The skeptic in me would not shut up. I sat at the news conference stirring as Prince George’s County officials and FBI officials touted a “historic reduction in crime” in the country’s wealthiest, most educated African American community.
I wondered about the two Prince George’s students killed a few months ago – Amber Stanley and Markel Ross. Had any arrests been made in their cases?
I was a police reporter in the ’90s in the District when the crack epidemic led to more than 300 murdered in a year. Personally, I had lost two childhood friends and a close cousin in that undeclared “war.” Having interviewed so many grieving family members and friends of men and women killed, and having lost three myself, 66 people dead from violence in the county this year still seemed like too many.
Elected officials and law enforcement cited the “power of unity” between county agencies, coordination between regional authorities and support from the state as the secrets of their success. They noted their anxiety in the early days of January 2011 when news headlines announced a murder – or two – a day in the county. They recalled their determination to turn the tide.
County Executive Rushern Baker III’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, an effort that increased and coordinated police protection and other government services to remedy crime, had worked, they said. This year has the lowest number of homicides since the 1980s.
But just 15 minutes before the well-planned news conference, a young man was reported fatally shot in Seat Pleasant; the 2-year-old son he was holding sustained a gunshot wound. The coincidence struck a chord. It seemed too soon to celebrate.
As the speakers spoke, I surveyed the standing-room-only audience — staff from government agencies involved, joined by community leaders — and I read the news release.
“Two-thousand-two-hundred-forty fewer victims,” the release stated. “Since 1992 the County-wide crime trend in Prince George’s County has seen significant peaks and fluctuating valleys. In 2012, the crime cliff dramatically began to spiral downward in the following areas: overall violent crime -7.6 %; overall property crime -7.1 %; overall total crime 7.1 %. Fatal motor vehicle crashes in the County are down by 29%. Fatal Pedestrian Crashes are down 14 %. Homicides are down 35.5 %. Robberies, down by 8.5%, burglaries down by 19 %, stolen cars down by 14.9 %, and non-fatal shootings down 12 %.”
The neighborhoods initiative program had targeted Langley Park, East Riverdale/Bladensburg, Palmer Park/Kentland, Suitland, Hillcrest Heights/Marlow Heights and Glassmanor/Oxon Hill; all of those neighborhoods experienced a reduction in crime.
I glanced at the poster-sized charts and pictures of Ronald Reagan and Doug Williams, placed to emphasize that crime in the county had not been this low since Reagan was president and Williams was the Redskin’s quarterback. I wondered: What if all the time and energy spent on this news conference — crunching and spinning numbers, preparing statements, sitting in this room for two hours — had gone to doing the work of solving crimes and providing the kinds of services and support that prevent the desperation and insanity that lead to crimes?
The press conference had been planned before a murder that would occur a week earlier in Lanham — not in one of the six neighborhoods targeted for crime reduction efforts. It had been planned before a mass murder at an elementary school in Connecticut would cause everyone, including Prince George’s residents, to recognize that violence still runs rampant. And no one could have predicted a murder less than an hour before the press conference. But all those factors had me wondering if this “celebration” of a reduction in crime was staged too soon.
“What this really is, is a beginning,” Baker said. “The celebration happens when the health disparities in these neighborhoods are eliminated, and job opportunities are available, and education is at its best in these six areas.” All the others who spoke said as much: This is only a beginning. They were showcasing their collective efforts and indicative early successes, they said. Police Chief Mark A. Magraw said police are making progress in the cases of both students killed, and they take all homicide cases very seriously.
By the time I left, my position had softened. But I was not completely sold. I went online to search for more proof that things were getting better. And they are: According to Maryland’s Uniform Crime Report, 122 people were killed in Prince George’s County in 2008. Sixty-six murders this year suggests that the county is making great strides. Even my inner skeptic can applaud that.
Montgomery is a columnist for The RootDC.
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