By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
The night Leonard Webster, 33, was killed on a Prince George's County bike path just before midnight last week, he became part of a growing crime trend in the county: young black men slain by gunfire after dark. His mother said he was on his way to pick up dinner for his family.
Webster's case, like more than half of the 66 killings in the county this year, has not been solved. No witnesses have come forward, and police say they have no leads.
While the cases might seem similar at first glance, they do not follow a particular pattern, frustrating homicide detectives who struggle to solve them and police officials trying to deal with the county's surging violence. So far this year, a person has been killed in Prince George's almost every other day, on average. The number of homicides has surpassed that in the District, 61.
In Prince George's, detectives say the killings are not caused by widespread gang wars or cohesive networks of drug syndicates. The killings tend to involve people who, when faced with confrontation, shoot each other out of anger, impulse and sometimes bravado, the investigators say.
"If you sit back and you look at what's going on, you'll find our homicides have increased at an alarming rate, but when you look at the overall factors, it makes sense. Crime from the District is moving into the county, and we are so short on manpower, we don't provide a visible presence in the community," said Detective Vince Canales, who has been on the homicide squad for eight years and is a police union vice president.
Compared with this time last year, homicides are up about 57 percent, carjackings are up 42 percent, rapes have increased 25 percent and robberies have more than doubled, according to police statistics. Police Chief Melvin C. High announced a summer task force last week in anticipation of a seasonal spike in crime in the warm weather.
Of the 66 people killed this year, 50 were black men, six were black women, five were white men, two were white women, two were Hispanic men and one was a Hispanic woman. The county is 62 percent black.
Prince George's is 500 square miles, most of which is typically suburban, with some rural parts. It has office buildings, plenty of retail, a strong housing stock, Andrews Air Force Base and the University of Maryland. Along the border with the District, Prince George's is more urban and is facing the problems of an inner city, including black-on-black crime.
"It is very disturbing, and we know that it seems to be repeating itself continuously," said June White Dillard, president of the NAACP branch in Prince George's County.
Dillard said the seeds of discontent often grow in black children at a young age.
"We just don't want to believe how much racism there is still in our country on a day-to-day basis. If you open your eyes, black male children are being treated differently because they are black, and that creates a reaction in them," Dillard said. "Instead of trying to overcome that, they act out.''
Police officials point to various reasons for the increase in homicide numbers. As the city becomes more gentrified, some people are moving to Prince George's to find more affordable housing. And as D.C. police have cracked down on crime, some criminals also are crossing the border.
"We have a housing stock that lends itself to kinds of people who tend to break the law," said Barbara Hamm, spokeswoman for Prince George's police.
The most crime-plagued area of the county is inside the Capital Beltway, just over the District line.
Hamm and others also noted the slow rise of gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha, a Hispanic street gang that is big on the West Coast and is making its way east, including gaining a foothold in Northern Virginia. In addition, they cited a pervasive culture in some neighborhoods in which people are willing to kill or die for respect.
"You have a society where a fair fistfight no longer exists," said Canales, the homicide detective. "If a situation arises on the street, these guys know the person they're arguing with could be armed. It makes them cockier to know they have a gun, and once you pull it, you are almost obligated to use it. You don't want to be known as a punk."
Police say they do not have enough officers on the street to catch the criminals when people are engaged in lower-level violent crimes, such as robbery, drug dealing and carjacking. So the criminals begin to feel empowered, and ultimately they don't fear consequences for committing an act as grievous as murder, Canales said.
And some of them are right. About 60 percent of this year's killings are unsolved.
County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) has proposed hiring more police officers, but some criminologists say the violence problem will not be solved unless the county begins to think of itself as an urban area and creates a policing strategy similar to those in inner cities.
Ralph Taylor, a criminology professor at Temple University, said that means beefing up the department, stepping up patrols in hot crime spots and shutting down problematic liquor stores and nightclubs.
"Inner-ring suburbs are becoming like the inner city," Taylor said. "The older 'burbs are declining in housing values, declining in status. No wonder they're becoming problems."
Even if the Prince George's department reaches its allowable 1,420-member force, it would have about 1.67 officers per 1,000 residents, below the national average of 2.6 for metropolitan counties, according to FBI statistics. In the District, which has about 270,000 fewer residents than Prince George's, the police department has 3,800 officers.
But apart from policing strategies, Dillard said Prince George's has to tackle its crime problem starting in homes and schools.
"We have to deal with the frustration level," she said. "We have to reach these young people so they want to be productive members of our community."