The issue of public safety has been a topic of particular concern in the District lately, capturing the attention of city leaders, law enforcement and residents alike. This is in part because of an increase in homicides in 2015, which prompted calls for a response from our elected officials. In considering what that response should be, we have an opportunity to dig deeper and look for evidence-based solutions that will lead to real improvements in safety and health for all D.C. residents.
Looking at the actual crime data provides some clarity and context to this issue. While there was a substantial increase in homicides in 2015 compared to the previous year, the increase was concentrated in a few places in the city that also face other significant challenges. Seventy-four percent of the growth in homicides occurred in just three police districts that roughly cover Ward 5, Ward 7 and Ward 8. One of those districts, the seventh district in Ward 8, accounted for nearly 40 percent of the citywide growth in lethal violence, with homicide arrests increasing by more than 67 percent.
Overall, as a city, violent crime remained fairly level as the year ended, with declines in seven out of nine categories reported by the Metropolitan Police Department. So while any preventable death is one too many, we must avoid any knee-jerk reactions. We also need to recognize that both crime and incarceration disproportionately affect some areas of our community, and that structural issues such as race, poverty and income inequality have to be addressed head on if we are going to tackle issues of crime and violence successfully.
Evidence shows that a tougher law enforcement response in the most affected areas will simply not work to improve safety. Residents of Wards 7 and 8 already experience a disproportionate level of justice system involvement in their lives. The communities most affected by lethal violence, particularly Ward 8, also face some of the greatest challenges in unemployment and inadequate quality of schools and have the lowest median income in the city.
With that in mind, while law enforcement and the criminal justice system do have a role to play, that role should be limited and should not be our primary response to these complicated and interconnected issues. Instead, we need a holistic and comprehensive approach, viewing violence as a public health issue and not solely a law enforcement and criminal justice issue. We need to make the right types of investments in our communities, based on what solid research shows is more likely to lead to safer communities.
Fortunately, the D.C. Council made a strong move in the right direction by unanimously passing legislation this month described as a “public health” approach to violence prevention – the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results (NEAR) Act. While no single piece of legislation is the answer to every challenge we face, the NEAR Act is a strong step forward in meeting the needs of our residents and creating healthier and safer communities. The next step is to make it a reality by providing sufficient funding and political will for effective implementation.
For decades now, our nation and the District have looked to our police and incarceration systems to solve every problem for us. Based on research and on our own experiences and common sense, we are now realizing that they cannot do that — nor should they be expected to. Violent crime can be more effectively addressed through an approach that includes identifying those in the community most at risk for violent behavior and doing everything possible to make sure they are employed in good jobs, have suitable housing and receive effective community-based substance abuse or mental health treatment if needed. An effective public health model also works with carefully selected community members — sometimes referred to as violence interrupters — to anticipate situations where violence could occur and intervene before it happens.
An approach such as the NEAR Act is our best hope for addressing long-standing issues related to violence in our communities. We have an opportunity to reset how we think about public safety in the District, working to prevent crime by addressing its causes in a long-term, sustained way instead of simply reacting to crime after it occurs. If we commit to fully funding and implementing the type of holistic and health-focused strategies in the NEAR Act, we come much closer to the safer and healthier communities we aspire to for all District residents.
Katharine Huffman is chair of the board of the Justice Policy Institute.