Administration offensive because the drug problem here is “as bad as it can get,” Bennett said.
With the district’s poorest neighborhoods ravaged by widespread use of “crack” cocaine, the number of homicides has soared, claiming 107 lives already in 1989, double the record pace of the previous year. In a 9 1/2-hour period last weekend, four people were fatally shot and five were hurt in drug-related attacks.
Such explosions of violence have raised the per-capita murder rate here to the highest in the nation, surpassing Miami and Detroit. And it has brought the city new notoriety as the subject of network documentaries portraying mean streets, screeching sirens and bullet-riddled corpses.
Police, who are already on an emergency footing here, say most of the killings are drug-related: dealers battling for turf, buyers fighting with sellers and addicts seeking money to feed expensive habits.
“When not five minutes . . . away from the seat of the world’s freest government, we’ve got this kind of thing going on,” Bennett said at a news conference, “we ought to pay attention to it.”
Washington Mayor Marion Barry, who is to discuss the proposal with Bennett today, refused to comment Monday. But the move was applauded by other local officials, including Police Chief Maurice Turner, who early this month declared a crime emergency and ordered more than 100 desk officers into the streets on anti-drug patrols.
“We would welcome any assistance, human or fiscal in nature, that the federal government through Mr. Bennett would give in order to assist us in combatting this drug plague,” Turner said through a spokesman.
Within the federal government, however, the special effort in the District of Columbia is likely to spark new bureaucratic tussles, as overburdened agencies with their own agendas in the drug war resist Bennett’s efforts to make changes.
Only last week, for example, FBI Director William S. Sessions explicitly excluded Washington when asked to outline the nation’s anti-drug priorities.
President Bush publicly sought to head off such clashes Monday, telling Cabinet officers attending Bennett’s swearing-in ceremony that the bureaucratic conflict “has got to end.”
Describing Bennett as “the commanding general” in the drug war, Bush urged “all of the parts of the government to get behind him in charting our course to victory.”
Bennett appeared Monday to anticipate the battles still to be fought. Asked about the likely dissent to his plan, he snapped: “Fine, let ‘em criticize.”
Bennett’s power to target the government anti-drug efforts at particular cities was given to him last year by Congress as part of the legislation creating his post.
Under the law, Bennett--with the approval of the Cabinet officers involved--can reassign federal personnel or provide increased financial assistance to any region designated as a “high-intensity drug trafficking area.”
In the briefing Monday, Bennett refused to say whether he prefers to assign federal agents to patrol Washington streets or to use federal money to hire additional police officers. “We’ll see,” he said.
If the Administration does choose to use federal manpower, aides to Bennett said, it will most likely come from the Drug Enforcement Administration rather than the FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s Service or the military.