What Works in Offender Reentry-The Urban Institute-DC Public Safety Radio

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Radio Program available at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2012/10/what-works-in-offender-reentry-the-urban-institute-dc-public-safety-radio/

[Audio Begins]

Len Sipes: From the nation’s capital this is DC Public Safety, I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Back at our microphones is Nancy la Vigne, she is the Director of the Justice Policy Center for the Urban Institute. www.urban.org We’re here today to talk about what works in reentry and the fact that there are now, for the first time, actual websites, databases, that really do summarize the state of the art in terms of research in a variety of areas, what we have is crimesolutions.gov from the Office of Justice Programs, which gives research on a wide variety of criminal justice topics, including reentry but now we have another website that’s focusing specifically on reentry. It was launched by the Urban Institute and a Council of State Governments. The website is the “what works” clearinghouse for reentry. It’s at www. nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/whatworks .Nancy La Vigne, welcome back to DC Public Safety.

Nancy La Vigne: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

Len Sipes: Wonderful website. Is it in competition with crimesolutions.gov?

Nancy La Vigne: Not at all, in fact it’s very complimentary and bear in mind, both websites are funded by the Office of Justice Programs.

Len Sipes: There you go.

Nancy La Vigne: So we worked very closely with the developers of Crime Solutions to talk about methodology and the ways in which the sites will be different and not duplicative and in fact, they’re not, Crime Solutions, as you said, covers a wide array of crime and justice topics.

Len Sipes: Law enforcement, corrections, juvenile justice courts –

Nancy La Vigne: Right, right, exactly.

Len Sipes: You focus on reentry.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, we take more of a deep dive approach and whereas Crime Solutions only looks at what they’re calling brand name programs, we’re looking at all evaluations across a wide array of programs related to reentry. And as you know, reentry is a very broad topic in and of itself, so we’re looking at a wide array of different types of reentry interventions and summarizing the research findings across those types. So: employment, mental health, housing, juvenile justice.

Len Sipes: Nancy, you’ve been around for quite some time. I mean, you are the Director of the one of the most prestigious research organizations in the country, if not the world. Why did it take us so long? I remember talking to the former Assistant Attorney General, Laurie Robinson, who said that we are going to do this, we are going to start summarizing the research, we’re gonna start making it easy for practitioners. Why did it take us decades to do this?

Nancy La Vigne: Well, I think in the case of the reentry topic, it took a real awareness and sense of urgency by members of Congress to fully fund reentry in all its aspects and that came with the Second Chance Act. And the Second Chance Act funded the National Reentry Resource Center, which of course, is run by the Council of State Governments and when we partnered with the Council of State Governments, we knew that CSG, as they’re called, was very well equipped to provide technical assistance and that we could provide some research value and the way we saw the best way to add value was to cull all the research on reentry and make it accessible to practitioners. So that’s what we set out to do.

Len Sipes: I just want to state, for the record, that I think that it’s been very frustrating for those of us in the practitioner community because we’ve been waiting decades for this and it’s here. In terms of crimesolutions.gov and in terms of your website, I mean, it’s taken a long time to make it easy for practitioners and policy makers to follow the research.

Nancy La Vigne: I think that’s right and you know, when you look back, even a decade ago, there were two statements that were made as fact. One is: we don’t know what works. And the other was: well, we might know what works but the “we that know it” are a bunch of academics that do nothing more than talk to each other and publish for each other.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: I was of that second school of thought, which is that, you know, being an academic myself, I was aware of what was out there, I knew that there were evaluation studies that showed that certain types of reentry programs worked, but they were largely inaccessible. Sometimes inaccessible to me. You know, the methodology’s extremely complicated, the way the studies are presented are really more to show off the methodology off and rather than to illustrate the findings and the implications of the findings for policy and practice.

