Correction to This Article
The July 12 Courtland Milloy column and a July 13 correction overstated how many juvenile repeat offenders had been charged with armed robbery in the District from January to July this year. According to D.C. police, 142 juvenile repeat offenders had been charged with robbery as of July 8. No separate figures for armed robbery were available.

Violent Robberies Make It Hard to Ignore D.C.'s Vicious Side

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, July 12, 2006

You're leaving a restaurant in Adams Morgan or withdrawing cash from an ATM on H Street NE. You're sightseeing on the Mall with your girlfriend or standing in your driveway in Georgetown. You might even be in a wheelchair. Suddenly, the gates of hell open, and some punk puts a gun in your face or a knife to your throat. You're being robbed -- and if all you lose is money, you can thank your lucky stars.

A new crime trend is unfolding in the District -- and some suburbs, too: an increase in armed robberies committed by thugs whose motivation appears to be less about getting money than inflicting pain. For even if you comply with demands to hand over your belongings, you are still likely to be assaulted, raped, kidnapped or killed. Much of this crime is being committed by adolescents.

"So far this year, we've had a 95 percent increase in juveniles arrested for robberies, and it's not uncommon to have physical assaults in the process," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey told me. "Young black males, in groups of five to six, ages 13 to 15, are displaying handguns and beating their victims."

Accompanying the increase in juvenile arrests for armed robbery has been an increase in juveniles arrested for carrying handguns -- a combination that Ramsey finds particularly disturbing. "We're dealing with adolescents who have no remorse, no regrets," he said. And they are well armed.

Violent robberies are certainly nothing new in the Washington area. In some low-income neighborhoods, winter months bring a predictable rise in homicides associated with robberies of name-brand coats. To a certain extent, however, these black-on-black crimes seem to be of interest only to the victims, their families and closest friends. Any attention from city officials or the media tends to be superficial and short-lived.

Not so this time. The latest trend in armed robberies includes the most volatile mix in the annals of American crime: black-on-white violence. The sense of security among the affluent and influential has been shaken.

They were supposed to be safe. Gentrification demolished the largest public housing complexes and got rid of the most troublesome tenants. The new D.C. featured an "entertainment core" to die for -- a refurbished downtown that sparkled with upscale restaurants, fancy boutiques and swank nightclubs. Crime dropped, and everybody who had stayed away because of fear was being lured back by Mayor Anthony A. Williams, whose greatest claim to fame was that he was not Marion Barry.

But the all-clear sign from city hall is turning out to be premature. Even the Mall, for years all but exempt from crime, has been the scene of a brutal rape and robbery.

The District has the largest disparity between rich and poor of any city in the country; the well-to-do may be enjoying their wealth too much to really notice. But the geographic distance between the two groups could hardly be smaller, and now there's apparently more resentment to go with the proximity.

"We've got a lot of new people who are not accustomed to living in an urban environment," Ramsey said. "They'll park blocks away from a restaurant or a nightclub, then come out in the early morning hours, cut through side streets and become easy prey."

Of course, this is not to suggest that the victims were somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not the victims' fault. Elderly black women have been mugged, had their purses snatched and identities stolen -- to say nothing of their dignity -- and all they were doing was heading home from a hard night's work at a hospital or office building.

Here's part of the problem: Juveniles, many of whom have been robbed themselves -- ripped off by parents and schools and communities that couldn't care less about them -- have become hardened and increasingly violent.

According to D.C. police, 420 juveniles taken into custody on armed-robbery charges in the city this year had been arrested before. Including the robbery case, 144 of them have been arrested twice; 102, three times; 74, four times; 44, five times; 29, six times; 10, seven times; five, eight times; five, nine times; three, 10 times; one, 11 times; one, 12 times; and two, 14 times.

"You do a robbery and get caught for the fifth time, and they send you to Oak Hill," Ramsey said, referring to the city's juvenile detention facility in Laurel, "and you stay for three months.

"Then you get released to a group home, and nobody tells us that you've been released because juvenile court proceedings are secret. We know nothing about your release until you get arrested for the sixth time. To most of them, it's just a joke."

Last fall, Ramsey began deploying more police officers to neighborhoods experiencing a surge in armed robberies. He also increased the reward for information leading to the arrests of armed robbers from $5,000 to $10,000.

But it's unlikely that money and police alone will solve the problem. The city is being terrorized -- and, as residents of many low-income neighborhoods will tell you, it's been that way for years. When discussing terrorism abroad, we talk about giving would-be terrorists a better choice -- of giving them hope of a better life and providing them with the tools to help them realize the fruits of freedom and democracy.

Now that the homegrown terrorists have our attention, maybe it would be a good time to show how that's done -- in the nation's capital.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company