WASHINGTON -- In an effort to quell her city's problems of drugs and violent crime, Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly yesterday asked President Clinton to give her the power to call in the National Guard to augment the city's police department.
Traditionally, the National Guard has been called out in urban areas by governors to help maintain order or protect property during riots and natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes.
But if Ms. Kelly's request is approved, the nation's capital could become the first major American city to have troops patrolling alongside police officers in non-emergency times.
Ms. Kelly sent a three-page letter to Mr. Clinton yesterday asking him to cut through layers of federal bureaucracy and give her direct authority to call in some of the 3,700 members of the Washington, D.C., Army and Air National Guard. State governors currently have such authority.
Mr. Clinton said he is "sympathetic" to Washington's problems and is reviewing the mayor's request.
"I've given a lot of thought to it, and I've asked our legal counsel to get with the Justice Department and look into the legality of it and what the legal hurdles and also what the practical problems are," Mr. Clinton said. One of those problems, the president said, was the disruption such a call-up would cause to the civilians who serve in the Guard.
National Guard officials at the Pentagon yesterday declined to comment on Ms. Kelly's request, saying they would make their opinion known to Mr. Clinton, if he asked for it.
Ms. Kelly wants the D.C. Guard -- which includes about 550 military police officers -- to help the District of Columbia's 4,200-member police force with drug interdiction activities, including roadblocks to check vehicles for illegal narcotics and weapons.
Ms. Kelly and Metropolitan Police Chief Fred Thomas yesterday said they hoped to have the part-time soldiers on the streets for a 120-day stint.
They stressed that the Guard would work strictly in a support capacity with police officers. Since they do not have arrest powers, Guard soldiers would ride with police officers, Mr. Thomas said.
The police chief said it would be up to the mayor and National Guard commanders whether the soldiers would carry firearms.
The desire to call in the Guard does not suggest that Washington's police cannot control crime, Ms. Kelly said, but "we have a problem of extraordinary proportion."
There have been 378 homicides in the District of Columbia between January and October, up from 366 during the same time last year. There were 451 District homicides during all of 1992.
In the summer of 1992, the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised the idea of declaring martial law to help curtail the city's violent crime. George N. Buntin Jr., Baltimore NAACP executive director, said that would allow Gov. William Donald Schaefer to move national guard troops into Baltimore, but he envisioned control staying with the city.
Mr. Schaefer later called invoking martial law to fight crime "a terrible mistake."
The idea of using the National Guard in law enforcement is not new. Last year, 80 Guard troops were used in Sumter, S.C., to help that town's 72-member police department in a five-day drug sting. And the Guard has been used for routine crime-fighting in Puerto Rico.
But several Washingtonians and law-enforcement experts believe that soldiers patrolling the streets of the nation's capital is the wrong answer to the city's crime problem.
"The mayor is barking up the wrong tree on this issue," said City Council member Harold Brazil, who added that the district would be better served if it could fill 300 vacancies on the police force.