Len Sipes: My heavens, that’s a bias I’ve had for years. I’m glad you expressed it. Here’s the example that I give to everybody else. I remember being the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and the Secretary of Public Safety comes in with a sour look on his face and he’s got a document from the Department of Justice, and he plops it on my desk. And he goes, “Sipes, I want a one page summation.” And then he goes to the doorway and turns around and points his finger at me and goes, “Now did you hear me? A one page summation. I don’t care about the methodology, I don’t care about the literature review, I don’t have time to wade through this. I simply want to know, did this work, what are the policy implications and how we can implement it here. One page.” And he reminds me, again, “One page.” So simplicity is next to Godliness in terms of the transfer of information.

Nancy La Vigne: Yes, exactly. And you know, and one page is often, for a busy decision maker, too much. They want the bottom line, and that’s what we need to give them.

Len Sipes: And I think that’s what the both organizations, both websites do, is provide that summation. www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/whatworks So, did we cover the website enough or are there more points that you want to make before getting into what the research says?

Nancy La Vigne: Well, sure, no, I would like to talk a little bit about the website and the methodology because I don’t want to overpromise on what this is.

Len Sipes: Please, okay.

Nancy La Vigne: And the reason I can’t overpromise is because I think that the research community has largely failed us and I say that because of the work that we had to do to winnow through all the evaluative research out there to get this much, much smaller subset of studies that we felt met methodological rigor enough that we could include them. And so, just to give you a few statistics, we identified roughly 2500 individual publications –

Len Sipes: Oh my heavens! 2500?

Nancy La Vigne: That called themselves evaluations and were on various topics of reentry which is to you know, prepare people for release from prison or jail, and tracks reentry outcomes. So it doesn’t just track infractions behind bars, for example. Of those, we screened out almost 1500 as irrelevant for a variety of purposes.

Len Sipes: Okay.

Nancy La Vigne: They weren’t really serving a reentry population; they weren’t really relevant outcomes for a reentry topic.

Len Sipes: Right, right.

Nancy La Vigne: Some other reasons, so we have around 1000 that were potentially relevant. Of those, only 276 met our standards for rigor.

Len Sipes: 15000 to 276?

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah.

Len Sipes: That’s amazing.

Nancy La Vigne: Now, there’s more that we’re still in the process of reviewing, but I would say that for every, easily every 10 we review, eight get winnowed out because they’re just not strong enough as studies.

Len Sipes: Okay, and without getting into a methodological review or discussion, it’s just that, that the findings and the way that they went about getting their findings just wasn’t strong enough to hold the confidence of their findings.

Nancy La Vigne: Right, but how do you know this if you’re a practitioner trying to figure out what works?

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: You just go to you know, you find a study online, you find a series of studies, they say that they have positive outcomes and then they take it at face value, and why wouldn’t they?

Len Sipes: Sure, of course.

Nancy La Vigne: So I feel like that’s one way we’re really adding tremendous value is to winnow through all of this supposed knowledge –

Len Sipes: Amazing.

Nancy La Vigne: Down to really what we can say with confidence, seems to be the findings. Now, not all of those studies, once you winnow them down, show that reentry interventions work.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: Many are inconclusive and a lot of our findings suggest that more research is necessary.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: But, so I want to be clear. It’s a lot of work that boils down to you know really just, you know, tens of studies that end up on the website. The ones that you see will be relevant, will have met these methodological standards and you can have faith in that they’re saying something meaningful. So I think that that’s really important and I wanted to make sure that your audience understood both the value of the website but also the limitations because of the lack of good quality research that’s out there.

Len Sipes: So the bottom line in terms of what’s there, it can be trusted.

Nancy La Vigne: It can be trusted.

Len Sipes: Okay, the larger issue, I talked to a couple reporters a couple weeks ago, and we were talking about the state of research in terms of offender reentry and one of them said that, “You know Leonard; there are a lot of failed research programs out there.” And I said, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of hope and there’s enough evidence, there’s enough good evidence that we believe that we’re moving in the right direction, that we believe that if you take a look at drug courts in particular and you take a look at GPS in particular, you take a look at substance abuse, if you take a look at preparation in prison, that, that you’re getting fairly consistent, good findings that are methodologically correct, well done evaluations.” So I think there’s enough promise that leads us to believe that we can cut recidivism rates and I’m not saying 30% or 40% but at the moment, somewhere between 10 and 20%. But I point out that out of 700,000 people coming out of the prison system every year, if you cut that down from 15 to 20%, you’re saving billions of dollars and you’re saving victims from hundreds of thousands of victimizations.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, and I would agree with you. There’s certainly enough evidence out there to suggest that these programs are worth continuing to fund and support.

