THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA closed out 2002 with a record of violence that should have city leaders and residents worried sick. After registering in 2001 the lowest number of homicides since the 1980s, the District racked up 262 killings last year, the highest death toll in five years. While some other major cities also posted increases, the District's upward turn, along with that of neighboring Prince George's County, set the pace in the Washington area. Experts are still trying to sort out the reasons. But one explanation put forth by D.C. police is nearly as difficult to follow as the explanations for the department's low homicide closure rate. Among the possible factors for the increase that D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey cites most often is the greater use of the volatile drug PCP.
Is that borne out by the record? According to staff writer David Fahrenthold, D.C. police estimate that they saw PCP four times as often in 2002 as in 2001. If so, that could very well account for last year's increase in violent deaths, because PCP (phencyclidine hydrochloride) is a mean drug that can bring on unpredictable and often destructive behavior. However, records of the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency, which tests arrested adults for drugs, suggest that the level of PCP use was virtually unchanged from 2001 to 2002.
In 2001, for example, 13 percent of arrested adults tested positive for PCP. In 2002, the rate was 14 percent. A month-by-month comparison suggests that PCP use ranged between 10 percent and 13 percent throughout 2001 and between 13 percent and 14 percent in 2002. In fact, in 2002, PCP use among those arrested fell from October to November and remained the same in December.
It may well be that police are seizing more PCP on the streets and that emergency rooms and detoxification clinics are seeing more PCP users. And without question, there were some startling homicides involving PCP use in 2002. But those factors alone hardly explain last year's climb in violence. Clearly the prevalence of handguns -- and people willing to use them -- has a great deal to do with it. Likewise, the police department's low homicide closure rate -- which fell from 65 percent in 1998 to 52 percent last year -- means that more killers are getting away with murder. But getting at the reasons for the increase in killings may require more than seat-of-the-pants guesswork.
Chief Ramsey has said that the lack of cooperation from witnesses has hurt his department's ability to solve homicides and deter crimes. Again, if that is true, then why is the public, or at least that segment of the population in high-crime areas of the city, so mistrustful of the police? That query is addressed to more than the police. The mayor, the D.C. Council and the city's civic leadership must also come to grips with that problem, and the culture of violence and retaliation that it perpetuates. Otherwise, 2003's numbers will leave last year's in the dust. As of yesterday afternoon, the District's homicide count, at five, was 25 percent ahead of the count at this time last year.