The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Mayor’s crime-fighting initiative, Building Blocks DC, is shifting its structure

Some worry the program has lost its focus and urgency as the emergency center stands down while gun violence continues

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser at a news conference in February 2021 announcing her Building Blocks DC program to combat gun violence. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

A year ago, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) touted a new approach to tackling gun violence, launching an initiative she said would sharply focus prevention and intervention efforts on the city’s most dangerous blocks.

With $15 million of initial funding for the Building Blocks DC program, the city opened a Gun Violence Prevention Emergency Operations Center, staffed by workers across local government. Officials said they coordinated efforts to put violence interrupters on the streets to quell disputes, get people into jobs and job training, and clean up run-down areas. Thousands of dollars of grant funding went to community groups trying to help.

The aim, officials said, is to identify people vulnerable to becoming victims — or perpetrators — of gun violence and help them find different paths. The initiative concentrates on 151 city blocks on which 41 percent of all firearms-related crimes occur.

Now, as shootings continue and carjackings surge, the operations center is winding down, while Building Blocks, city officials said, is maintaining its mission but changing its structure. Instead of directing violence prevention initiatives like an air traffic control tower directs planes, officials now describe it in a more amorphous way — a framework overseeing efforts by different agencies, programs and newly dedicated staff members.

Amid this shift, there is concern that the centerpiece of Bowser’s “whole government approach” to fighting crime has lost its urgency, and the city has failed to define clearly how Building Blocks operates.

“I want to support Building Blocks DC,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, told one of Bowser’s deputy mayors at a recent hearing. “But I’m struggling, as a lot of people are, to understand what it is.”

Allen, whose committee has legislative oversight over D.C. police and other public safety entities, said the emergency operations center was a key selling point, as was a director “empowered to marshal resources.”

He said there seems to be a disconnection between the way the effort was first envisioned and what it appears to be now. “That tells me we’re clearly not getting it right,” Allen said.

The deputy mayor for public safety and justice described Building Blocks as a “framework” and a “strategy.” That official, Christopher Geldart, added at the hearing, “It’s not a place. It’s not a people. It’s a way to do business.” He said it has taken time to get agencies “to understand how their mission fits in to Building Blocks and their role in the crime fight.”

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

The District’s director of gun violence prevention, who runs Building Blocks and oversaw the emergency operations center, attributed these fissures to the program’s evolving from what began as a short-term initiative.

“The mayor recognized, along with the rest of the city, we’re in an emergency and we need to do something and do it now,” Linda K. Harllee Harper said of Building Blocks’ inception. “And that’s exactly what we did, while also trying to figure out what is the best way to approach this long-term.”

City Administrator Kevin Donahue said the emergency operations center, staffed by city workers putting in extra hours, helped to jump-start the effort but was not a permanent solution.

The $15 million of start-up money went to fund the center as well as the grants to community groups and nonprofit groups involved in violence-prevention efforts. This year, Bowser pumped $59 million of American Rescue Plan federal stimulus money into public health initiatives to fight crime; Building Blocks oversees this money even as it is spread among a number of agencies.

Officials said that means outreach workers on the streets now can quickly tap into more resources. For instance, the D.C. Department of Employment Services, which assists with job placement and training, has 151 new slots set aside for residents in the areas targeted by Building Blocks. Similarly, the Department of Public Works (DPW) has crews dedicated to those same areas to clean alleys, cut back brush and tow abandoned vehicles that often are used to hide drugs and guns.

And Building Blocks shifted some staffers to the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which already has job-training efforts and violence interrupters, concluding that bolstering an existing program would be more effective. That office also has more space for its own intensive jobs program.

Donahue said the city is trying to meet the “unique needs of people in fear for their lives,” often the most distrustful of government, the hardest to reach and least likely to seek help on their own.

On one Building Blocks block on Cedar Street SE, near where an 11-year-old was killed in 2020, violence interrupters mediated a historic feud and led several people into a job training program with full-time coaching, Donahue said. DPW hired others from that neighborhood to work 12-hour days collecting leaves and fallen trees. Then those workers refurbished a long-closed playground and installed new lights along the street.

David Muhammad, the executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform and a consultant to Building Blocks, studied the victims and perpetrators of every homicide in the city in 2019 and 2020, and nonfatal shootings in 2020. He set out to identify “all the risk factors” that point to “someone being involved in gun violence,” along with motives behind seemingly random gunfire.

“It’s a very small number of people who are responsible for the vast majority of gun violence in the District,” Muhammad said. “And most of that gun violence is very predictable, and the people are identifiable.”

He added, “And that is why we know it’s preventable.”