Len Sipes: But what do we say to practitioners when they go to your website, because they go to crimesolutions.gov, they go to your website and what it does seem to say is that promising, promising, promising, promising and you’ve got three or four at the top with the green indicators saying that they did reduce recidivism and you have some down at the bottom with the red – you have a color coded system, which makes it real easy, and some fairly prestigious evaluations didn’t seem to have that much of an impact.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right.

Len Sipes: The Serious and Violent Offender research comes to mind. So the person takes a look at this and again, the word promising comes to mind.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, I mean I think that’s right. And I think that much depends on the population and the nature of the intervention and the fidelity with which it was implemented, which was something that we’re having a very difficult time assessing based on the studies. The studies rarely look at issues of the design and implementation of the program. So if you don’t do that, and you say a program doesn’t work, you don’t know if it doesn’t work because the concept was flawed, or because it wasn’t implemented properly.

Len Sipes: Right, right.

Nancy La Vigne: And so we’re saying it doesn’t work, which is really an unfair indictment on a concept that could be very theoretically sound and could work under better circumstances.

Len Sipes: So we’re going to repeat what Joan Petersilia of Stanford said that what we do too much of at a National Institute of Justice conference, was that we overpromise and deliver too little in community corrections. That seems to be true to some degree, but people need to understand that this Rome was not built in a day. I mean, these are thousands of pieces of research, cumulatively speaking, seem to be saying that we’re moving in the right direction. So for those out there who are saying, hey, we can dramatically cut recidivism, that doesn’t seem to be supported by the literature but I’m talking about 30% and above. That’s not supported by the literature.

Nancy La Vigne: No, it’s not.

Len Sipes: And we shouldn’t be, as advocates –

Nancy La Vigne: It’s an unrealistic goal, and if we have goals like that, we’re setting ourselves up for failure and that’s just no way to go.

Len Sipes: And that was her point. I think her point was was that don’t overpromise because there’s a certain point where the States are going to be well funded again and then they’re going to have to make a decision as to whether or not to continue to build more prisons and if we overpromise, we inevitably invite our own demise.

Nancy La Vigne: Well put.

Len Sipes: But I mean, that’s serious stuff, but at the same time, you know, I travel throughout the country, I work with principally public affairs people, they’re enthused about this. They’re enthused. Most of the people representing parole and probation agencies, most of the people representing correctional agencies, I was doing some training for the National Institute of Corrections and had a chance to talk to directors of public affairs for various states who not only do mainstream prisons, but they also do parole and probation. They’re very happy to be exploring opportunities of doing something else besides putting the person away for 20 years. They’re not saying, you know, “Let’s let’em out.” They’re not saying, “Let’s not incarcerate them.” But what they are saying is is that we certainly can really have an impact in terms of them coming back. So there’s an enthusiasm and and optimism out there nevertheless.

Nancy La Vigne: Oh, I would say so, and it’s interesting. You referenced how long I’ve been in the field. Thanks for showing off my age to your audience.

Len Sipes: I thought you were 25.

Nancy La Vigne: But you know, we’ve both been around for a while, and when you think about it, if you look back, even, you know, a decade or you know, 15 years ago, I would say the large majority of directors of departments of corrections across the country did not view it as their responsibility to do anything to prevent people from returning to their prisons.

Len Sipes: We were told, when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, we had three correctional systems, we were told our mission was to constitutionally incarcerate. The parole and probation side of it, we were told that our mission was to enforce the provisions set by the courts and to enforce the provisions set by the Parole Commission. That was it. There was no mention of recidivism, there was no mention of best practice and there was no mention of intervention. None.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, we’ve come a very long way.

Len Sipes: Where the average correctional administrator wants to do these things, for a variety of different reasons. So the whole idea is to supply programs that are meaningful and evidence based within the correctional setting and to continue that when they come out.

