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John Aravosis was attacked by teen-agers on his way to the gym last December. He didn’t like the way D.C. police handled his call for help, so the 40-year-old entrepreneur wrote about the incident for his neighborhood e-mail forum. Stunned by the response he received from D.C. residents with similar experiences, Aravosis created a Web site devoted to describing people’s interactions with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. Since then, Aravosis has been one of D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey’s most vocal critics. His Web site, www.SafeStreetsDC.com, has become a popular place for crime victims and others to vent, and a spot for police to explain and complain about internal policy and politics. Over the past year, many of the stories that originated on Aravosis’ Web site made their way into The Washington Post and local television news programs. Aravosis and his friends investigated some of the stories themselves and used their information to challenge police and criminal justice officials at public meetings. Aravosis testified at two D.C. Council hearings regarding police issues. And the Web site was also the catalyst for an organized effort to challenge a raise and benefits package D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams proposed for Ramsey. “No one intended it to go this far,” says Aravosis, noting that SafeStreets was the first to reanoint the District as the country’s murder capital. “We didn’t realize how bad the situation was.” D.C. Councilman Phil Mendelson says Aravosis’ talent for motivating residents through the Internet is well-recognized by D.C. government leaders. “I don’t want to be on the wrong side of him,” Mendelson says. Councilman Jim Graham says the SafeStreets Web site has served the city well. “SafeStreets has put together some really carefully considered, carefully researched views,” Graham says. “It’s been really good and a good function.” In a voice mail message, Ramsey said he does not view the SafeStreets site “often enough” to comment. There’s no doubt that Aravosis, a 19-year resident of the District, has made an impact. In January, the SafeStreets Web site posted a story about how residents witnessed a police lieutenant berate a Latino man during a traffic stop for not speaking English. The cop also threatened to throw the man’s 10-year-old daughter in jail for translating for him, according to the SafeStreets account and later press stories. Aravosis, who learned of the incident through a friend who witnessed it, tracked down the Latino family and interviewed them in Spanish. He then learned that the lieutenant was in charge of the Mount Pleasant neighborhood, which has a large Latino population. Once Aravosis published the account, other reporters took notice. An internal police investigation found the lieutenant was at fault. After further prodding from the D.C. Council, Ramsey transferred the lieutenant. The SafeStreets Web site was one of the first places to report problems with police and fire department response time to a January row house fire in Dupont Circle that killed one man. According to the SafeStreets account, it took the fire department 40 minutes to respond to 911 calls — with some callers being placed on hold or getting a busy signal. Initially, D.C. officials noted that there was just one person handling 911 calls that morning, but said there was no significant delay in responding to the emergency. Aravosis, however, questioned the public proclamations and day after day published information from residents who contradicted what city leaders were saying. He also made it easier for residents to complain to city officials by linking e-mail addresses to his Web site. City officials reported a month later that there were 13 people on duty to handle 911 calls the morning of the fire, but more than half of them were not taking calls. Ramsey moved to fire five operators. Aravosis has continued to take Ramsey to task for not making the internal investigation public — noting on his Web site how many days it has been since Ramsey told a community meeting that the report was completed. As of Dec. 19, that number was 204. The 911 foul-up was used by Aravosis and also some D.C. Council members to question whether Ramsey — whose five-year contract came up for renegotiation this year — should remain. The debate eventually centered on whether Ramsey should be given a $25,000 raise and a more profitable benefits package. The SafeStreets Web site notes that it accepts donations, though Aravosis says he has received just around $500 to date. To make a living, Aravosis, a Georgetown University Law Center grad and former Capitol Hill staffer, runs his own small business, Wired Strategies, in which organizations hire him to push issues through online advocacy. Aravosis says some of his clients have included the State Department, Planned Parenthood, and the American Civil Liberties Union. One sign of Aravosis’ influence on D.C. criminal justice policy can be tied to a closed-door meeting in July where all 13 members of the D.C. Council sat around a table discussing the proposed raise for Ramsey. At the time, the vote was six in favor, six against — with Graham being the lone holdout. Councilman Adrian Fenty jokingly picked up a telephone receiver on the table and said, “Jim, the phone’s for you. It’s John Aravosis,” according to one D.C. Council member who asked not to be named. Graham says this account is accurate. Graham ultimately voted in favor of the raise, which the D.C. Council approved with a 7-6 vote. The benefits package, however, remains in the Judiciary Committee.

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