WASHINGTON has more police officers per capita than any other large city in the nation. Our city's criminal justice system has been vigorous in its efforts, leading the nation in per capita arrests and convictions. Why, then, does the most visible aspect of the city's crime problem -- its murder rate -- continue to soar?
By all accounts, the drug trade fuels the violence, and that trade is more firmly entrenched here -- and more casually accepted -- than most are willing to believe. Some two-thirds of the drug traffickers studied in a recent report by the Rand Corp., for example, held legitimate jobs that brought higher than minimum wage earnings -- about $7 per hour. Relatively few dealt drugs exclusively. Many, in fact, sold drugs only once or twice per week and saw it as a lucrative way to supplement their legal earnings.
Among juveniles, the news was even more disturbing. It was the prevailing view among nearly 400 juveniles surveyed that drug dealing was a good economic opportunity and simply a part of the world in which they lived. Some 84 percent had a friend who sold drugs, 77 percent said that drugs were sold at their schools and half knew adult dealers.
How many Washingtonians are involved in drug trafficking on a regular or infrequent basis? The Rand Corp. puts the figure at a staggering 24,000 city residents. Moreover, it would be inaccurate to suggest that the city's drug trade is self-generating. It is fueled by a sizable middle-class market that engages in illicit drug use. More than 40 percent of those charged with drug possession in the District during the period studied lived outside Washington.
The policy implications for the next mayor and the city's other elected officials are clear. It is not enough to vote for larger law enforcement budgets or to maintain them in the face of growing fiscal problems. It is not enough for a few citizens to summon the courage to patrol their neighborhoods. People's outrage at the carnage and lost lives must be rekindled. Every person who sells drugs, no matter how infrequently or to what end; every person who uses drugs, no matter how privately or rarely; and every person who knowingly condones such practices by failing to condemn them -- all bear a share of the responsibility for the epidemic of violence and drug abuse that continues to plague this city. Until that is recognized, the blood and the illicit wealth will continue to flow unabated.