In a report issued Thursday, the institute said it had found that a few hundred people were responsible for up to 70 percent of the city’s gun violence. Most victims and suspects are Black men, the report found, and nearly half had previously been jailed or imprisoned, or were on court-ordered supervision.

Personal disputes topped the list of motives in homicides, at 20 percent, although the reason for nearly just as many killings remained unknown. And the report found that although many killings can be linked to gangs or crews, those organizations are described as “growing more unstable and dynamic,” with members crossing boundaries, changing affiliations and forming alliances with rivals. Motives behind shootings involving crews are not what people think of as more-traditional fights over drugs or territory, the report found, but more often over women, alliances and perceived disrespect.

The idea behind Building Blocks, Muhammad said, is to offer those people “services and support and opportunities and coach them into another lifestyle.”

But he conceded that Building Blocks has struggled at times.

“The structure has been what we have been concerned about, and the level of coordination, or the lack thereof,” he said. “I think there’s still some work to do, but I’m very encouraged by the direction the District is going in.”

Roy Tolbert is living in a halfway house transitioning back into society as he nears the end of a 10-year prison sentence for armed robbery. A friend put the 51-year-old in touch with Building Blocks, and he works with DPW picking up trash and leaves.

He said the program is helping him to get a fresh start and provide for his four children. “Absolutely it’s an incentive,” he said, adding that in his own way, he’s now “cleaning up the city.”

Another core component of Building Blocks is its grant program, which agency leaders say supports community members who have their own solutions to make people safer. Last summer, the city awarded $750,000 to more than 60 residents and community groups; another round of grant recipients was announced last month.

Grant recipients who spoke to The Washington Post described an overall positive experience with the program, although some expressed a tenuous grasp of how they fit into Building Blocks’ larger mission. Others said follow-up was inconsistent after the grants were disbursed.

Jawanna Hardy, a longtime activist and the founder of Guns Down Friday, a nonprofit group that supports families affected by gun violence in D.C. and neighboring Prince George’s County in Maryland, said the $5,000 she received from Building Blocks last summer allowed her to extend the group’s work into several other communities beyond the Wheeler Road area where it typically operates.

Among its efforts, Guns Down Friday used the money to teach at-risk community members how to treat themselves and others using first aid and CPR. Building Blocks’ representatives attended the events, said Hardy, 34, and she praised the easy application process, which she said has given her and other community leaders the confidence to apply for more grants.

“For me, the grant opened up a door,” Hardy said.

But Hardy said that at the same time she has heard criticisms of Building Blocks from other activists. Some have expressed confusion over how Building Blocks’ work connects to other city violence prevention efforts — a disconnection that has at times caused tensions among the groups.

“I’ve heard people argue over who is in charge of what,’” Hardy said of the various city-led violence-prevention groups.

Harllee Harper said Building Blocks is working to communicate better within the government and with residents. She said that includes a forthcoming dashboard with performance metrics that will be publicly available online, although she could not specify when that will be ready or what data it will contain.

Judah Project founder Richard White said his group used its $5,000 grant to help youths in the Shaw neighborhood who have been exposed to gun violence develop skills needed to enter the workforce. Representatives of Building Blocks and the Progressive Life Center, a D.C. nonprofit organization that is managing the grant program, even appeared in virtual meetings and appeared to be impressed with the program, White recalled.

But communication went silent in the weeks afterward, White said, and he did not know that a second round of grants had been awarded.

“There was no reaching out from the city to see if the Judah Project would be interested; $5,000 is a band-aid on a broken leg,” White said. “D.C. needs sustained funding for ongoing, successful community programs to be truly effective in reducing gun violence, rather than fragmented responses.”

Charles Evans, the chief operating officer of the Progressive Life Center, said that as Building Blocks’ mission evolves, so will its engagement with grant recipients.

“If you track this back to the beginning, there was an importance on engaging the community as quickly as possible in doing something. On the PLC side, we didn’t know that this was something that was going to continue beyond that point,” Evans said.

Eli McCarthy, a longtime program manager with the D.C. Peace Team, which offers training in de-escalation skills, successfully applied for a $5,000 grant last summer to set up a community safety team in Columbia Heights.

McCarthy said he did not see anyone from Building Blocks or the PLC at any of the group’s events, but he was notified about the second grant opportunity via email and met with PLC officials during the second application process. McCarthy was awarded another $5,000 grant in January.

But asked to define Building Blocks and how his own efforts fit into its framework, McCarthy was less confident.

“I think we’re quite clear on how our own efforts contribute to minimizing gun violence and social issues that lead to it,” he said. “Building Blocks funds a lot of different programs, so it’s not clear how we all fit together in a strategy. But I presume they have that knowledge.”

Emily Davies contributed to this report.