Drop in Violent Crime in D.C. Area and Some Other Major Cities Puzzles Experts

By Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009; A01

Violent crime has plummeted in the Washington area and in major cities across the country, a trend criminologists describe as baffling and unexpected.

The District, New York and Los Angeles are on track for fewer killings this year than in any other year in at least four decades. Boston, San Francisco, Minneapolis and other cities are also seeing notable reductions in homicides.

"Experts did not see this coming at all," said Andrew Karmen, a criminologist and professor of sociology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

In the District and Prince George's County, homicides are down about 17 percent this year.

Criminologists have different theories about why crime is down so much, although many agree that the common belief that crime is connected to the economy is false.

Whatever the cause, police across the region are taking credit for the drop.

"Everybody wants to beat us up when it goes up, so we'll take credit for it when it goes down," D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said.

She said police are able to target specific locations or types of crime and policing is so high-tech that investigators are analyzing crime minute-by-minute and have greater ability to attack crime before it happens.

In Prince George's, for example, the department's top commanders get mobile phone updates on crimes and 911 calls every 15 minutes.

In New York, when someone is killed, police send a mobile data center to a neighborhood, allowing police on the scene to listen to 911 calls and immediately search databases that list the names of everyone in a certain building who is on parole.

In the District, the department creates a weekly "Go-Go report," which details where and when home-grown bands are playing, because go-go concerts often bring together rival gangs, causing violence, Lanier said. There is also a weekly gang report that tells officers which gangs or crews are feuding that week.

Armed with that information, police can better predict where crimes might happen and take measures to prevent them.

The District is on track to have fewer killings than in any year since 1964, when the population was about 760,000 and Vietnam War protests were just beginning.

In the years since, the city has struggled at times with civil unrest, the arrival of crack cocaine and the rise of street gangs. In 1991, the District was known as the murder capital of the United States, recording 479 that year. This year, there have been 79.

Last summer, the city was struggling with so much violence in the Trinidad neighborhood that police set up military-style neighborhood roadblocks and stopped people from entering unless they had a "legitimate reason." The checkpoints were so restrictive that they were ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

This year, there have been several high-profile shootings in the District, including last week's late-afternoon killing of armed suspect Kellen Anthony White by the Capitol Police about a block from the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Also, a security officer, Stephen T. Johns, was killed last month during the lunch hour at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. An alleged white supremacist has been charged.

But Lanier said there has been a turnaround in violence this year. She pointed to a better relationship between the department and the community as a factor, saying it has helped get more violent repeat offenders off the streets. She said tips from the community have been flowing faster than ever, due in part to patrol officers knowing their beats and developing connections in the community.

Last year, the department paid about $500,000 in reward money for tips that led to arrests and convictions, double the amount in 2007. This year, detectives have closed about 70 percent of homicide cases.

"The community is giving us more information than ever," Lanier said. "They're used to seeing the same cop in the neighborhood every day. They feel comfortable. They have a connection to that officer. They know that officer isn't going to burn them."

Burning them, she said, would be to take information and not act on it, leaving sources to believe police are corrupt or lazy.

She also said she has torn down walls in the department so that homicide detectives talk more often with beat officers, sharing vital information.

Violent crime is also down in some of Washington's other large suburbs, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

Montgomery has recorded six homicides this year, putting it on track to have its lowest total since 1986.

In Prince George's, violence had been steadily rising since the 1990s, when the county started absorbing spillover crime from the District. But this year, crime is at a 20-year low, and homicides are down almost 17 percent.

Police Chief Roberto L. Hylton said that since he took over the department in September, there has been a more defined mission about how to attack crime.

He identified car thefts as one of the county's major problems and a "gateway" crime, meaning if criminals get away with stealing a car, they sometimes become emboldened and begin committing more daring acts. In 2004, about 18,500 cars were stolen in the county, more than in all of Virginia.

Since then, the department has focused on arresting car thieves and educating the public about protecting their cars, and the number of car thefts has shrunk by half.

"We have a very detailed and comprehensive strategy. We are triaging our community," Hylton said.

He said the homicide closure rate is about 70 percent, which has helped get many criminals off the streets.

"If you come into Prince George's County and you commit a murder, we're going to track you down and arrest you and lock you up," Hylton said.

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, said the drop in homicides this year is notable, especially considering the weather.

"This does come at an important time," he said. "We're midway through summer, and summer is when you see the most significant increase in street violence. Departments have had to be more strategic in terms of gangs and hot spots."

Wexler said that crime isn't down everywhere. Baltimore and Dallas are among some cities experiencing a higher number of killings compared with last year.

Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, said it has taken police decades to figure out how to effectively target crime.

"In the '60s, crime was like an act of God, like a tornado or earthquake," LaFree said. "Where policing has changed is that we've gotten the idea this is a problem we created and there are human solutions to it. Obviously, crime is not randomly distributed. It is connected to hot spots in cities and other areas."

LaFree and others agree that crime doesn't automatically go up when the economy is poor. Property crime is also trending down in many jurisdictions, including the District, Prince George's and Montgomery. The FBI reported last week that bank robberies across the country fell in the first quarter of the year, with 1,498 reported, compared with 1,604 in the first quarter of 2008.

Criminologists point to the Great Depression in the 1930s as a time of relatively low crime compared with the Roaring Twenties, when the country experienced more violence.

Lanier said that despite the good news, there's not much celebrating going on among police chiefs across the country.

"We're afraid to relax in any way and say crime is down," she said. "We tend to not talk about it much because we know how quick things can turn. What's successful today, tomorrow can turn on a dime."

Staff writers Maria Glod, Tom Jackman, Dan Morse and Josh White contributed to this report.

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