Murder on the Rise

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Friday, June 6, 2008

WHEN THE District of Columbia ended last year with more people killed than in the previous year, many hoped the jump was an aberration. After all, the trend over several years was a steady decline in the homicide rate. Five months into 2008, the District must confront the sobering thought that a new cycle of violence is taking hold of troubled neighborhoods.

Last weekend was one of the most violent in D.C. history: Seven people were killed and three wounded in nine hours. For the first time this year, the number of homicides surpassed last year's number at the same point in the year -- and that's before the start of summer and its traditional surge in violence. Particularly hard hit are the Northeast neighborhoods in the city's 5th Police District, where killings this year are more than double the number for the same period last year. With more than half of the year left to unfold, 22 people had been killed as of Wednesday, compared with 21 for all of 2007. The effect on everyday lives is unimaginable, as evidenced by The Post's account of a 61-year-old man who, for fear of walking a few blocks from a parking spot to his home after dark, spends the night in his car parked at the police station if he leaves work late.

So, what are officials doing? Mayor Adrian M. Fenty shows up at crime scenes, condemns the violence and promises to improve law enforcement efforts. To be sure, police presence gets beefed up, but it's clear that that's just not enough. Consider Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier's observation that her officers were in the right spots last weekend, "so close that they heard the gunshots." More cops on the corner may give pause to a burglar coolly casing a home to enter it, but the insanity that causes someone to shoot over a lost craps game or a slight to a girlfriend or a look of disrespect is not so easily deterred.

This week, Mr. Fenty announced new public safety initiatives for the at-risk neighborhoods, including the controversial use of driver checkpoints, as well as extra social services support. The mayor correctly recognizes that crime is best attacked by going after causes such as joblessness, housing displacement and mental health concerns, and his Focused Improvement Areas initiative, like the "hot spots" program of his predecessor, is a step in the right direction, provided that new resources really are forthcoming. Nonetheless, it feels as if officials are still just throwing water on a fire, rather than trying to figure out how to prevent the conflagration.

More must be done to create a comprehensive strategy that can be sustained for the entire city. Is enough being done to deal with the critical transition challenges facing ex-offenders? Are police correct that too many people who have been arrested too many times for serious offenses are being released because of holes in the criminal justice system? What role is played by school expulsion and suspension policies? A citywide task force led by David Bowers of No Murders DC is examining many of these issues. It's unfortunate that the group wasn't given more government support, but it's not too late for Mr. Fenty to harness its insights, expertise and passion.

We admire the unabashed goal of eliminating homicides. No doubt there are those who think certain lives are expendable or that a certain amount of violence will persist, but such thinking -- like being afraid to go to one's own home -- cannot be acceptable. Especially in the nation's capital.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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