By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 1, 2007
Homicides dropped sharply in the Washington region in 2006, with the District reaching a 21-year low and Prince George's County showing a significant decrease after an alarming year of bloodshed.
The District recorded 167 killings -- a 15 percent drop from the 196 slayings in 2005. Prince George's had 134 killings last year, compared with a record 169 in 2005.
Overall, 417 homicides occurred in the Washington area last year, down by about 10 percent from 2005, when there were 462 killings. About half of the cases have been solved.
The decline comes as violence rises nationwide. Reports of homicides, assaults and other violent offenses rose by nearly 4 percent in the first six months of 2006, compared with the same period in 2005, according to a recent FBI report.
Crime analysts said the Washington area's drop most likely is tied to a variety of factors, including economic gentrification, population shifts, more effective policing strategies and the jailing of violent predators. They also warned that crime is still quite high in some parts of the region.
The national rate of killings for mid-size cities the size of Washington is about 14 per 100,000 people, according to FBI statistics. The rates of the region's urban areas are higher: 29 per 100,000 in the District and 15 per 100,000 in Prince George's.
"It's always good news when it's down," said Brian Forst, a professor of criminal justice at American University. "But down from very high does not mean low."
A Washington Post count combines preliminary statistics from municipal, state and county police departments within the boundaries of a county. The totals showed 202 homicides in eight Maryland counties, down from 217 the previous year, and 48 in five Virginia jurisdictions, down from 49 in 2005. The District had 196 homicides in 2005.
Last year marked the third consecutive year that the District has recorded fewer than 200 homicides -- a far cry from the bloodshed of the late 1980s and early 1990s, during the crack cocaine epidemic; in 1991, the city had 489 killings. The number of homicides last year is the second lowest since 1966.
"For a change, we're going against the trend in a positive way," said Charles H. Ramsey, who stepped down last week after nearly nine years as D.C. police chief.
Ramsey attributed some of the drop to better officer deployment, the meticulous tracking of crime and the department's efforts to keep closer tabs on ex-offenders.
Eric H. Holder Jr., a former U.S. attorney who became second in command at the Justice Department, said some of the community-based programs that were launched in the District in the 1990s are paying dividends.
"It's the notion that you get men involved in the lives of their kids, that you have after-school activities, that you work on the kinds of things that tend to breed crime -- poor educational systems, a lack of jobs," said Holder, now a lawyer in private practice. "You've got to be smart when you fight crime, not only tough."
Others pointed out that demographics are working in favor of cutting crime in the District and Prince George's. In the District, the number of men 18 to 24 -- the cohort responsible for a large proportion of crime -- dropped by 51 percent between 2000 and 2005, according to census data. In Prince George's, the number dropped by 3 percent in the same period, the data show.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said Ramsey's declaration of a "crime emergency" in the summer also had a significant effect. The move gave Ramsey the authority to shift officers' schedules when homicides and robberies were surging. Soon after that, the numbers went down.
The city got more than $10 million for overtime patrols, put up neighborhood surveillance cameras and installed in some areas technology that senses gunfire and sends a signal to police.
"They put a substantial amount of resources into that and turned it around," Wexler said.
He also suggested that a drop in killings in Prince George's was inevitable because the county had a record high the previous year. The 2006 numbers are closer to what the county recorded in 2003, when 128 people were slain.
"It wouldn't be fair to say that's not progress, but it was so high in 2005, it had to come down the next year," Wexler said.
Prince George's Police Chief Melvin C. High had a much different take: "We're seeing the fruits of groundwork we laid more than a year ago with a series of crime-fighting initiatives. With our decrease in crime, county residents know we're a safer community and that crime is trending counter to a nationwide surge reported by the FBI."
Those efforts included targeting high-crime areas, deploying specialized teams and making key arrests, High said.
Other categories of crime also dropped in the District and Prince George's. Robberies dropped by 5 percent, assaults were down slightly and car thefts fell by 9 percent in the District. In Prince George's, carjackings were down by about 40 percent.
More than two-thirds of the region's homicides last year took place in the District and Prince George's, reflecting longstanding patterns. Police in other jurisdictions typically spend much of their time dealing with less serious violent crimes and property offenses.
The District's totals were the lowest since 1985, when 147 homicides were recorded. About 23 of the 167 killings were drug-related, and the same number stemmed from robberies, police said. Arguments led to at least 42 homicides, and the others were tied to retaliation, domestic disputes, gang rivalries and other motivations.
The District's victims included 17-year-old Cynthia Gray, gunned down in August after sheltering her baby godson from bullets on a Southeast Washington street; Alan Senitt, 27, an aspiring politician who was fatally stabbed in July during a robbery in Georgetown; and Chris Crowder, 44, a community activist who used a wheelchair and was shot in July in a park near the Washington Convention Center.
Many of the homicides in Prince George's involved young men who were shot in communities inside the Capital Beltway. Several killings of young Latino men also occurred in the Langley Park and Hyattsville areas, and some of those are believed to have been committed by members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang, known as MS-13, police said.
In Montgomery County, 20 homicides occurred in 2006, up from 19 the previous year. Nearly half of those killings were domestic incidents, police said. Authorities there also said they are dealing with gang crime and noted that at least three of the year's slayings involved gang members.
The biggest jump in homicides in Maryland was in Anne Arundel County, with 26 killings, compared with 16 in 2005. The victims there included talent agent Richard Preston Shaw, 56, shot inside his Hanover business in July; dentist Albert Woonho Ro, 51, who died of blunt force trauma in his Glen Burnie office in September; and Jay Steven Fayne, 52, owner of a loan business, fatally shot at his Severna Park home in October. The three cases remain unsolved.
In Virginia, Prince William County reported 15 killings, up from 13 in 2005. Police there have noted an increase in street robberies against Hispanics. In September, two day laborers -- one black, one Hispanic -- were killed nine days apart. One was Gordon Harris, 49, who had been a day laborer for two decades; the other was Serafin Alvarez Negrete, 32, who had come from Mexico a year earlier.
Loudoun and Arlington counties remained about steady with four homicides each, and Alexandria had five. Alexandria's cases included the February shooting of Aaron Brown, 18, by an off-duty city police officer outside a pancake house. Prosecutors determined that the officer acted in self-defense when he fired six shots at a moving Jeep, one of which struck Brown, a first-year student at Northern Virginia Community College.
Slayings in Fairfax County dipped from 23 to 20. But Fairfax had one of the region's most shocking crimes: In May, two police officers were shot to death in the line of duty, a first for the county. Detective Vicky O. Armel and Officer Michael E. Garbarino were slain outside the Sully District station by Michael W. Kennedy. Kennedy, 18, was then killed by other officers.
Still, with a population of more than 1 million, Fairfax maintained one of the lowest homicide rates in the country among large jurisdictions -- two per 100,000 residents.
Staff writers Ruben Castaneda, Tom Jackman, Jennifer Lenhart, Ernesto Londoño, Raymond McCaffrey, Dan Morse, Amit R. Paley, Candace Rondeaux, Jamie Stockwell and Theresa Vargas and staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.