D.C. Slayings, Nerves Spike
Tuesday, May 6, 2008
One homicide victim was a plumber who got into an argument while shooting dice. A woman was beaten to death with a blunt object. Another victim, awaiting trial for credit card fraud, was shot to death while sitting in his sport-utility vehicle.
April was a deadly month in the District, with 18 homicides, nine of them in Northeast Washington neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River. On one Saturday, four people were fatally shot within four hours. With motives including domestic issues, revenge and conflicts over drugs, authorities have been struggling to develop clear patterns and catch the criminals.
The spike in homicides led police to increase patrols to ease residents' nerves and tamp down crime, a signature response by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who puts a priority on immediate action over more time-consuming approaches.
But that didn't stop Debra Seals-Craven from upbraiding the mayor at a public meeting on the recent crimes. Her 30-year-old son, Melvin Seals, was shot to death a little more than a week ago. People gathered at New Bethel Baptist Church in Northwest Washington on Friday for his funeral, wearing personalized T-shirts that read "RIP Big Melvin."
D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who has been meeting almost daily with residents to get a handle on the issue, said gun violence is ripping families and neighborhoods apart. "Our city is at war with itself," he told hundreds of mourners at Seals's funeral service.
Over the past two months, gun violence has jumped in the city. The number of reported assaults with deadly weapons rose in six of the city's seven police districts. Citywide, the number of homicides is about the same as last year: 51 as of yesterday, compared with 55 at the same point last year.
But it is the recent violence that has generated alarm. There were 338 assaults, robberies or homicides involving a gun from March through April, up about 30 percent from that period last year.
The toll in Thomas's ward has been especially heavy: 12 killings and 38 robberies in March and April, compared with three slayings and 17 robberies in the same period last year.
Often, the perpetrators of violence and their victims have had brushes with the law, as in the current string of killings. Although the city has undergone an economic revival with new housing and shopping centers, many residents of such places as Brentwood, Trinidad and Ivy City have not shared in the benefits, and residents say that has an impact on crime on their streets.
"The boom didn't touch many of the people who needed it most," said Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner William Shelton, who works with teenagers in the Brookland Manor Apartments in Northeast. "We're dealing with the aftereffects of war."
Although Fenty often appears at crime scenes, decrying violence, the District government has shown no urgency in solving the problem, said David Bowers, who heads the all-volunteer No Murders DC. Despite 6,500 homicides since 1980, he said, the District has no comprehensive plan.
Bowers, the son of a former Superior Court judge, is a native Washingtonian. He is an ordained minister and, in his day job, directs the Washington office of the Enterprise Foundation, a nonprofit affordable-housing organization. After crime spikes like this one, he said, leaders throw a little money at groups like Peaceoholics and the Alliance for Concerned Men, which hire former street toughs and ex-offenders to mentor troubled youths and help defuse beefs before they turn violent.