By Allison Klein and Dan Keating
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 13, 2006
Some of Washington's most vibrant neighborhoods, destinations for suburbanites, barhoppers and urban professionals, share a lesser-known distinction: They have the highest concentrations of holdups in the city.
Criminals are striking in areas that boast of dynamic nightlife, newly minted condominiums and restaurant grand openings.
The Washington Post analyzed years of police statistics, focusing sharply on crimes this year, and found the biggest share of robberies happening at night and on sidewalks in neighborhoods north of downtown, including Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor.
Across the city, an average of 11 robberies take place each day, the analysis shows. But on Friday and Saturday nights, the city can register as many as five an hour.
Guns are involved in at least one-third of the cases. About the same percentage end with victims being beaten or slammed to the ground -- even knocked unconscious, in some cases. The other robberies can be just as chilling, involving such weapons as knives as well as sudden grabs of purses, backpacks and money.
The statistical analysis encompassed thousands of cases, including about 2,900 this year alone. The Post also examined hundreds of robbery reports and interviewed victims, police, residents and community activists.
Police said that at least 14 homicides this year stemmed from robberies, including the slaying of a British activist in Georgetown. The number of robberies jumped last year and was rising again this summer when D.C. police stepped up patrols and began putting surveillance cameras in neighborhoods. It has tapered off since the city spent about $10 million on overtime for extra police coverage. But overtime funds are running dry, raising concerns that more trouble is ahead.
Robberies have spiked in recent years in the Washington region and many other parts of the country, as the number of juvenile offenders and the availability of guns grows, police officials said. Robberies also are becoming the crime of choice for some former drug dealers, who have switched to stickups after police crackdowns on narcotics trafficking, the officials said.
Police in Alexandria and Fairfax and Montgomery counties also are dealing with more robbery cases. In Prince George's County, the total rose sharply last year but has dipped this year.
There are more robberies per capita in the District than in New York, Los Angeles and other large cities. And robbers are traveling farther from home to strike, according to police officials. During the first six months of the year, about 40 percent of juveniles arrested in robberies and other crimes in neighborhoods just north of downtown did not live there, police said.
The city's robbery core is in the 3rd Police District, which includes the neighborhoods of Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Dupont Circle and Logan Circle. It is the city's smallest, densest police district and accounts for almost 30 percent of robberies.
"It's always been a major problem," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), whose constituents complain daily about the crimes. "But it wasn't anywhere near as serious as it is today."
Yasmin Wei, 19, can attest to that. One night recently, a man knocked her to the ground as she was returning to her Columbia Heights apartment after an art class. He slammed his foot sharply into her ribs and yanked fiercely at her bag, dragging her along the sidewalk. Finally, he jerked the bag free and ran off. Wei had a deep gash on her elbow and a bruise the size of a grapefruit on her hip.
"It was right under a streetlight," said Wei, who works as a waitress in Adams Morgan. "And it was only 9:30."
Wei said the attack was so terrifying that she no longer feels comfortable in the neighborhood and has moved in with her parents. "I don't even want to bike there after 8 p.m.," she said.
Robbers choose streets where people are likely to have cash, bank cards and cellphones. They prey on those who appear isolated, and the less lighting, the better. Dozens of police reports describe how robbers sneak up, grab a purse or bag, and flee -- the snatch-and-run. Other victims tell of robbers approaching them at gunpoint with such lines as "Give it up" and "You know what time it is."
A 19-year-old food vendor, held up while walking home from RFK Stadium, remembers exactly what the gunman told him: "I don't want no drama." The robber ran off with the man's wallet, containing two $20 bills.Resistance Is Risky
Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said he worries about the potential for lethal violence. "It can quickly escalate to a shooting or homicide if the victim resists or if the robber is jumpy," he said.
The chief declared a crime emergency in July, and since then, the number of robberies has tapered off and is running about the same as last year. Preliminary statistics show that there were 2,898 robberies in the city as of Sept. 30.
The situation is worse than it was two years ago but much better than in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the city was averaging almost 20 robberies a day. That's little comfort to residents. As Ramsey put it, "Robbery is a good indicator of violence on our neighborhood streets," and it "provokes a great deal of fear."
Said council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who likely will succeed Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) next year: "Nothing is of greater concern to residents, and nothing makes them think twice about living in their neighborhoods more than if they don't feel safe walking around."
Police warn that trying to resist a robber is risky -- as one victim recently learned. He was stopped in the 1400 block of Morris Road SE by a robber who jabbed a gun into his side. The gun went off after the victim slapped the robber's hand. The victim, 20, was shot in the thigh.
