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."
Thanks to a technology known as ShotSpotter, police have a better handle on how much gunfire is taking place in the 7th District -- and the totals suggest that the death toll could have been much greater. ShotSpotter, which senses the sound of gunfire, recorded roughly 2,500 gunshots -- nearly 50 a week -- in the 7th District during the past year, officials said.
Police plan to expand the ShotSpotter program to other districts in 2008.
Citywide, about 77 percent of the year's homicide victims were killed by gunfire. Arguments -- about women, respect, turf and other matters -- accounted for 44 slayings, police said. Twenty-five people died in robberies, and 20 more in drug-related slayings. As in previous years, more than 80 percent of the victims were black males. Census figures show that black males make up roughly 25 percent of the city's population.
The youngest gunshot victim was 4-year-old Darius Branch, who was fatally shot along with his mother Oct. 25 in their Southeast Washington apartment. The suspected gunman was slain a few weeks later; Darius's father, Darius McKeever, is charged with killing the man, Raymond Carpenter.
Detectives arrested 129 people on murder charges last year and closed 70 percent of their cases, said Inspector Rodney Parks, head of the department's violent crimes division.
In a statement issued last night, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier called the closure rate the highest in 10 years. She said many cases have been closed based on calls from residents and anonymous calls to a tip line. "More and more," she said, people are no longer willing to tolerate criminals in their communities.
Earlier, Lanier said the rapid changes taking place in many neighborhoods could be having deadly consequences. She said it is crucial for police to be aware of "social change" indicators, such as shifts in housing patterns and school attendance.
For example, she said, some public housing complexes are being torn down, pushing residents with housing vouchers to other parts of the city. In some cases, young people have moved to places where they had earlier been "beefing with" the people who live there, the chief said.
"People are being vouchered from one place to another, from one neighborhood to another. Same thing with the schools," Lanier said. "I have to be on top of which people are where, which children are going to which schools. We have to know those associations."
Lanier, a veteran commander picked to lead the force by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) a year ago, has tried a mix of strategies. Her signature effort was the new program "All Hands on Deck," which put most available officers on the streets for targeted two- or three-day periods. She rearranged officers' schedules so she generally avoided paying overtime.
Still, shootings and other nonfatal gun crimes increased about 7 percent from 2006 to 2007, and armed robberies rose about 24 percent, preliminary data show.
In Northwest Washington, the Girard Street corridor has been especially troublesome. Four people were shot there on Halloween, even though a police officer was stationed a block away, and a 13-year-old was slain June 2.
Across the city, Cmdr. Joel Maupin, who heads the 7th District, said the gunfire is not concentrated in specific spots. "People are shooting at targets, stop signs -- everything. They're just shooting," he said.
Police have zeroed in on certain areas, including the neighborhood around Condon Terrace, near the Prince George's border, and are working with social service agencies, the Health Department and schools. At least four officers are on duty in the Condon Terrace area at any time.
"Crime has started to go down in that area," Maupin said. "But we've noticed it's been pushed out to surrounding areas."
White, meanwhile, is trying to help young people get jobs and stay in school. He and others in the police-clergy partnership have focused on the Woodland Terrace neighborhood, in Southeast.
He tries to get to the heart of what's driving the crime, whether it's groups of youths fighting one another, mental health issues or employment. He gives youths rides to school, takes them to the movies and organizes get-togethers with groups from other neighborhoods to try to foster friendships.
"People shoot at each other because they are from different neighborhoods, because they have a different address," said White, a graduate of Ballou Senior High School who has a degree in business administration. "People have guns; that's just the way it is. You live in a hostile environment."
Victims know that all too well.
Damon Sams, 19, was headed to work as a neighborhood outreach worker when three young people stopped him in September in the 1900 block of Savannah Terrace SE. He was shot three times and said he was a victim of retaliation.
"I didn't trip, because I did something to them and I knew it would come back," said Sams, who joined the outreach group Peaceoholics recently and said he has turned his life around. "I had to roll with the punches. Life goes on."
LaWanda Yeager was one of three people, including a 10-year-old girl, shot Memorial Day during an outdoor go-go music gathering at the Temple Courts housing complex at North Capitol and L streets NW. All survived.
Her 21-year-old son, Michael, was fatally shot Dec. 3 in front of his home on First Place NW. It was the second time in a year he had been shot, and his mother believes that he was targeted because he testified at a murder trial more than a year ago.
"He is my heart, a mother's pride and joy," Yeager said. "My family will be forever lost without him."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and staff reporter Martin Weil contributed to this report.