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Police, residents confront spate of shootings in Columbia Heights

Police, community members and others meet near the Columbia Heights Metro Station to discuss recent shootings and other crime in the area on Jan. 20 in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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A woman who recently moved into an apartment steps from the Columbia Heights Metro station saw a man shoot another man at 2 p.m.

A mother who lives across the street complained her daughter is relegated to riding her scooter in the building’s hallway because it’s too dangerous outside. A retiree recounted hearing gunshots: “Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.”

They live in the heart of Columbia Heights, within a block of the city’s busiest Metro station and prime shopping areas at 14th and Irving streets NW. It is a centerpiece of the District’s renewal, an area that combines the vibrancy of an urban neighborhood with the bustle of an outdoor mall.

In the past three months, life here has been marred by bullets, fear and anger.

“This area is not safe,” said Peter Clark, the 64-year-old retiree who described the “bam, bam” of gunshots to police during a community walk with residents Thursday afternoon.

He has called Columbia Heights home for the past three decades, and he now lives in Trinity Towers, an apartment building across the street from the Metro. His high-rise and neighboring Columbia Heights Village residences have long been a mainstay of the community, yet they are also separate from the newer development along 14th Street.

“I came home one night, and there were two cars parked in those spaces,” Clark told police officers on Thursday, pointing to a lot behind Trinity Towers where residents complained the streetlights often go dark. “All of a sudden, they turned around and started shooting.”

Since the beginning of November, D.C. and Metro Transit police have counted at least seven separate shooting incidents in or around the station, with eight people struck by bullets, two fatally.

Thousands of bullets have been fired in this D.C. neighborhood. Fear is part of everyday life.

Many of the shootings have occurred during daylight, when tenants spill from apartments and condos and commuters push into the underground trains. The pandemic has slowed the pace, but the streets remain busy, and sometimes dangerous.

In November, bullets twice in 20 days struck people outside the station, wounding two people each time. One of them died. Later that month, police said a 19-year-old was shot and wounded on a train at the station.

One rush-hour evening in December, police said a man got off a train after a fight, stood on the underground platform and fired at the train as it pulled out of the station. No one was injured.

Three more people were shot this month — two men wounded a week apart outside the station, and a 33-year-old man killed in the 1300 block of Columbia Road NW, two blocks away. .

Bullets fired from one of this month’s shootings also put holes in the side of the outdoor Metro elevator shaft and shattered a window of the Wawa on the ground floor of a luxury apartment building that towers over the station’s entrance. A plate-glass window remained boarded on Thursday, just below a sign seeking new tenants.

Gunfire is not new here. The 1300 block of Columbia Road, around the corner from Trinity Towers, has long been a hot spot for crime, and was the site of a shooting in 2019 that left six people wounded and one dead. In 2020, eight people were wounded and one was killed at 14th and Spring streets NW, a little less than a mile north of the station.

D.C. Police Cmdr. Han Kim, who heads the Third District police station and covers areas from Logan Circle through Adams Morgan, told residents there is little rhyme or reason behind the shootings. Some are the result of disputes between street crews, he said, while others stem from simple arguments that escalated.

Homicides soar in District, Maryland suburbs in 2021

Violence borne out of spontaneous disputes are more difficult to prevent, police have said, generally out of reach of violence interrupters and mediators who try to calm tension involving gangs and rival neighborhoods. Metro Transit police said they are keeping a near round-the-clock presence at the station, with police cars parked with emergency lights flashing to draw attention to their presence.

Kim pleaded for people to help them with tips. “We need the assistance of the entire community here,” he told the group, adding, “We have to get guns off the street” and ensure those arrested are “held responsible for their crimes.”

Some residents complained about the D.C. Council’s 2021 budget cut to police that the mayor’s office blames for a shortfall of 200 officers as crime spiked. Various community leaders and District officials talked of programs to help extricate people from troubled lifestyles to fight crime at its root causes.

The woman who talked of her daughter riding her scooter in the corridor told the group she had lived in Columbia Heights most of her life, and pleaded for help making Trinity Towers, where she lives, like other apartments across the street.

“They’re building on top of buildings on top of buildings,” she said noting many of the new residential high-rises boast rooftop pools. The woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of safety concerns, said the nearest community pool for her children is two neighborhoods away.

“It’s nice around here,” she said of the area in general. “But let’s be real. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on.” And, she said, “these kids are angry.”

The woman who saw the shooting from her window said she now has second thoughts about staying. A recent arrival, the 32-year-old said she was at home working at her government job, talking to colleagues on the phone, when she heard what she thought was a car backfiring.

She went to her window and said she saw a man with a gun shooting another man. The woman, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for safety fears, told her story to police and city leaders at the community walk. She complained that she reached out to police and to a council member’s office seeking help, “and I never heard back.”

“The biggest issue is feeling safe where you live,” the woman said later. “I was in my home, it was 2 in the afternoon, on a Wednesday, and I witnessed a man get shot. It really has me thinking about leaving the area.”