D.C. police launch summer anti-crime initiative in four neighborhoods

June 8, 2013

At first glance, Northeast Washington’s Edgewood neighborhood doesn’t seem an ideal spot for police to launch an initiative designed to reduce crime during the summer.

On Saturday, three relatively new residents minding the community vegetable garden were tending to the tomato vines smothering the fresh basil. And 82-year-old Clarice Smith, who has lived in the same house for a half-century, was shooing away squirrels, not drug dealers, although she recalled a time not too long ago when prostitutes turned tricks on her sidewalk.

But a series of recent burglaries in which armed men confronted homeowners, and a fatal shooting in March, has put violence on the front page of the community newsletter — “Life on the Edgewood” — and made it one of four District neighborhoods chosen by Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier for more patrols targeting chronic offenders that will last through August.

Lanier has ordered summer anti-crime initiatives since she was appointed in 2007 — stepped-up enforcement in areas with highest density of homicides, shootings, robberies and carjackings. Enforcement includes violent-crime detectives grilling every person arrested on every crime, no matter how petty.

Assistant Police Chief Peter Newsham said that even low-level criminals are plugged into the criminal underworld and can offer valuable insight into bigger crimes. Newsham said the number of patrol officers will not increase in the neighborhoods, but detectives assigned to vice, drug and gun units will be a constant presence.

“We’re going to spread the word that if you’re in one of these areas and you’re standing on a street corner and get arrested today, and you go back there, you’re going to get locked up again tomorrow,” Newsham said. The summer initiative will also target the Kenilworth and Trinidad neighborhoods, both in Northeast, and Shipley Terrace in Southeast.

Crime rates in the District are about the same this year as last year, going up or down a few percentage points every week or so. As of Wednesday, the latest numbers available, violent crime across the city had dipped a single percentage point compared to the same period last year. Homicides are down 22 percent — there were 29 compared to 37 last year — while unarmed robberies and theft are slightly up. Gun robberies are down to 583 from 597.

A crime analysis of last year’s summer initiative in five communities found that homicide dropped 71 percent in the targeted areas and burglaries dropped 14 percent. Still, crime today is nothing like what was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the District was in the throes of a crack cocaine-fueled homicide epidemic.

“It was terrible,” said Smith’s Edgewood neighbor, Blanche Thomas. “Kids were standing right out front twirling drugs in the middle of the street. Girls looking for drugs were doing their tricks. Now, it’s so much better.”

Thomas, 64, said that residents banded together, overcame their fear, called police and named names. “It wasn’t easy, but we did it,” she said of the community, which is adjacent to Bloomingdale on the other side of North Capitol Street. “Now we have to hold it.”

Smith paid $15,000 for her two-story rowhouse 53 years ago, and three generations have called it home. On Saturday, she pointed to a house across the street, not much different than hers, on the market for more than $400,000. “The Realtor told me there were 30 people lined up before the open house,” Smith said. The average price of a home in the neighborhood is about $220,000.

The women of the garden club — Heather Deutsch, Sally Hobaugh and Monique Sullivan, ranging in age from 31 to 40 — are all transplants who moved to Edgewood within the past six years. Sullivan came with her husband from Minneapolis and fell in love with the community because it was close to the District’s attractions.

“We couldn’t believe that Edgewood wasn’t a more competitive place to get into,” Sullivan said. “It’s right in the middle of the city.”

Sitting at a picnic table under threatening rain clouds, waiting for other gardeners to show up in the park, the women all said they felt safe, though one said her house had been broken into twice. The absence of nearby restaurants and a grocery store with fresh produce prompted the garden. Residents are encouraged to pick vegetables and fruit in return for pulling a weed or two, if they’re not helping plant and water.

It’s a way of drawing together the old-timers and newcomers and creating a feeling of closeness they’re confident will repel criminals.

“I feel very safe,” said Sullivan, noting that she takes evening strolls alone.

Deutsch added: “We live in a nice neighborhood, we all know our neighbors. . . . If more officers want to come, we welcome them.”

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