Homicides in the District and in the Maryland suburbs soared in 2021 to levels not seen in more than a decade, largely driven by shootings and reflecting a troubling rise in violent crime across the country.
Authorities say violence has climbed amid a proliferation of guns used to settle disputes — such as deadly road rage incidents or a killing over french fries — and a pandemic that continues to upend lives and strain a fragile social safety net critical for people surviving on the margins.
“Covid wreaked havoc on our ecosystem,” said Christopher Geldart, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, noting challenges nationwide that include delays in court proceedings and disruptions in schools and outreach programs. “What we’ve seen in this separation is the loss of a sense of community and a loss of a sense of humanity.”
A steady stream of illegal firearms pouring into the region increasingly includes guns built from home kits that cannot be traced. And 3-D printers make it easy to modify some weapons to fire in fully automatic mode, allowing a rapid spray of gunfire from one squeeze of the trigger.
The days of gunmen firing just 10 bullets are long over, D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said. The city is seeing a rise in shootings with multiple victims and a greater percentage of people dying from their wounds. The District’s medical examiner said more victims are being struck multiple times.
“You’re now talking about people operating with 150 bullets that they fire on the streets of our community,” Contee said, expressing frustration over the simplistic rationales detectives too often hear for why a trigger was pulled. “On this particular day, this guy ticked off that guy, and that guy decided this guy needed to die.”
Police said trash-talking at a flag football game on Capitol Hill in October prompted a player to fatally shoot an opponent. Two girls, ages 13 and 15, carjacked and killed a 66-year-old man working as a food delivery driver near Nationals Park in March. And in September, a 76-year-old man was fatally beaten in a dispute over vacating a Northwest Washington apartment.
Homicides in 30 major cities rose more than 30 percent in 2020, one of the highest year-on-year increases since the FBI began tracking. Numbers rose in 2021, as well, an analysis by The Washington Post found, though the pace appears to have slowed from the previous year.
Of the nation’s largest 30 cities, at least nine had record-breaking homicide tallies in 2021, including Austin; Portland, Ore.; Indianapolis; and Denver. Philadelphia shattered its record of 500 killings, set in 1990.
The District’s 227 killings in 2021 as of Friday evening represent about a 15 percent increase from 2020. But that is far from the levels of violence experienced three decades ago, when a record of more than 480 people were killed in the city in a single year and the per capita murder rate was nearly three times what it is now.
Though city officials say some 40 percent of gunfire is concentrated in just 151 blocks, or 2 percent, of the city, neighborhoods across the District suffered in 2021.
In July, a 6-year-old D.C. girl was fatally shot on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, one day before a separate shooting outside Nationals Park sent fans scrambling for cover. The same week, a shooting near Logan Circle scattered diners around the same area where a Peace Corps worker had recently been fatally shot after straying into a gun battle on the way home from a date with his wife. And two students from the same high school were killed months apart while leaving the campus in Northeast Washington.
Police are investigating a possible serial killer in Virginia linked thus far to the deaths of four women, two of whom were found dead in Fairfax County. Homicides in Fairfax rose to 19 in 2021, the highest number since 2017, and the cases include five young men accused of killing their parents or siblings.
And in Montgomery County, Md., which came close to reaching a number of killings not seen in at least 46 years, Police Chief Marcus Jones said he has “never seen the amount of guns and gun activity that is currently on our streets.”
‘We’re not okay’
There are two types of killings that Prince George’s County Police Chief Malik Aziz said keep him up at night — those of children and those over trivial disputes.
“Those are lives that should still be here,” he said.
In Prince George’s, where elected officials and police had taken great pride in reducing rates of violent crime over the past decade, the recent spikes in violence have been acutely painful. The county police department investigated more than 130 slayings in 2021.
PJ Evans, 8, was killed by a stray bullet while playing video games this summer, and a boxer on his way to a family gathering was killed in what police say was a road rage dispute on Christmas Eve. Before either of those killings, 13-year-old King Douglas was fatally shot outside Dave & Busters in Capitol Heights, Md. He was one of 10 juveniles slain in the county in 2021.
Douglas’s killing rattled the community, not just because of his age but also because his alleged assailant was a 12-year-old boy. The county executive, Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), announced summer youth programs. State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy (D) launched “Our Streets, Our Future,” a community-centered crime prevention campaign. And Aziz rolled out Operation Heat Wave, which flooded areas experiencing violence with more officers.
