Crime Still Has a Grip on D.C.'s Columbia Heights

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 22, 2009

A rash of shootings in a rapidly redeveloping section of Columbia Heights has given longtime and newly minted residents a sobering reminder that as much as the area has changed, the presence of gangs and violence has not.

Since February, extra officers have patrolled the Northwest Washington neighborhood. A police cruiser with a portable light tower is stationed in front of a playground in the middle of the 1300 block of Columbia Road NW.

And yet crime keeps happening, as it did in the middle of the day Thursday, when a young man opened fire near the Columbia Heights Metro station, wounding two people, including a bystander, in an apparent gang fight.

Residents have complained that police measures do little to prevent violent crime. They point to such incidents as a shooting June 10, in which a man was killed in an alley just steps from where an officer was posted. On May 15, a man was fatally shot near the busy intersection of 14th Street and Columbia Road.

"Police can't catch up with them. Sometimes they're 30, 40 steps away when shots are fired," Paul Jones, 35, a youth basketball official, said as he directed a group of teenagers out of the Columbia Heights Community Center, near the Girard Street Park.

A Target-anchored shopping center opened a year ago near the neighborhood's Metro stop. The block-long mall is part of a billion-dollar development that includes six apartment buildings, a Best Buy and a 1,200-car garage. The development has drawn middle- and upper-class residents with disposable income to the neighborhood.

"Columbia Heights has been completely transformed," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). "There's been a major effort to turn this once-barren place into something."

But Graham is the first to admit that crime is "embedded in the culture" of gang-ridden sections of the neighborhood, including the 2800 and 2900 blocks of 14th Street. The suspect in Thursday's shooting, Devyn Black, 19, of Northwest had just signed on as a summer intern in Graham's office.

"It's frustrating, and we're trying to make it better," Graham said.

In December, a 14-year-old boy was fatally stabbed at 14th and Newton streets, near the Metro station, in a crime that authorities said was gang-related.

Neighborhood residents have met some police-led initiatives with skepticism. A police officer lives in Columbia Village, a low-income apartment complex near 13th Street and Columbia Road, but Tazah Richardson, 24, said she hardly notices him. "It was six months before I knew he lived there," she said Saturday. A friend shook her head in agreement.

Richardson said it is a mistake to think the rejuvenated commercial corridor has done anything to curb shootings and robberies. Many victims erroneously assume that the area is less vulnerable to crime because of the expanded retail presence.

"I saw a woman who just bought something at Best Buy walk down this street, and a guy walked up and snatched it," Richardson said. "Sometimes people seem to forget where they are."

In much of Columbia Heights, violent crime rates have held fairly steady in recent years, said D.C. police Inspector Jacob Kishter, acting commander of the 3rd Police District.

"Some of these gang-related fights have been going on for as long as you and I have been alive," he said.

The most recent shootings appear to have involved rival gangs from Columbia Village and housing complexes in the 1400 block of Girard Street, investigators said.

For Evelyn Pickeral, 67, who has lived in the 1400 block of Girard for nearly 21 years, the new stores and new residents are a welcome addition. But she said she is frightened by the continuing violence on neighborhood streets.

"Sometimes I think it's gotten worse," Pickeral said. "It's hard to know what to do except wait for it to pass."

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