D.C. police focus on preemption to reduce murder rate, retaliatory violence

Residents and the families of four people killed in a shooting March 30 in Southeast Washington called for tougher crime laws at an emotional D.C. Council hearing Monday. Murder charges have been filed in one of the District's deadliest shootings in years, police said.
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 4, 2010

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier arrived at 4022 South Capitol St. SE minutes after the gunfire March 30, as the nine victims were being loaded into ambulances. And not much time passed before she and other officials realized the motive for the drive-by attack.

Facing TV news cameras in the early evening darkness, Lanier appeared shaken, saying: "We've made a lot of progress to stop retaliation and gang violence. And, in the end, if this comes out to be some sort of gang retaliation, shame on all of us."

She already knew it was.

"I was very angry," Lanier recalled in an interview. The March 30 attack, which killed three people, ages 16 to 19, was the climax to a cycle of tit-for-tat shootings -- the sort of violence that police have been able to short-circuit in recent years, reducing the city's homicide totals.

Still, despite the lower murder rate, shootings in retaliation for violence account for a huge percentage of the District's annual homicide toll, Lanier said. The department has adopted strategies in recent years to counter the problem, she said, and the effort's success is evident in crime statistics.

It begins with an emphasis on officers building trusting relationships in the community, creating sources of information, Lanier said. "And when someone gives us information, we can't sit on it or think it over. We have to act on it immediately, so they'll see action out of us."

To promote a rapid flow of information and quick responses and prevent tips from falling through the cracks, she said, officials have created faster lines of communication among the department's myriad units and officers in different parts of the city.

"It's been a department-wide effort, every member, and it's taken three years of constant focus," Lanier said. "And it's allowed us to jump on a lot of things before they happen. . . . It's preemption -- knowing who is going after who. We'll get information that someone's traveling in a stolen car with a gun, on their way to do a shooting, and we'll be able to stop that person."

Chuck Wexler, director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said that retaliation killings account for the bulk of homicides in most big U.S. cities and that police officials nationwide have made preemption a priority, as Lanier has.

"With some kinds of shootings and murders, there's very little you can do," said Wexler, who has worked with law enforcement agencies across the country, helping them devise policing strategies. "A kid shoves another kid and the other kid shoots him -- you can't really prevent that. But if police departments don't intervene, then you'll have a second killing and a third."

In recent years, he said, "police departments everywhere have become much more strategic about developing and using information and responding not only to the immediate shooting, but to the threat of the next one and the next one. . . . In terms of retaliation, it's all about preemption. That's where police departments can really make a difference."

Lanier said the impact of the approach was evident in last year's D.C. homicide total of 143 -- a 23 percent drop from the year before and the city's lowest annual toll since 1966.

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