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D.C. police sex-assaults probe puts spotlight on Councilman Tommy Wells

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Local,DC,Crime,Alan Blinder,Cathy L. Lanier,D.C. Council

The report last week from Human Rights Watch on the Metropolitan Police Department's handling of sexual assaults was damning: "Police re-victimized survivors by treating them callously."

The response from Police Chief Cathy Lanier was just as sharp: "This report will make some of our most vulnerable victims here in the District of Columbia, the victims of sexual abuse, even more reluctant to report their abuses."

And now it has fallen to a soft-spoken, 55-year-old city councilman who has his eye on the mayoral suite to sift through the jagged words and unflattering allegations that have pitted one of the District's most popular figures -- Lanier -- against a respected watchdog.

But Ward 6 D.C. Councilman Tommy Wells, who took over the D.C. Council's judiciary committee earlier this month and has pledged to probe Human Rights Watch's findings, says he's ready.

"I have no problem holding agency heads accountable, no matter who they are," Wells said. "If in my investigation I find that there has been mismanagement by the chief, I will not pull punches, and I will hold someone accountable."SClBLanier said in an email that she agreed with Wells' plans to schedule a hearing.

"I hope this will give us a chance to get the facts on record," Lanier said.

For Wells, a public hearing amounts to a high-stakes political tightrope: He'll be examining an emotionally charged set of issues that demand stringent oversight, but the MPD under Lanier has won widespread plaudits and support.

"This is almost the quintessential caught between a rock and a hard place," said political consultant Chuck Thies. "It puts [Wells] on a collision course with the chief."

And key players in District politics will be watching as the lawmaker who has largely been known for his efforts to make D.C. "more livable and walkable" takes on a subject that he has acknowledged goes "straight to the confidence of our citizens about MPD's ability."

"It gets him outside of his comfort zone, and it puts him squarely in what is the middle of what is likely to be a very heated political process," Thies said. "It's going to put him in the spotlight. It's going to raise his name recognition."

The city's politically vocal police union says it's eager to see what Wells has in store after years of oversight it called lacking.

"This is a department that has a history of manipulating crime numbers to make itself look good," said union President Kristopher Baumann. "And this a department that has not had any oversight in six years because of Phil Mendelson's lack of leadership over the judiciary committee."

But even close observers of city politics say any electoral upshot for Wells -- beyond boosted prominence -- could be tinged with sadness.

"The political upside for Tommy Wells is, in fact, discovering that the Human Rights Watch report is accurate and Tommy remedies that tragedy," Thies said. "But that's not much of an upside because it reveals an extremely unseemly element to a police force that is very popular."

ablinder@washingtonexaminer.com

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