Crime Measures Derided as Too Little, Too Late
Race, Class Tensions Simmer as D.C. Residents Question Timing of Crackdown, Effectiveness of Tactics

By Robert E. Pierre and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 31, 2006; B01

The teenagers, both shot several times, had been dumped on Suitland Parkway in Southeast Washington for all to see.

They were the city's 11th and 12th young homicide victims in 13 days -- alarming statistics that one grass-roots group said amounted to a crime emergency. Few took notice.

This was in October. Nine months later, after 14 killings in two weeks, including the deaths of a fledgling candidate for mayor near downtown and a British activist in Georgetown, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declared a highly publicized crime emergency.

"Nobody was listening to us back then, and we saw what was happening," said Tyrone C. Parker, executive director of the Alliance of Concerned Men, a nonprofit group that counsels ex-offenders and troubled youths and that issued last fall's urgent call for help.

Public perception, it seems, has caught up with Parker and others who work with young people at detention centers and curfew halls and on the streets. As part of the announced emergency, $8 million has been set aside for police overtime. Surveillance cameras will soon be installed in neighborhoods, and teenagers 16 and younger will have less time to hang out at night because of a 10 p.m. curfew, which begins tonight.

Instead of galvanizing residents, however, the measures have exacerbated race and class rifts. Youth advocates argue that juvenile responsibility for crime has been exaggerated because adults account for 82 percent of violent crime and more than 90 percent of arrests. Many dismiss the emergency efforts as bluster that will have little impact.

"We've sort of scared people to death, and we're not able to make effective policy," said Jason Ziedenberg, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, which works on issues of crime and alternatives to incarceration.

Washington, like many jurisdictions, has long turned to curfews, community policing and additional officers to counter crime spikes. Ramsey acknowledges that policing alone is not enough.

"I don't think it's an either-or proposition," he said. "There's a front-end issue to help kids succeed, like health care, child care, literacy, recreation. . . . As police, we're sort of the last thing there when all these other measures have failed."

The percentage of juveniles arrested this year is not dramatically higher than last year. In 2005, 6 percent of those arrested were juveniles. This year, it is 8 percent. Ramsey doesn't hesitate to shine a bright light on the change of two percentage points.

"Any increase in juvenile crime, I think it is something you have to take a serious look at," he said. "You don't want 15- and 16-year-olds to get a criminal start in life. When more kids are getting arrested, it's a societal problem."

Community groups maintain that the best deterrent is keeping children busy, working or at school, and mentoring them to suppress the pull of the streets. When the current crisis was declared, those groups were quick to point to ideas that have been waiting months or even years for someone to take notice.

The D.C. Black Church Initiative is pushing a plan to spend $15 million to $20 million a year putting as many as 75 outreach workers on the streets and starting conflict resolution centers.

"Curfews don't work," said the Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the umbrella group of 800 African American and Latino faith organizations. "The city has a piecemeal approach that has not worked. What does is mentoring."

Last year, the Alliance of Concerned Men asked city leaders for about $1 million to create a mobile crisis intervention unit, an emergency hotline and an intensive program for at-risk kids. The city gave the group about $100,000 for an outreach and mentoring program for teenagers and young adults, some of whom have been in trouble for stealing cars, getting high, shoplifting or committing robbery.

There is a consistent theme to what the youths say: Boredom sends them astray.

Dale Johnson, 17, said that's why he started stealing cars, about 50 in the past three years. He has been arrested and released numerous times for unauthorized use of a vehicle.

"There was nothing for me to do," said Johnson, who lives in Southeast and is visited three times a day by a counselor. His last arrest was five months ago.

In Northwest, near Adams Morgan, a 14-year-old picked up by police at a convenience store last week offered the same explanation. He said he attends private school. His mother watches him all day and works odd hours. When officers grabbed him, he was drinking a Red Bull. It was 1 a.m.

"I had to get out of the house," he said, twirling his hair while waiting in the curfew processing center inside the 3rd District police station.

Sgt. T.D. Best, an 18-year D.C. police veteran, said he encounters similar youths every day as he patrols his beat in historic Anacostia. With minimal adult supervision, many youths turn to stealing cars and joy riding because it's "the social thing to do," Best said.

He doubts an earlier curfew will do much good and wishes the city would instead improve schools and press businesses to fund more jobs for youths. The D.C. Council, as part of emergency legislation, authorized $1.25 million for youth sports, $400,000 for extended library hours and $200,000 for gang/crew mediation.

"The curfew gives us another tool," Best said. "But most of the kids are hanging out in front of their homes. You can't tell them to go home because they're already home. They don't go inside because it's hot and many apartments don't have air conditioning.

"Until we deal with the social and economic issues, we're always going to have these problems."

Shanda Smith has lost two children to these problems. In 1993, her 19-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter were gunned down as they drove to a church Christmas party in Southeast. Police blamed it on mistaken identity.

Smith, whose two surviving sons are teenagers, welcomes the current attention to crime in the city but shares a widespread belief that it may be a fleeting reaction to the killing of Alan Senitt, a 27-year-old British citizen. He was white; the other 13 homicide victims preceding him this month were black.

"There should have been a crime emergency a long time ago," said Smith, a member of Moms Inc. (Mothers on the Move Spiritually), which attempts to strengthen families.

City leaders say they understand the frustrations and are trying to address them.

Brenda Donald Walker, deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders, said the city spends $2.2 billion annually on children's welfare -- an amount that includes $1.2 billion for public education.

The city hires more than 10,000 youths and young adults, ages 14 to 21, for six-week summer jobs as clerks and lifeguards, park workers and camp counselors. It sponsors a year-round jobs program for 400 young people and a series of day camps.

In a movement toward partnerships with community groups, the city joined with the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative to address gang violence and prevent children from ending up in foster care. It was so successful, Walker said, that similar efforts have been launched in Wards 7 and 8 to reduce violence and the retaliation that often ensues.

Walker said the city needs to do more and welcomes ideas.

"We get proposals saying, 'Just give me the money, I have the magic formula,' " she said. "But no one has the magic formula to solve these problems."

In the meantime, Walker said, leaders must respond to fears, both real and perceived. Overall crime has declined since 2000, with sexual assault, homicide and assault with a deadly weapon reaching a five-year low last year.

But since January, violent crime in the District is up nearly 7 percent, fueled largely by a surge in robberies.

Residents increasingly consider crime and violence "the biggest problem facing the District." That rate rose from 19 percent in 2000 to 22 percent in 2002 to 38 percent this month, according to a Washington Post poll taken just after the crime emergency was declared.

"When you have high crime rates and fear of crime, people want the government to make the streets safe," Walker said. "They want things that they can see."

Some neighborhoods have been living an emergency for years and still await relief.

At a recent community meeting at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast, image after image of black boys and young men were shown, first vibrantly alive, then lying in coffins. All had been shot to death. A nonprofit group called No Murders DC, whose goal is to end homicide in the District, has shown the homemade film throughout the city.

Several dozen people sat in the audience when someone asked for a show of hands from those who knew a murder victim. All but a few hands rose.

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