Washington, DC, was one of the last cities in the nation to encounter the drug boom of the 1980s and 1990s. The crime began to spike in 1986, and the public demanded a response from the Police Commissioner Maurice Turner and his Assistant Commissioner Issac Fulwood. Fulwood created Operation Clean Sweep, a comprehensive crackdown on street-level dealing. Washington was known for large open area drug markets, and the new effort was designed to strike a blow to the practice. Operation Clean Sweep began August 31, 1986.

The operations had a few signature initiatives.

  1. “Stop and Question” any person that is in a drug infested neighborhood
  2. Installing busses and trailers outside drug markets known as “mobile police stations”
  3. Drug roadblock to facilitate random searches in neighborhoods known for drugs
  4. Undercover officers posing as users and dealers

These initiatives created backlash because they sacrificed privacy and freedom of movement for safety. Some examples of the collateral damage of Operation Clean Sweep can be gleaned from how the implementation at Clifton Terrace.

Clifton Terrace was a luxury apartment complex built in 1916. By the late eighties, it was an open-air drug market. The complex was such a popular drug market there would often be traffic jams due to so many customers coming into the apartments to buy their wares.

The police responded by banning people from parking near the building. They also patrolled the halls, randomly stopping anyone in the building. They had a master list of all leaseholders. If the police didn’t find one’s name on the leaseholders’ list, the person would have to name the person they were visiting in the building. The patrolman would then follow them to the apartment to verify the story. [2]

Another example of the cost of Operation Clean Sweep was roadblock set up to search cars for drugs. Police implemented the tactic in the historically black neighborhood of Anacostia. The area has had predominantly black people since the turn of the century. There were pockets of high crime, but there were also many upstanding black middle-class residents. In December of 1987, police arrested 124 people at a single roadblock. The two articles on the bust did not mention how many drugs, guns, and money were confiscated.[24,25] More than likely, these were arrested for small possession for personal use.

Not only were civil liberties constrained, but tax money was exhausted. In February of 1987, Mayor Barry had to cut the school budget to cover the cost of increased policing. In March of the same year, Operation Clean Sweep recorded 12,000 arrests, seizing 6.8 million in drugs, confiscating 300 cars, and hundreds of weapons.[3] Up to this point, there was only a 2% drop in overall crime.[4] However, the cost of $4.5 million exceeded the budget, and the city suspended the program in April. Public outcry forced the city to reopen it the next week.

Operation Clean Sweep was successful in increasing arrests. However, the facility that houses DC inmates, Lorton in Virginia, was soon overcrowded. The overcrowding forced the city to release prisoners. From July to October of 1987, the city released 815 inmates. Housing inmates is a serious problem for DC because there is nowhere in the city limits to put a prison. The District would have to coordinate with another state to house prisoners or use Federal prisons. By 1988 Clean Sweep arrested 46,400 people, but only 1,400 went to prison.[91,90]

Despite increased arrests, there was a decrease in the number of solved murders. From 1970 to 1980, about policed solved 83% of the murders. From 1980 to 1985 it was around 70%. By 1987 the stat fell to around 60%.[29] Part of the problem was people from outside of DC traveled there to sell drugs. When someone from out of town murders or is murdered, it is even more challenging to find the killer. Because no one in the city knew the killer, there were very few witnesses that were useful in court. Investigators had to travel for clues. The percent of drug-related murders increased from 25% in 1985 to 60% in 1987. It is also important to remember 1985 was a record low for murders and 1987 was the record high. [29] To increase the closed homicide rate, the city needed to hire more detectives.

No one took more risks or paid a higher price than the 200 officers assigned to Operation Clean Sweep. The first casualty happened in December of 1987 when Herman Keels died in an undercover operation. Weeks later, three more officers are wounded in the line of duty.

