MAYOR ANTHONY A. WILLIAMS, Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other D.C. leaders are badly misreading the mood of the city if they think there isn't general anxiety about the level of crime in the District. The statistics don't tell the story, although last year's 12 percent increase in homicides and the current pace of murders, which is nearly on par with last year's, are sufficient reasons for rising public concern. The homicide closure rate, nearly 55 percent, is well below the 70 percent rate police racked up in 1997 before Chief Ramsey's arrival in 1998. The problem, however, is compounded by a sense among many victims' families that some detectives are inaccessible, often rude and, worst of all, unskilled at conducting homicide investigations. At a D.C. Council committee hearing this week, council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), expressing the view of many residents, observed that the District seems to have two police departments: one that wins national acclaim for its handling of downtown events and another that doesn't return the calls of the mothers of slain children.
Yesterday's community forum on crime and prevention hosted by the mayor at Eastern High School should bring home the high level of concern about crime in parts of the city. At times it seems as though the mayor and the chief are in different worlds from the public they serve. There seems to be no shortage of reassurances out of police headquarters that significant resources are being devoted to neighborhood patrols and neighborhood crime problems. The public also hears much talk about improved staffing and the increased reassignment of officers from desks to the streets. But the gulf is widening between the official downtown perception of police deployment and the reality residents are witnessing in their neighborhoods. The two views must be reconciled, and Mr. Williams should take the lead in bringing that about.
It's not enough to declare the homicide totals unacceptable. A strategy for bringing down the murder rate must be put in place. For example, the police department's four-week homicide investigations course isn't scheduled to begin until next month, if then. The department is still badly in need of professionally led and trained detectives. It also is short of officers who don't have to be told time after time to follow up with relatives of homicide victims. The fact is, as Chief Ramsey acknowledges, the department carries a number of open homicide cases in which a single witness account could make the difference in making an arrest. The absence of cooperative witnesses suggests a serious alienation of the department from the community.
The burden of improving the department's homicide performance does not rest solely on Chief Ramsey's shoulders. Without the support of the community -- residents willing to step forward and assist the police -- violence will continue to win the day. It also falls to the mayor, council members and the District's civic leaders to help rebuild the trust between members of the public and those who would protect them. Yesterday's forum could be an important step in that direction.