Community organizers and advocates marched in the streets, chanting “Prayers up, guns down!” alongside relatives of gun violence victims, including King’s mother, Ja’Ka McKnight.
She has spent the months since her son’s death creating a foundation in King’s name and surrounding herself with his friends.
The mother said she has now learned from police that the dispute had been over a girl and had nothing to do with her son.
“It’s not okay. We’re not okay,” McKnight said. “For me, it gets harder. It’s like reality is setting in that he’s really gone. I’m walking past his bedroom, and he’s not there.”
Another family in Prince George’s was left mourning 44-year-old Phillip Antoine Brown, who was killed in October.
Brown, a security guard called a “gentle giant” for his 6-foot-9-inch stature, and praised for his kindness and calming demeanor, was working at an event at a VFW Post in Lanham. His family said a man complained about food he deemed unsatisfactory — court documents describe it as french fries — and Brown escorted him outside.
Police said the man then fatally shot him in the parking lot.
“We’ve lost our son, our only child, for nothing,” Cynthia Williams said of her only son. “To kill someone over their food not being right?”
‘Policing is not going to get us out of this’
Charles E. Wilson decided it was too dangerous to take his children trick-or-treating on Halloween in the Anacostia neighborhood in Southeast Washington that he has called home for six years.
He took them instead to the other side of the river, and he later learned he had made the right choice.
“Took the kids 2 ‘safer’ hood bc gun violence,” Wilson tweeted that night. “On the way home got pics from my neighbor. 8 shots and 2 hit the house. 1 bullet n kids room. This is not ok or normal! This must stop!”
Wilson, who heads the D.C. Democratic Party and directed his tweet at Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other local leaders, called for aggressive action. But for him, the solution is not more police but smarter government.
“Policing is not going to get us out of this issue,” Wilson said in an interview. “This has been decades of neglect on this side of the city. Now we’re starting to see the results of that negligence. … There has to be an admission from every politician: What they have done is not working.”
The increase in homicides and shootings has reshaped a debate over reimagining police that began after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis and led to a shift in priorities to treat crime as a public health crisis.
In the District, the police union blames the crime spike on the council’s budget cuts and new laws that the labor group says stymie officers. Lawmakers and proponents of change disagree, caught between those who say reform is moving too slowly and residents who are fed up with shootings.
D.C. police have just begun to rehire after a year-long freeze that left the department the smallest it’s been in two decades, and Bowser authorized unlimited overtime, saying residents “do not feel safe while the threat of gun violence looms.”
Geldart, the deputy mayor, said the city needs to put more officers on the street to deal with crime happening now and expand social intervention and alternative-justice programs to attack the root causes of violence. The mayor’s latest budget pumps millions into crime mitigation programs and more than doubles the size of the violence interrupter unit.
D.C. officials say crime drops dramatically in areas targeted for initiatives combining police and social services. The strategy is being expanded through its newest initiative, Building Blocks DC, which focuses on streets where a disproportionate amount of violence occurs.
One of those areas is around Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X avenues in Congress Heights, where the 6-year-old, Nyiah Courtney, was killed by stray bullets when, police say, members of one crew fired on another.
Authorities arrested one man in the killing and more than a dozen others accused in a suspected drug trade, which police said had the community locked down in fear.
In the seven months leading up to Nyiah’s death, police said there were six nonfatal and three fatal shootings in the immediate area of where she was killed. Building Blocks DC then moved in, and Contee said violent crime dropped 66 percent over the following months, with only one nonfatal shooting and one armed robbery reported through November.
“Everybody has their role, right?” Contee said, noting that his is to “put the handcuffs on the bad guys.”
The chief has spoken often about holding other leaders and agencies, in and out of the criminal justice system, accountable for crime. He supports alternative-justice programs and more programs to keep people out of jail, but he also says jail is where some criminals belong.
“I’m just simply saying we have to look at these violent criminals for the criminals they are,” Contee said, “and make assessments on whether or not they should be given the privilege of being back in the community.”
Leaders across the District have been struggling to find the right balance.
D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who is not seeking reelection but is instead running for D.C. attorney general, said violent offenders need to be held to account. But communities experiencing high levels of violence also need resources, he said, “and that can’t simply be an afterthought in assuring public safety.”
“We cannot talk about the police as if the police alone are going to solve the city’s problem with violence.”
Jasmine Hilton, Dan Morse, Justin Jouvenal, Rachel Weiner and Justin Moyer contributed to this report.