Killings In D.C. Up After Long Dip

Outreach worker Trayon White, left, with James Wood, 16, whom he mentors, knew five of last year's slaying victims. "You get numb to it," White says.
Outreach worker Trayon White, left, with James Wood, 16, whom he mentors, knew five of last year's slaying victims. "You get numb to it," White says. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Gun violence rose sharply in the District in 2007, with the number of homicides jumping 7 percent after several years of decline.

The city had recorded 181 killings as of late yesterday, an increase that police officials attributed in part to escalating violence in the drug trade and fighting among neighborhood gangs. Nonfatal shootings and other gun crimes were also up, preliminary police data show.

In the Washington region, only Prince George's County came close to the District in the number of homicides, recording 144 killings last year, up from 136 the year before. At one point, the county sought help from federal and state law enforcement officials to deal with a spike in homicides. But the overall number of homicides in the region remained steady from 2006, as increases in the District and Prince George's were offset by a substantial decline in Northern Virginia.

The increase in gun violence in the District comes as the city is waging a U.S. Supreme Court fight to preserve its 30-year-old gun law, one of the strictest in the nation. Critics have said the law violates Second Amendment rights and has been proved ineffective, as evidenced by the large number of guns that wind up on city streets. D.C. officials argue that matters would be even worse without the law.

Hoping to prevent more bloodshed, D.C. police are focusing on crime hot spots, putting more officers on street duty and upgrading technology. Officers recovered more than 2,900 guns in 2007, about 250 more than the previous year, and rejuvenated a unit designed to get firearms off the streets and determine how they are getting into the city.

The number of killings in the city had been declining since 2002, and D.C. officials said the increase should be put in perspective. This marked the fourth consecutive year of fewer than 200 homicides. In 2006, the city recorded 169 homicides, a 21-year low. The totals in recent years are a far cry from the crack cocaine-related violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when more than 400 people were slain annually.

Washington's homicide rate -- about 30 per 100,000 people -- remains higher than those of New York, Chicago and Philadelphia. But it is below the rates in Baltimore and Detroit.

Neighborhood organizers are concerned that the city could be on the threshold of another violent era. Trayon White, a community activist, said he knew five of the year's homicide victims, including a former classmate, Tiara Merriweather, who was gunned down as she played cards on a summer night not far from White's house.

Merriweather, 24, a mother of two, was killed June 30 in the 3500 block of Stanton Road SE -- an innocent casualty of a drive-by shooting. She was among the 60 people slain in the city's 7th Police District, up from 44 in 2006.

"Living in the streets, you get numb to it and learn to cope with it," said White, an outreach worker for East of the River Clergy-Police-Community Partnership, a grass-roots group. "It's hard for me to cry when I go to funerals anymore."

The 7th District -- which includes the Barry Farm, Congress Park and Congress Heights neighborhoods -- has about 11 percent of the city's population but accounted for 33 percent of the homicides in 2007. An additional 239 people were shot or victimized by gun violence there.

White, 23, said he couldn't say how many friends were robbed in 2007: "I can't count that high."

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