Policing the Hill The MPD 1D-1 Substation

The substation and its position on Marion Park can be seen in this ca. 1993 picture from the Historic American Buildings Survey (LOC)

Overlooking Marion Park and the large number of residents who congregate there to converse and watch their children and dogs at play, is a brick building that contains the 1D-1 Metropolitan Police Department substation. Most nearby residents know it only as a place to get parking passes for visitors, those less lucky know it as a place to register the fact that they have been robbed, or worse.

The substation is thus very much part of the fabric of the neighborhood, and thus it has a long and involved history associated with it.

The 5th Street view of the substation. (Photo: Andrew Lightman)

The modern DC police department dates back to a law signed by Abraham Lincoln on August 6, 1861. While DC had a police force at the time, one that dated back to 1803, it was clearly too small for what it needed to do. One city councilmember had complained the previous year that “Twenty-five years ago, a lady could walk from the Navy Yard to Georgetown without fear of molestation. It is not so now.”

Lincoln's bill, which had passed both the House and Senate with no debate, required that the city – more exactly, its common council – be given the job of providing “all necessary accommodation” to the newly formed police.

In setting up the force, the city was divided into eight precincts. Over the next ten years, the city either built or rented space in each precinct, with extremely variable results. An 1871 article in the Evening Star describes the state of these houses, and finds fault with almost every single one, even the “model station-house” located in Georgetown, “is missing wainscoting.” Given this level of criticism, the house of the eighth precinct, located on the corner of 5th and E Streets, Southeast, comes off looking pretty good: “A two-story good brick building; good location; recently painted, papered and carpeted.” In spite of this praise, the Star still recommends some alterations “to remedy defects in the general design and construction of the cells, and to provide a supply of water and proper ventilation.”

Fifteen years later, a report by the District's Inspector of Buildings indicated that the fifth district precinct house – there had been a reorganization in the police in 1886, and the eighth was renumbered fifth – was now the oldest of the eight precinct houses in Washington. Nonetheless, the Inspector felt that the “District is well equipped with buildings for the Police.”

A New Precinct House

Less than 20 years later, this opinion had changed. In spite of expansions to the old precinct house, as well as additional outbuildings, the now almost 40 year old structure was in need of a more permanent improvement. In early December, 1902, work began on a new station-house, which the Washington Post promised would be “the best-equipped of any of the police stations in the city.”

Since the old building was being torn down, and the evil-doers of the city unlikely to cease their trade while the new building was built, the fifth precinct moved to 243 10th Street Southeast as a temporary measure. Although prisoners were to be held in other precinct's jails, and the “front or parlor room looks a trifle bare without carpet or the other usual furnishings” the Post felt that “it serves a purpose in the conduct of police business just as well as through originally intended for that.”

A Scandal on Marion Park

The new precinct house had its most notorious moment just a few years after it opened. In 1909, on the day after William Howard Taft was inaugurated as President, John W. Collier, police officer in the fifth precinct, shot his superior officer, Captain William H. Mathews. Collier had attempted to call in sick earlier that afternoon, and Mathews had demanded the officer report to the station-house to prove how sick he was. Shortly after Collier arrived, his fellow-officers heard a single shot ring out from Mathews' office, and upon entering, could only determine that their Captain was indeed dead.

During Collier's trial, which turned out to be just the sort of circus that we have become used to in recent years, the defendant claimed self-defense, that Mathews had reached into his pocket, and thus Collier had felt the need to defend himself in a lethal way.

The jury bought it, at least to some degree, as their eventual verdict of manslaughter indicated. Nonetheless, Collier was sentenced to 15 years in jail and may have, according to Tim Krepp in his book “Capitol Hill Haunts,” returned to the precinct house well after his death in the form of a ghost, complete with dripping overcoat.

After this short period of notoriety, the fifth precinct returned to its former job of keeping the peace on the Hill. Less than a year after the shooting of Captain Mathews, it was declared the “model station house of the city.” Over the years, the fifth found itself with ever more work, especially after extra policing in the city's notorious second district caused crime to flare up in other, previously lower-crime, precincts.

In order to combat the new criminals, the city found itself applying ever more new technologies, and the precinct system that had been developed for use by policemen walking a beat, and using their whistles to request aid, was no longer relevant in an age of cars, telephones, and radios.

Thus in 1967, a major reorganization of the police force was proposed. Chiefly among the changes proposed was the reduction of the total number of precincts, of which DC had more per square mile than any other large city in the United States.

A series of mergers was instituted, and while most precinct houses were still used for some purpose allied to policing, only the fifth, which was merged with both the first and fourth precincts, was kept on as a substation, from where officers continued to patrol their neighborhood.

In the intervening years, most precinct houses have been sold off, or torn down, but the old fifth precinct house, which recently had a face-lift, continues to serve its neighborhood as a substation for the first district, ensuring the safety of the Hill – and providing a place to come for your parking passes.

great piece of history

thank for this little historical incursion. it is not only a place for parking passes but also a reassuring presence in the neighborhood.

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