ANNIE ROSENTHAL, CO-NEWS-EDITOR AND STYLE EDITOR:
Photo by Isabel Gloss
One of the men accused of sexual assault at the Wilson Aquatic Center in November is still on the pool’s payroll, and will be until his case is resolved. Both his and a second case of alleged sexual assault after-hours at the pool are still being investigated by the Metropolitan Police Department, but have already shed light on flaws in the Department of Parks and Recreation’s management.
On December 16, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and At-Large Councilmember David Grosso met with the interim director of the DPR, a captain from the MPD Special Investigations Branch, and two public witnesses in an extensive two-hour DC Council Committee on Transportation and the Environment Public Roundtable. The purpose of the hearing was to discuss the circumstances surrounding the incidents at the aquatic center and DPR’s response.
Councilmember Cheh expressed frustration about DPR’s limited communication with the public about the incidents.
“One of my major concerns,” she said, “is that DPR has done far too little to assure that residents are informed about incidents and know what has gone on, to the extent permitted of course by law enforcement investigation, and informed about what they’re doing at the pool to ensure patrons’ safety.
“The alleged incidents and DPR’s response to them appear to me to be somewhat emblematic of gaps in security and management generally.”
Among Cheh’s complaints was the fact that notices about the alleged assaults were not posted at the pool until December 9, and that even then the notices were hard to read. According to a public witness at the hearing, the most senior pool manager had instructed pool personnel not to respond to comments. The witness said that one pool employee had threatened to call the police if he came and asked about the incident again.
The Metropolitan Police Department captain at the hearing said that because the suspects in the case were known, MPD had left communicating with the public to DPR. When Cheh asked DPR Interim Director Sharia Shanklin why notices had not been posted earlier, Shanklin responded, “The communication that I engaged in with MPD and with the office of the mayor led me to make this decision at the time of December 6, actually, and once that decision was made, on December 9 after approval, we placed this notice in the Wilson Aquatic Center.”
She added that DPR had not received any inquiries over social media about the incidents and that there had been no substantial difference in the number of patrons who attended the pool after the incident. “What we have done completely over this time has been very intentional and deliberate in an attempt to keep the public safe and to not engage them in an emotional or psychological feeling of not being able to engage in their leisure activity in our sites,” Shanklin said.
Cheh responded, “I think that the choice that you made was the wrong choice and it was unnecessarily delayed, and as a result, people were left in the dark and confused. And it doesn’t show what I think would be the appropriate way you would communicate with the users of a pool and allow rumors and allegations to grow and fester in a community and all the while you stand silent. And I don’t think that it was because MPD was silencing you. It was because you made that decision yourself.”
After posing questions about DPR’s delayed response, Cheh and Grosso questioned Shanklin about the circumstances that allowed pool employees to host after-hours parties.
Shanklin maintained that the facility had security cameras and alarms, and that pool managers and assistant managers were the only people who had access to keys. There was no on-site security personnel at the pool, as the facility only employs a guard during the summer. Police officers would only visit the site intermittently unless they received a call.
Shanklin said that surveillance video tapes were not reviewed daily, and that DPR gave the tapes to the MPD without reviewing them. However, the alarm system had an associated entry report that indicated if anyone had entered the pool facility when the alarm was armed, and according to Shanklin, these entry reports were reviewed daily by the pool’s Risk Management department. To Shanklin’s knowledge, the department had not reported any entries to their supervisors.
She said that the Risk Management team and managers might have known that there had been unauthorized entries: “The reports show inconsistencies we are investigating. We are going to make adjustments.” According to Shanklin, this type of infraction would not be grounds to dismiss a manager, and that after-hours parties would be cause for suspension, but not removal, of an employee. No pool staff have been fired.
Two public witnesses at the hearing cited other management problems at the pool, including a failure to return emails from patrons, possible staff parties after hours, and a system of solely internal hirings. said, “There appears to be a pattern where people who go along with the corruption are promoted. People who speak up, they aren’t promoted. They’re fired. They’re transferred.”
The other witness also took issue with the wording of DPR’s notices, which maintained that the public had never been in danger. “Since November 9, [the two suspects] have been around hundreds if not thousands of children. I don’t know how DPR can say that the public was never in danger,” he said. “My neighbors have kids, they swim at the pool. I would never be able to forgive myself if something had happened to them.”
His concerns are particularly relevant, as two of the alleged victims of assault at the pool were minors.
Councilmembers Cheh and Grosso both emphasized the need for a more proactive approach to communication and the resolution of management issues at DPR. In an interview with The Beacon this week, Cheh said she has received a report that she requested of the changes DPR plans to implement, not only at Wilson, but at all DPR facilities. She has also met with Shanklin repeatedly since the hearing to discuss improvements.
Cheh says that changes include public notices about job openings and implementing weekly meetings of staff at all facilities to go over rules. She says that she has been impressed with DPR’s efforts to improve, but that there are still issues to resolve.
“We have to get back to something that was more vigorously followed in the Fenty administration, which is performance measures,” she said.
Shanklin explained that DPR views the recent events as an opportunity to improve, saying, “We recognize that there are areas for improvement and this incident has brought to light an ability for us to say very definitely we are not going to passively just continue to act with disregard of what these protocols and practices state. Our staff are also going to hold themselves highly accountable for enacting the work that keeps the public safe.”