Homicides rose in 29 major U.S. cities through September compared with the same period last year, according to the Council on Criminal Justice, a Washington-based institute.
Killings across the country spiked nearly 30 percent in 2020, the FBI has said. Baltimore surpassed 300 killings for the seventh consecutive year, and homicides in Philadelphia reached 497 on Monday, 13 percent higher than this time last year.
Officials in the District and across the country say there is no simple explanation for the increase in deadly violence. District leaders have offered many possible reasons, including the proliferation of illegal firearms and their use in seemingly minor disputes, and pandemic-induced disruptions that slowed courts, emptied jails, curtailed public transportation and ruptured the safety net relied on by many in the most underserved communities.
The high number of slayings in the District is adding to the ongoing debate over how to reimagine policing amid calls from activists and lawmakers to de-emphasize the role of law enforcement and treat crime as a public health emergency by resolving root causes of poverty, inequality, addiction and joblessness.
D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III called reaching 200 homicides “very troubling,” noting “lives that matter in our city were unnecessarily taken away too soon.”
In a recent interview, the police chief said some people simply “don’t have empathy for another human being.” He cited several killings over seemingly trivial matters, including one of a woman gunned down in front of her family during an argument with a neighbor.
“What’s the issue?” Contee said. “What is it over at the end of the day? Where is our sense of humanity?”
Contee has pushed for more accountability in the criminal justice system in dealing with people his officers arrest, especially those charged in gun crimes.
The D.C. police union attributes the crime spike to changes in policing born out of the 2020 summer of social unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer — which resulted in smaller departments and budgets — and new rules activists say are aimed at curbing police abuse but that critics say impede fighting crime. Activists reject linking crime increases to police reforms.
There are nearly 200 fewer D.C. officers this year than last year, according to the department, the lowest in two decades.
The union says more than half of the 417 members who left since the council-imposed measures in June 2020 resigned before being eligible for retirement.
“This means over 225 police officers turned in their badge and walked away,” union chairman Greggory Pemberton said in a statement. According to Pemberton, many say they are frustrated over what they cite as restrictions in making arrests and other enforcement actions. “The Council’s continued desire to reduce the size and funding of the police department hangs like a dark cloud of our city,” he said.
Killings in the District have risen each year since 2017, when 116 were recorded. Last year, the city counted 198 killings. Shootings, which spiked 48 percent last year, are down slightly in 2021. Crime involving juveniles is also up, police say, with 24 people 17 and younger charged with murder in the past 22 months.
This year’s victims include 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, who was struck by a stray bullet in July as she walked with her parents in Southeast Washington. A month earlier, a Peace Corps worker walking from a dinner date with his wife in the Logan Circle area was killed by a stray bullet. Three people were killed in a shooting in September on Longfellow Street, part of attacks along the volatile Kennedy Street corridor in Northwest Washington. A 66-year-old Uber Eats driver was killed in March when his vehicle was carjacked by two girls, ages 13 and 15.
Homicides in neighboring Prince George’s County are rising, too, going over 100 for the first time since 2008. Killings are also up in Montgomery County and in Fairfax County.
On Nov. 12, Chanae McLaughlin, 35, became the District’s 194th homicide victim this year. She was stabbed to death during a dispute on Florida Avenue and North Capitol Street NW.
Her mother, Charron McKethean-Shaw, said McLaughlin had been living with friends and had just gotten keys to a new apartment in the Marshall Heights neighborhood of Southeast.
She hoped her new home would allow her to reunite with her three children, ages 3, 4 and 9. The eldest, a boy, lives with McKethean-Shaw. Her 3-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter live with their father.
McLaughlin was among more than two dozen women slain in the District this year.
“We have to clean up this city,” said McKethean-Shaw, who teaches public school in Virginia. “It really hurts to see this. … I want justice. I want somebody to pay. My child was a good child. She didn’t deserve this. She didn’t just leave me, she left three kids behind.”
Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice, attributed the increase in slayings in cities across the country to what he called “community gun violence” that is “concentrated in small networks of people and places.”
Speaking at a webcast forum this month, Abt promoted the idea of “focused deterrence” to identify core offenders, a tactic the District is using in a program called Building Blocks D.C. that identifies the 151 blocks in the city where much of the gunfire occurs.
“The concept is to focus on the highest-risk people in the highest-risk places,” Abt said in an interview. He chairs the council’s Violent Crime Working Group, which also includes as a member Linda K. Harllee Harper, who runs the District’s Building Blocks initiative.
Abt said the rise in gun violence in many cities is similar to previous trends and has always been concentrated in high-risk groups. “The violence has intensified, but it’s not new violence,” he said.
The pandemic has exacerbated challenges for people who had already been living on the margins and largely disenfranchised, Abt said. Some programs may have reached them, he said, but when coronavirus closures hit, “all of those efforts suddenly stopped.”
Abt said police and other leaders are getting better at targeting programs aimed at helping people before they become involved in violence. “We’re not doing enough of those things,” he said, “but they do have a positive impact.”
The District is in the midst of trying several ideas, including extending the reach of violence interrupter programs into schools and hospitals, diverting calls away from police on some mental health emergencies, boosting job training for people returning home from prison and investing more in housing.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) on Thursday said programs are “being targeted” where they’re needed most, with some having short-term benefits, such as summer and fall crime initiatives that reduced violence by 70 percent in selected neighborhoods. Others have longer-term goals, such as “how do we get to people before they commit crime.”
She added: “We are going to try everything that shows promise until we flatten the curve that is violence.”
After a year-long police hiring freeze following a D.C. Council-imposed budget cut, the mayor and lawmakers reached an agreement earlier this year to restart hiring, though not as many officers as the administration had wanted. Officials say the new hires won’t start hitting the streets until 2022.
“We have a violent crime crisis, quite frankly a gun crisis, in the city,” Christopher Geldart, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, told residents last month at a meeting on Capitol Hill, where three people were fatally shot in separate attacks in October, including one on a sports field after a dispute at a flag football game.
“I can’t understand the rationale of cuts in police funding given this gun crisis,” one resident said.
A woman who said she heard a half-dozen gunshots while driving with her 5-year-old child through Capitol Hill at lunchtime told the group: “I am not scared. I’m mad. This community needs to be protected. It needs resources.”
However, another woman said more police and prison sentences “don’t prevent gun violence,” while one man said crime “is not something we can sweep under the rug with incarceration.”
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, said the District needs to identify people before they resort to violence, or become victims of it, “rather than waiting until after the fact.”
In an interview later, Allen said many of the killings are the results of what he calls “instant conflicts,” people acquainted with or running into each other who turn to firearms when they have conflicts.
“These are incredibly difficult conflicts to stop by policing or by programs,” Allen said.
He attributed the anger, in part, to the “accumulated trauma of two years of a pandemic” that he said “is fraying and fracturing the relationships people have and the humanity. How do we change that dynamic?”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who is giving up a seat he has held since 2012 to run for D.C. attorney general, said in an interview that “right now, people across the District of Columbia don’t feel safe.”
He said lawbreakers need to be held accountable, but he also said that in neighborhoods where gunfire is common, there is also “a desire and a need for opportunity — jobs, education and housing.”
McDuffie — who, if elected attorney general, would oversee the prosecution of some gun crimes — said he supports the city’s attempt at a whole-government approach, though it remains fragmented and more needs to be done.
“Police should not be relied on exclusively to keep people safe across the city,” he said.
Katie Mettler, Dan Morse, Clarence Williams and Martin Weil contributed to this report.
Because of incorrect information provided by D.C. police, an earlier version of this article incorrectly said the last time there were 200 homicides in the District was 2004. It was 2003. The story has been corrected.