Due to high costs in overtime, Operation Clean Sweep was suspended again in December of 1987. The public was not informed until late January 1988.[35] Publicly Mayor Marion Barry wanted to continue the operation as it was. The police chief Maurice Turner wanted the program to end. They were arresting many people, but the overall crime rate was not going down. Turner wanted to try a holistic approach that included schools and churches.[26] He also supported mandatory minimum sentencing.[43] The city council was pushing to hire 150 more cops.[34] The overtime cost of 1987 could be reallocated in new hires so there would be no net increase in the budget. However, many experts, such as Fraternal Order of Police Chairman Gary Hankins, said 500 new officers need to be hired. [33]

So the city was looking for low-cost ways to supplement the police force. The first method was to modify the role of the City Police Reserve Corp. Previously the Reserve Corp were unarmed volunteers that aided police. Now they would receive full police training and weapons.[49] The Dopebusters initiative was the second. The Nation of Islam ran the Dopebusters force. They would provide unarmed security for problem housing developments on a volunteer basis initially. Eventually, the Dopebusters became DC contractors through Nation of Islam Security Inc.

Operation Clean Sweep officially resumed in February 1988. It could not have started at a better time because there had been 46 murders so far that year. [44] The first order of business was to replace the officers’ six-shooter revolvers with semi-automatic weapons. There was not a large amount of overtime allocated in 1988, so traffic patrol lost officers.[45]

Despite Operation Clean Sweep, straining the court and prison system without reducing the overall crime rates, neighboring communities adopted Clean Sweep tactics. Montgomery County MD, Fairfax VA, and Manassass VA all underwent similar police overhauls. These suburbs needed to respond to a spike in crime partially caused by criminals fleeing the crackdown in DC. Implementing these smaller Clean Sweep Operations further exacerbated the prison population problem.

A power vacuum was left in the drug market as another side effect of arresting large amounts of people at one time. This vacuum was filled by out of town drug dealers, mostly from New York as stated earlier. The influx of out of town dealers made crime investigation even more difficult and costly. Also, children were often employed as dealers because they would not receive long sentences. Usually, when the Washington Post wrote stories about the phenomenon of children dealing drugs, they rarely mention external factors that could cause such a problem.

Fortunately, the DEA created an alternative to Clean Sweep, Operation Pipeline. In this effort, the DEA trained local police on how to spot drug traffickers and collaborated with them on investigations. Drug sniffing dogs inspected packages at train stations. Police were trained to spot shotty welding on cars, which usually mean after-market modification to create drug compartments. By having a detailed methodology for identifying traffickers, older, cruder methods were replaced. One antiquated method would be to stop Hispanic men with Florida license plates to see if they were running narcotics. Operation Pipeline caught drug dealers at twice the rate of Operation Clean Sweep.[64]

Another Alternative to Operation Clean Sweep was Operations Fight Back. Fight back started initially to work concurrently to Clean Sweep. Mayor Barry announced it on January 12, 1988. [76] A new drug enforcement unit was initiated with 101 reassigned officers. The officers would collaborate with Federal and other local drug enforcement agencies. The city would also fund drug education and treatment services.

Turner retired as police chief in 1989, and Fulwood took over. One of his first acts was to end Operation Clean Sweep officially. He admitted, “We attempted to try to make police operation the backbone of fighting drugs. It did not work.”[104] The DC police moved to more comprehensive methods that use community watch, drug rehabilitation, and collaboration with various law enforcement agencies.

Clean Sweep cannot be considered a total failure. Evidence gathered in Clean Sweep arrests and investigations was instrumental in taking down DC most notorious kingpin Rayful Edmond and the Mayfair’s most notorious kingpin Michael Palmer. Clean Sweep was DC’s first comprehensive attempt to take stop the crack boom. There were many problems, but the lessons learned helped DC build the foundation of their current methods.

Police did bring back Operation Clean Sweep in 1993 on a limited basis. It appears that they only increased overtime for officers. By 1994, even Marion Barry admitted Operation Clean Sweep was a failure.

It is doubtful that Operation Clean Sweep will ever fully return. One of the main pillars of the operation, the drug roadblock, was found to be unconstitutional by DC Superior Court. The drug roadblock was used to enforce the law in general, not to find a specific offense such as a DUI roadblock. Therefore it violated the fourth amendment rights.