Outrage Speeded Probe of Killing
Chelsea's Death Galvanized Police
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page C01
The killing of 8-year-old Chelsea Cromartie generated a powerful response from the D.C. police. While homicide investigators worked the streets, teams of officers passed out fliers and set up roadblocks in an exhaustive search for witnesses. Top officials appealed for help and boosted a reward for clues.
Aided by a tip, police identified two suspects within a week of the Northeast Washington shooting. The police work drew praise from neighborhood leaders and fulfilled a promise made by top officials that they would catch whoever fired the bullets that missed their targets and flew into the home that Chelsea was visiting May 3.
Not every homicide in the District commands so much attention. In a city that is struggling with one of the nation's highest homicide rates, police must make difficult decisions about how to deploy resources. Witnesses frequently are difficult to locate and, even when found, sometimes refuse to give information. This year, police say, the homicide clearance rate is less than 60 percent.
Commanders and former top officers said they must assess a variety of factors after each killing -- from the type of crime and the victim's history to how readily witnesses will help them. Although police insist that they investigate each homicide thoroughly, they said they often feel like battlefield surgeons performing triage.
The choices inevitably add to the grief of family members of victims whose crimes go unsolved.
Some D.C. Council members and victims' rights advocates said the department should use Chelsea's case as a model for future investigations by adding homicide detectives and offering bigger rewards. It is not fair, they said, that some slayings get more attention than others.
"Should one murder be more important than another murder?" asked Kenneth E. Barnes Sr., whose son was slain in September 2001. "I don't think so."
Barnes's son, Kenneth Barnes Jr., 37, was a well-known shop owner on U Street NW who was killed during an apparent robbery attempt. The killer was sentenced to prison in that case. Barnes has since attempted to aid the families of other victims by creating a nonprofit group called Reaching Out to Victims Together.
Kami Emanuel's fiance, Derrick Taylor, was killed about 6:45 a.m. May 9 in Northeast Washington. She said detectives appear to be working hard but wondered why they have not raised the reward, now up to $25,000, in the case.
"A murder is a murder," said Emanuel, 27.
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the department takes every killing seriously. He said he did not hesitate to focus so heavily on Chelsea's case. The third-grader was shot in the head while watching television in her aunt's home, and her aunt was wounded by another of the stray shots that came through the living room window.
The community was outraged, Ramsey noted, with scores of people attending a candlelight vigil and dozens calling police with tips. The killing became the lead story on local television broadcasts and was front-page news. Ramsey said police believed that they had a solid chance at solving the case if they acted aggressively, and they did not want to let any leads slip past them.
"It was hot," Ramsey said. "Not every case generates that kind of interest."
The nature of the crime and Chelsea's age attracted community attention and sympathy that helped fuel the urgency to solve the case. Detectives and other officers also could imagine their own daughter dying in such a senseless way, police officials said.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Police Say Shooting at NE Home Where Girl Died Wasn't by Chance (The Washington Post, May 16, 2004)
2 Brothers Were Shooting At Teens, Prosecutors Say (The Washington Post, May 12, 2004)
NE Man Charged in 8-Year-Old's Death (The Washington Post, May 11, 2004)
Tears for Another Slain Child (The Washington Post, May 9, 2004)
Slain Girl's Aunt Says She Can't Bear to Return Home (The Washington Post, May 7, 2004)
At Chelsea's School, a Most Painful Lesson (The Washington Post, May 6, 2004)
Reward Doubled in Search for Killer (The Washington Post, May 6, 2004)
The District's Young Victims (The Washington Post, May 5, 2004)
A Surge in Killings of Children (The Washington Post, May 5, 2004)
Stray Shot Kills Girl at Aunt's NE Home (The Washington Post, May 4, 2004)
_____Editorials & Opinion_____
A Child's Wounds From Stray Gunfire Outlast Our Outrage (The Washington Post, May 10, 2004)
The Bad, the Ugly and the Good (The Washington Post, May 8, 2004)
Audio: Colbert I. King
'An Amazing Girl' (The Washington Post, May 8, 2004)
Our Sickness Is Killing Our Children (The Washington Post, May 5, 2004)