Drugs and robberies are intertwined. Last week, Ramise Cannon was sentenced to a six-year prison term after pleading guilty to committing robberies at an ATM in Southwest Washington and on a busy street in Southeast, crimes that netted him a total of $110. Cannon, 18, told the judge that he needed help for a drug problem -- a common refrain heard at sentencing time. "I'm sorry to the victims. I know what I did was wrong," Cannon said. "I hope they have space in their hearts to forgive me."
Investigators find that robbers will go out on the streets, sometimes in groups of two or three, and rob several people in one night or on consecutive nights in the same area. The more they do, the bolder they get. They spend victims' cash quickly, run up their charge cards and use their cellphones.
More than one-third of robbery suspects arrested this year were juveniles, a pattern that Ramsey finds especially troubling. At this point last year, police had arrested 129 juveniles in robberies; this year, they've arrested 197 -- a 53 percent jump. Ramsey said the younger offenders are more apt to travel in packs and tend to get jumpy if victims resist.
Two of the five people who recently pleaded guilty to robbing tourists on the Mall were juveniles. Police said the group was bored until one suggested mugging victims there, a place long viewed as safe by residents and visitors.
The crimes on the Mall, which happened in May and July, generated a swift police response that led to the arrests. In other areas of the city, particularly the hard-hit 3rd District, D.C. police have made more than 50 arrests in robbery cases since July.
Solving robberies is not easy. Police have closed about 17 percent of their cases this year, near the national average for cities of the District's size.
Robberies happen so fast that many victims cannot identify their assailants. "Try to focus on what he looks like," Ramsey said. "Don't focus on the clothing."
That was the mistake made by a 73-year-old woman July 4 in Southeast Washington. That afternoon, she was sitting on the porch of a house in the 700 block of 51st Street near Benning Road, reading a book, when a youth walked up, his underwear peeking out from oversize pants.
"You got the time?" he asked her. She said she didn't.
The youth grabbed her purse and ran. She'd have a hard time recognizing his face, she said, adding that she "could identify the guy's lower half better than the upper half because of his drawers showing."A Variety of Victims
Based on volume, the top location for the city's robbers is near 14th Street and Columbia Road NW, in the heart of Columbia Heights. The place jumps with activity, and luxury condos and new stores are on the way. The buzz makes it seem like a safe, lively place. But robbers pop up in the area regularly -- there is an average of five holdups a week. It comes in spurts. A few days might go by without anyone getting mugged; then two, three or four people will be held up in a single night.
Cmdr. Larry McCoy, who heads the 3rd Police District, said the victims span the economic and professional spectrum: "I've seen them all -- waitresses, lawyers, construction workers, people who work on the Hill."
Doug Bryant, 35, a technical recruiter, and his wife moved to Columbia Heights almost three years ago because it was vibrant and diverse. But after being around so much crime -- and getting attacked on the street by a young man last year -- they plan to move. "I don't like walking around here at night," he said. "And I don't mean midnight. I'm talking after 8."
In June, a construction worker walking home in Columbia Heights with $75 worth of groceries was held up by a group of juveniles. It was the third time he'd been robbed in that area.
The number of robberies there might be even higher than police statistics indicate. Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights have a heavy number of Hispanic immigrants, and some are hesitant to report crimes.
Mariela Demetrik, 21, whose mother has a restaurant in Columbia Heights, said she has seen several robberies around Mount Pleasant and Columbia Heights.
"You'll see older Hispanic men being robbed by younger boys," said Demetrik, an art student who was born in Bolivia and raised in Washington. "You see other people get robbed, also, mostly at nighttime or early in the morning."Looking Farther Out
Some pockets east of the Anacostia River -- Fairlawn, Barry Farm, Congress Heights, Benning Terrace -- also have high robbery numbers. But they have been falling, and homicides remain the biggest problem. Neighborhoods east of the river account for 52 percent of the city's killings and 24 percent of robberies.
The 1st Police District, which includes Capitol Hill and RFK Stadium, has the second-highest percentage of muggings in the city. Its commander, Diane Groomes, said criminals are turning to robbery as open-air drug markets are shut down by police or by development.
This year, officers in her district dealt with a string of about 20 robberies called "unking" -- slang for knocking victims unconscious. Police arrested 12 juveniles.
Philip Valenziano, 21, was knocked out at 3:10 a.m. July 2, when he was leaving a Capitol Hill bar to grab a cab. He remembers three big men approaching him. Before he could get a good look at them, one of them punched him in the face.
The robbers took his wallet, which contained $27. The assault left Valenziano with a cut on his face and a broken nose. A student at Catholic University, he missed weeks of summer classes because he needed to go home to New Jersey for reconstructive surgery.
"I don't recall them giving me an opportunity to give up my stuff," Valenziano said. "I'm not dumb enough to fight back against three big dudes."