Getting Away With Murder

Thursday, December 7, 2000

THUGS BENT ON murder will find no more hospitable place in which to take a human life--and to kill again--than the nation's capital. This week's four-part Washington Post series "FATAL FLAWS: The District's Homicide Crisis" revealed that the District has all the requisite ingredients for crime and no punishment: plenty of illegal guns, unskilled homicide detectives, pitiful arrest rates, a poorly supervised police murder unit in administrative disarray and official indifference to the cycle of murder and vengeance that especially plagues the District's poorest communities. The city's lawless never had it so good.

The yearlong investigation by Post staff writers Cheryl Thompson, Ira Chinoy and Barbara Vobejda presented a chilling picture of how neighborhoods can become killing fields where murderers run rampant and a street-justice culture prevails. The essential component in bringing about such a horrific situation is a weak and ineffective police homicide unit. The Post found that 1,500 homicides in the District have gone unsolved over the past decade. What's worse, the D.C. homicide unit ended last year with its poorest performance in the past 10: nearly two-thirds of the murders committed in 1999 remained unsolved at year's end.

A closer look at the department's homicide unit helps to tell the tale: hundreds of missing and incomplete case files, dozens of cases inexplicably closed without arrests or clear circumstances, a poorly maintained police database for storing homicide information. In the past decade, the department has had seven homicide commanders, staged showy shakeups and reorganizations and hired a series of smooth-talking police chiefs who have been marvelous in promising reforms--while delivering few results. Police Chief Charles Ramsay must show that he doesn't fit that description. After all the big talk, the city still has a homicide unit plagued with slow-to-react, overworked detectives who can't write reports that prosecutors can use. The current homicide unit still has one of the worst closure rates in the city's history. It is a unit so hapless at catching and bringing killers to justice that men with guns take matters into their own hands until they themselves are killed. Meanwhile, neighbors cower in fear.

Equally disturbing is the lack of official concern about the city's escalating rate of unsolved murders, at least prior to the appearance of The Post series. The code of silence that engulfs violence-plagued areas of the city seems almost as strong at One Judiciary Square, where the mayor and council members hold court. Today, of course, they are shocked--shocked!

Intimidation and fear of witness elimination may explain why community residents are afraid to speak out. But what was the mayor and council's excuse? They seemed more content to avert their gaze from the violence and to play politics with each other. Meanwhile, in parts of town beyond the sight of well-guarded city hall, killers rule the streets.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company