The meeting was called so people could discuss the D.C. police department's lackluster record of solving homicide cases, and about a dozen people asked tearful, trembling-voiced questions about why nobody had been arrested in the killings of their relatives.
The police, resident Gloria Davis said scornfully, "sit up here in their sharp suits and their starched shirts," while the person who killed her son nine years ago "is still walking the streets of D.C."
But it was not only the survivors of homicide victims who brought passion to last night's hearing held at Roosevelt High School by a D.C. Council committee. Others asserted with a heat that overwhelmed the chill in the auditorium that their neighborhoods seemed to be at their most violent in years.
"We really don't feel safe," said Jourdinia Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the 4th Police District who said she won't go to her ANC office on Georgia Avenue NW alone because of the crime in that corridor. "I have lived in Shepherd Park for 39 years, and at no time have I felt so unsafe."
Last year's 12 percent rise in homicides was the highest in seven years, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in testimony prepared for the meeting. The closure rate improved by five percentage points and is about average for cities the size of the District, he said.
Davis said she had attended a meeting two years ago where, as they did last night, relatives of victims told their stories and watched as officials took down names and dates. Davis displayed the file she has made about the killing of her son, Kevin S. Proctor.
"This has been transferred to four different detectives," she said with a tone of exasperation.
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said the city sometimes seems to have two police departments: one that wins national acclaim for crowd control at large-scale events and another that doesn't return the calls of the mothers of slain children.
Nearly every person who testified about an unsolved homicide said the police had not been in constant contact with the families throughout the investigation, were inaccessible, and were often rude.
It was not all criticism, however. John Fletcher, the brother-in-law of Katie Lynn Hill, a Seattle woman who was visiting her family in Takoma when she was killed in an apparent robbery on the way home from a Metro station in August, said the police were professional.
Last night, Ramsey described measures he has taken to try to close more cases. He said he installed the homicide detectives in a single central office, pulling them back in from their outposts in various district stations. He said he set up a special promotion process for detectives and instituted more training.
But resident Sean Gough said that has meant little to him. When Gough spoke at the hearing, convened by the council's Committee on the Judiciary, he began as the others did, by naming the homicide victims in whose behalf he had come.
However, Gough's list went on. And on. Chairs creaked before he finished his list of 23 names.
He said they were all people with whom he had grown up.
"If we planted a seed for every young person who died of senseless violence, we'd have another Rock Creek Park," he said.
Gough also referred to the differences in treatment cited by Katie Lynn Hill's relative and the relatives of the other victims of unsolved homicides. Hill's brother-in-law, Fletcher, is white; the other relatives who testified are black.
"I'm not a racist, but I'm a realist," Gough said, to applause from the audience.