Nancy La Vigne: Yep.

Len Sipes: And there is evidence that shows in some cases, you get some fairly decent reductions and I’m saying again, to be on the safe side, somewhere between 10 and 20%.

Nancy La Vigne: I think that’s safe to say.

Len Sipes: I wanted to give the resource center, the address one more time. We’re halfway through the program. www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org My guest today is Nancy la Vigne. She’s the Director of the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute, www.urban.org. www.urban.org, and I do also want to talk at the same time about the Crime Solutions data base, funded by the Office of Justice Programs of the US Department of Justice. They are at crimesolutions.gov, and again, Office of Justice programs supports this particular reentry resource center endeavor as well. Where do we go to from here in terms of the research? I mean, part of it is the frustration that the research hasn’t been good enough, hasn’t been rigorous enough and so the message needs to go out to the research community to do better?

Nancy La Vigne: Absolutely. And they need to be incentivized to do better and I’m not sure how to do that, because you know, as I said earlier, you know, researchers spend a lot of time publishing to communicate with each other and not with the world outside of academia. So I think that there is a share of academics out there that really care about making a difference and that we need to get to them and explain that you know, while you’re publishing and trying to get tenure, also think about ways that you can do good work that’s of a high quality, that also is accessible.

Len Sipes: That withstands scrutiny. That, that people can depend upon.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah.

Len Sipes: But the practitioner community, unto themselves, I mean, the only thing that they want, is again, a la the Secretary of Public Safety who I used to work for, they just want it simple.

Nancy La Vigne: The bottom line, yeah.

Len Sipes: They just want the bottom line, they just want, you know, want to know the policy, they want to know the results and they wanna know what the policy states and they want to know if they can implement that policy within their jurisdictions, that’s pretty much it.

Nancy La Vigne: Right. Yeah, now let me tell you a little bit more about how the website is set up. I mean, unfortunately, this is a radio show so we can’t do a webinar and have visuals, but it’s tiered in such a way that for those very busy decision makers, it is indeed just the bottom line. But then you can click down and get more and more information.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: And so what it starts out is a description of each category of type of intervention. So under employment it might be a literacy program. Or a vocational training behind bars. And then it has a summary of the finding across all studies that address that intervention. So that’s the bottom line, right?

Len Sipes: And it’s a fairly quick description.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah. But, if you click, it unscrolls a long, detailed, not as detailed as anything you’ll see in a journal article, but detailed description of the population that participated in the program, the geographic location, the nature of the program, and all those other nuances that I think are really critical. Because you have the busy decision maker, right? And he or she just wants to know the bottom line, but ultimately, if they’re going to use that bottom line to develop or alter a program, there’s gonna be someone who is tasked with doing that, and that person is going to need to know these details so that they don’t take, God forbid, the cookie cutter approach of just saying, “Okay, so we’re gonna do vocational programming.” Without thinking through who it works best with, why it works with this population, some of the details behind the program that might have made it more likely to achieve it’s intended results –

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: Those types of details we felt, really had to be somewhere on the website and easily accessible, but the average viewer that goes there is not confronted with all that detail; they can chose to unveil it at their will.

Len Sipes: Do we have in this country any sense of training for the practitioner community that they understand everything that we, you and I just talked about? I mean, isn’t the natural inclination to say that if they did substance abuse treatment, if they did mental health treatment and if they did job placement, it worked in Milwaukee, it reduced recidivism by 17%, so it will work Baltimore, so we’re going to do the exact same thing. But it’s not the exact same thing. It all depends upon the population, it all depends upon high risk, low risk, it all depends upon what you mean by treatment.

Nancy La Vigne: Exactly.

Len Sipes: I mean, and I think a lot of people in the practitioner community don’t quite understand that it’s not a cookie cutter approach; it depends upon your particular set of circumstances.

Nancy La Vigne: Right, I think that’s right. And we try to communicate that in the website, but that’s not our primary goal. However, bear in mind, this is just one part of the larger, National Reentry Resource Center website, which does I think, a very good job at that, where they talk about best practice and you know, how to tailor a program to your local jurisdictions and needs and population so there’s a lot of complimentary guidance and information that should be used in concert with the stuff that’s on the reentry website.

