Another Doggy Farce In the District
By Marc Fisher
Thursday, July 31, 2003; Page B01
For many years, when people said this city was going to the dogs, I chose to believe otherwise.
Pass the Alpo, please.
This month, I reported the saga of the District's relentless, armed crusade to capture an 8-year-old girl's pet dog. Today, another canine caper, in which the Metropolitan Police Department, famous for failing to respond to human beings in need, arrests a pregnant woman for assault with a dangerous weapon -- dog feces.
(Too late to warn breakfasting readers, I suppose, but here goes: This story contains gross bits.)
Stephanie Mencimer, a freelance writer, works in a carriage house behind her Victorian rowhouse in the Logan Circle area of Northwest. About 12:30 Friday afternoon, she went home for lunch. Stepping across her small brick patio, she noticed a plastic supermarket bag on the ground. She picked it up and realized it contained dog waste.
The only neighbor bordering on Mencimer's patio is a just-opened dog day-care facility called Wagtime. One day before her unpleasant discovery, Mencimer had called the 311 non-emergency police line to complain about loud barking coming from the kennel -- the latest in a long stream of complaints by Wagtime's neighbors on Q Street. Police did not respond.
Ticked by what she took as a message from the business next door, Mencimer said, she walked the bag over to Wagtime and placed it on the front counter. She said she firmly asked the owner, Lisa Schreiber, not to dump any more waste in her yard. Schreiber and two of her employees said Mencimer didn't place the bag on the counter, but rather flung it at the owner and shouted at her.
Mencimer went home. Schreiber called 911. "I don't know where that bag came from, but she was out of control," Schreiber told me. "Why would I take any chance of dealing with her? I told her to calm down and leave, and then I called the police."
About half an hour later, a D.C. police detective knocked on Mencimer's door. He asked her to remove her shoes and watch and come with him: She was under arrest.
"For what?" she asked.
"Assault with a dangerous weapon -- animal feces," came the reply. That is a felony.
Mencimer told the detective her version, in which it was Schreiber who was out of control, but the officer said that he had taken a course in biometrics and could tell that Mencimer was lying. He called for backup, and within minutes, Mencimer, who is five months pregnant, was handcuffed in her kitchen, taken to the police station and locked in a cell.
She spent the rest of the day in custody, without food or water. Her husband, Erik Wemple, was refused permission to see her or bring her reading materials. Then, when police learned that she is married to the editor of the Washington City Paper, Mencimer said, "all of a sudden, people were a lot nicer to me." Suddenly, the felony that the detective told her she would be charged with was reduced to simple assault, a misdemeanor, which allowed her to go home.
This being the District, the computer crashed and police told Mencimer that the paperwork to let her out would have to be done by hand -- delaying her release by nearly two hours.
Police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The background to all this is a bewildering tale of accusations and misdeeds involving a business that has had persistent problems with city agencies and its neighbors, well-organized residents who oppose having 30 dogs kept in a tiny yard on their block, and more city workers than respond to your average homicide.
Here's the gist of it: Wagtime's former landlord in Adams Morgan terminated the kennel's lease in June, after months of complaints that the dogs were so loud that the upstairs tenant could not sleep. An acoustical engineer who measured the noise found it at rock-concert levels.
Schreiber rented the Q Street space, a former real estate office that is one of only two commercially zoned properties on an otherwise residential block. Astonished that the city would allow a kennel to open on a quiet street of rowhouses, residents sought help from several D.C. agencies. Nothing doing.
Neighbors, many of them dog owners, offered to help Schreiber find a more appropriate location. They offered to pay her $30,000 to go elsewhere.
Schreiber replied that she would move for $300,000. "I knew they'd reject my offer," Schreiber said. "Why should I move? This is an upscale boutique, not a kennel. It's day care, like you would take your child to. I have a right to be here, and the neighbors should be glad to have us here. This property could be a gas station or a sex shop."
Over the Fourth of July weekend, with vigilant neighbors videotaping dogs as they entered the shop, Wagtime moved into its Q Street location without a certificate of occupancy. The city fined Wagtime and ordered the dogs removed. "I was wrong, I know," Schreiber said, "but I had no choice. I had 30 dogs boarding with me for the weekend." Ousted from the new location, Schreiber [the owner of Wagtime] took the dogs to her house nearby. Neighbors called police about that, and Schreiber ended up paying for three hotel rooms for the dogs over the weekend.
Gary Ridley can see Wagtime's yard from his window, and at the request of city inspectors, he has taken on the role of chief videotaper for the neighbors. "We tried negotiating with Lisa, but she just screams that this is a vendetta against her," Ridley said. "So we have documented everything: the dogs left overnight with no one there, the dogs when they didn't have an occupancy certificate. And it is so disheartening when we, as a neighborhood, have been so good at doing it the right way, working with the city agencies, and then they do nothing."
Schreiber said a member of her staff sleeps in the dogs' room with them overnight. When I visited Wagtime yesterday, it was clean and quiet, but at other times in recent days, I've heard the dogs from several houses down the block.
"We have done what we can do," said Chris Bender, a spokesman for the deputy mayor for planning and economic development and the only one of five city officials involved in the case who would talk about it. Because the D.C. Council killed the mayor's master business license program, the city has no ability to regulate this kind of business, he said. "They can keep as many dogs as they like. If the neighbors say it's way too loud, we can go out there and check, but that's all we can do."
The city granted Wagtime its occupancy certificate because the property is zoned for business. Bender said Schreiber agreed to limit the dogs' outdoor time to business hours and build a taller fence and canopy for the yard.
But the battle of Q Street continues. Even before last week's run-in, Schreiber left a letter under Mencimer's door announcing a "lawsuit in which you have been named as a primary defendant" because Mencimer had shown other neighbors a "confidential" letter from Schreiber's former landlord explaining why he wanted her out of the Adams Morgan location. But Mencimer had found that letter in a public court file. No lawsuit has been filed.
Last week, Schreiber sent a more conciliatory letter, promising to keep Wagtime clean and quiet. But Schreiber has no illusions of impending peace. "They'll keep calling the Health Department and the police on us, and they'll keep taping us and harassing us," she said. "These people are out of control."
Mencimer, who faces an Aug. 14 court date, also sees no way out. "It looks like Wagtime is here to stay," she said. "The city says it can't do anything. And we can't move. With the noise and the stench, who would want this house?"
District police, lawyers and inspectors keep responding to calls from both sides, and instead of using the health code to shut down an inappropriately located business, the only step they take is to arrest a pregnant woman.
There's only one possible explanation for all this -- the instant police response to Schreiber's complaint, the jailing of Mencimer, the municipal refusal to act on behalf of besieged human beings.