Len Sipes: And nationalreentryresourcecenter.org, people should go to there and explore the entire website –

Nancy La Vigne: Absolutely.

Len Sipes: As well as crimesolutions.gov. But the, in terms of reentry specifically, pretty much everything you need to know is at the National Reentry Resource Center.

Nancy La Vigne: I would say so.

Len Sipes: I mean in terms of guidance, in terms of what to do –

Nancy La Vigne: its one stop shopping.

Len Sipes: Right, right, right, because different people come to me and they say, “Oh, my Congressman–he’s now interested in this reentry issue. Where do I go? What do I do?” And they search the internet and they come to one of my television shows or one of my radio shows and they think I know the answers and I don’t. I say, go to the National Reentry Resource Center, go to OJP, go to NIJ.

Nancy La Vigne: Right. So the Resource Center has been up and running for what – five years, four years? Something like that.

Len Sipes: About.

Nancy La Vigne: So we, you and I, used to field those inquiries all the time. I still am to some extent, but I can’t tell you how much more time I have in my life, now that people are referred to this website. It’s got an added bonus of freeing me up to do more research.

Len Sipes: You don’t have to go through the endless explanations. Before ending the show, I do want to talk about what, in your opinion, seems to be the principle findings and we haven’t really talked about that. So we know about the website, we know about the National Reentry Resource Center, we know about the Office of Justice programs, we know about how you got to where you are in terms of going from 15000 studies to 276 studies, so people are sitting back and going, “Well, shut up Leonard, and tell ‘em what works.”

Nancy La Vigne: Well, you know, we did not set out to synthesize across all of the research that we presented. We present it by topical areas so that people can look and make their own decisions about what seems to work, based on different intervention categories. But I can say that just based on the content we have up right now, which is not fully up there, we have covered just a handful of the topics, housing and employment –

Len Sipes: A work in progress.

Nancy La Vigne: And so forth. . . There are some findings that perhaps won’t surprise you at all. Chief among them is the importance of aftercare, or what’s called the continuum of care. So across all the topics that we’ve explored all ready, the ones, the programs that seem to have an impact are surprise, surprise, the ones that start in an institutional setting –

Len Sipes: Right, within prison.

Nancy La Vigne: And continue out into the community and this I’m sure is a no-brainer for many in your audience but it’s nice that sometimes research can confirm what we know to be true, so. . . that’s a big one.

Len Sipes: Well, we have a captive audience, no pun intended, so there is an opportunity for them to get their GED, there is an opportunity for them to get their welding certificate, there is an opportunity to go to, I don’t think there’s a lot of drug treatment or mental health treatment within prison systems, so the research that I’ve looked at somewhere in the ballpark of 10 to 15% but there are groups in there. So they come out, whatever they get, they come out and it’s supposed to continue seamlessly in the community.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right. We’ve also found rather mixed results on the topic of employment, even though I know in my heart that employment can work, we found it in our own research at the Urban Institute, but if you look across the studies that we felt met the threshold of rigor, we found very mixed results. Some, some work programs or employment readiness programs worked and others did not. Again, this gets back to the missing piece of data for us, which is how well were those programs implemented?

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: And we largely don’t know that. So if I were to conjecture, I’d say that the ones that worked were implemented well, and those that didn’t weren’t, or were not focused on the right population who could best benefit from. . .

Len Sipes: A good history of research in terms of substance abuse, SAMHSA, has had decades to look at what works and how it should be implemented so what do we have in terms of the correctional literature?

Nancy La Vigne: We are still in the process of coding and assessing all the substance abuse studies so. . .

Len Sipes: Ah, okay.

Nancy La Vigne: Which is actually the largest body of research of any category that we have.

Len Sipes: Right, and it’s been around for decades, but I mean, what we have now is again, promising. I mean, there does seem to be some fairly decent findings, because substance abuse research or programs do seem to be coupled with cognitive behavioral therapy and for the average person listening to this program, getting a person to rethink how they live their lives and how they make decisions, so those seem to be coupled, but most of the drug treatment that I’ve been exposed to was cookie cutter. It’s not designed for that individual; it’s designed for anybody with any drug history, with any drug of choice.

Nancy La Vigne: Yeah, there’s often a mismatch on who gets access to the substance abuse treatment behind bars and in some of our own research we found that often it’s just based on your crime of conviction. So if you’re convicted of a drug related crime, you automatically go into some kind of substance abuse treatment program you know, regardless if you’re a trafficker and you might be very successful as a trafficker because you don’t engage in any substance use at all. So, I know that departments of corrections are a lot more savvy about that now but you know, even a decade ago we saw a lot of examples of that. So. . .

Len Sipes: Mental health is an issue that’s just emerging. I saw a piece from the Bureau of Justice Statistics about five or six years ago talking about self reports and the self reports were somewhere in the 55% range of people who self reported a problem with substance, I mean, a mental health problem. I’ve seen more and more literature in terms of self reports and assessments that indicate that very large numbers of offenders have histories of substance, I’m sorry, mental health problems but treatment is far and few and in-between and it’s really tough to deal with schizophrenia within a correctional setting. It’s really tough to deal with depression within a correctional setting.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, and disentangling studies that look at certain types of mental health treatment programs that are more about counseling and you know, clinical counseling, separate and apart from medication, is very difficult. It makes it very challenging for research studies, because you can’t withhold that type of treatment so finding a good comparison group is very. . .

Len Sipes: No, you cannot do random assignment when it comes to health related issues.

Nancy La Vigne: Right, right, right.

Len Sipes: Right, right.

Nancy La Vigne: Which is why we found so many or so few examples of rigorous studies in health – just physical health. We had none to include at all which is kind of disappointing, but in part, some of those end up in a larger category of what we’re calling holistic reentry programs.

Len Sipes: Right.

Nancy La Vigne: So it’s very rare to only address physical issues in a study on reentry.

Len Sipes: And we’re talking about holistic, it seems to be for, it seems to be substance abuse, it seems to be mental health, it seems to be job related, and it seems to be cognitive behavioral therapy, which is again, how to think your way through situations. Those seem to be the four key, core areas of the research that I read.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right.

Len Sipes: And those, then the comprehensive programs are designed to deal with all four of those issues.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, and if they’re good, they’ll bring in the family component you know, that’s a favorite topic of mine.

Len Sipes: Yes it is a favorite topic and a very important topic at the same time. So in the final analysis, what we have is an understanding as to the key components. I mean, I think housing is certainly an extraordinarily important component and I read about different, you know, projects around the country that are providing housing, but in Washington DC, which is one of the United States and world’s most expensive housing markets, we’re not gonna be able to provide a lot of housing regardless to how much money we get. I mean, I would imagine a housing program in the middle of the country in a rural area, they can probably stretch their dollars, so that’s, that’s really problematic.

Nancy La Vigne: And that’s right, and really there were very few studies on housing that met our criteria and they were entirely about halfway houses, so. . .

Len Sipes: Yes, right. So in the final analysis it seems those are the four key areas and that people can now have places, a place to go to that will be populated to a much larger degree than it is now, a place to go to in terms of offender reentry and to get all those research summations in one place.

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right.

Len Sipes: And for the future, you’re going to be putting more and more and more in?

Nancy La Vigne: That’s right, right now we have housing and employment and a few other topics and then we’ll be adding substance abuse, cognitive behavioral therapy, sex offender treatment, some special populations topics, like juveniles and so forth.

Len Sipes: Nancy, I really appreciate you being here. Ladies and gentlemen, our guest today is Nancy La Vigne, Director of the Justice Policy Center for the Urban Institute – www.urban.org The National Reentry Resource Center, boy that’s a mouthful. The National Reentry Resource Center, their website, in terms of what works, is exactly that – www.nationalreentryresourcecenter.org/whatworks and don’t forget crimesolutions.gov. for all the criminal justice topics. Ladies and gentlemen, this is DC Public Safety. We really appreciate all the interaction, all the emails, all the comments, all the criticism and I want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

[Audio Ends]

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