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3 in 10 District residents do not feel safe in their neighborhoods, Post poll finds

Most residents say more police would reduce crime, but the share of those who rate police positively has dropped.

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III speaks during a news conference on July 28, 2021, about public safety and crime. (Michael Blackshire/The Washington Post)

Three in 10 District residents do not feel safe from crime in their neighborhoods, according to a Washington Post poll, as the city experiences continuing gun violence and a rise in carjackings.

The share of Washingtonians who say they are not safe from crime has risen to 30 percent this year from 22 percent in November 2019 and is the highest in more than two decades of Post polls.

A greater percentage of people living in Wards 7 and 8 feel unsafe — more than 4 in 10 — in areas east of the Anacostia River with the highest concentrations of violent crime, compared with under 3 in 10 in other parts of the city.

Residents describe hearing gunshots, seeing police converge at crime scenes and learning about violent crime and property crimes on neighborhood email discussion groups or social media. About 1 in 6 residents say someone in their household has been a victim of violent crime in the past five years, including 23 percent of Black residents, 8 percent of White residents and 21 percent of those who are Hispanic, Asian or of other backgrounds.

Charlene Battle, 54, a D.C. native who works as a medical insurance examiner, has lived in Ward 8 for the past 20 years. She said she was trying to relax on her couch one recent Sunday afternoon when the popping sounds of gunshots shook her apartment.

“I was like, okay, this thing is close to me,” she said. “And that makes you so afraid. It makes you not want to walk out the front door.”

In many ways, the poll results reflect the push and pull in the debate over policing and crime.

Battle and many other residents said they want more police patrolling communities. But they also said the city should be willing to spend more money to help impoverished neighborhoods and believe outreach workers, such as violence interrupters, can help reduce violence.

And just a little more than half rate D.C. police as “good” or “excellent” (54 percent), down 20 percentage points from 2017, reflecting diminishing trust in police after calls for the reinvention of law enforcement that followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and ensuing nationwide demonstrations for social and racial justice.

This Post poll was conducted Feb. 2-14 among a random sample of 904 adult D.C. residents over landlines and cellphones. The overall margin of error is plus or minus four percentage points.

Washington Post poll: D.C. Mayor Bowser’s approval rating drops amid rising concerns about crime

D.C. police said in a statement that the poll results are consistent with what Chief Robert J. Contee III and officers have heard from people across the city about “feeling vulnerable.” The poll “confirms the chief’s message that reversing that sentiment and addressing violent crime is a collective effort,” the statement said.

Police said making D.C. safe “will require a sufficiently staffed police department and a commitment from all stakeholders, police, government services, legislators, business partners and community. We all play a critical role in a sustainable solution.”

Susan Breakefield Fulton, a retired co-founder of an investment management firm, lives in Logan Circle, near where a Peace Corps worker was fatally shot over the summer while walking home from a dinner date with his wife.

“I don’t think it’s gotten any worse,” said the 82-year-old, who has lived in the District since the 1960s. “But I certainly don’t think it’s gotten any better.”

She blames D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), but also the police, saying they’re stuck in outdated strategies that leave out social workers who she thinks should be paired with police on calls. Fulton said she supported Bowser in her first two mayoral elections, but won’t in the third.

“We have to find a way to work with people who feel that crime is the only solution for them,” Fulton said.

The poll finds 36 percent of residents who name crime, violence or guns as the District’s top problem, twice as many as in 2019, presenting a challenge as Bowser seeks a third term.

Although a majority approve of the mayor’s job performance, her popularity dropped from previous years, and the poll finds more than 7 in 10 Washingtonians rate her “not good” or “poor” in reducing crime in the District.

Statistics show that overall violent crime dropped 45 percent over Bowser’s tenure, though homicides over that same period spiked nearly as much. Shootings jumped 53 percent from 2018 to last year.

When Bowser became mayor in 2015, the police force had more than 3,800 officers; that number has fallen to a little more than 3,500. The force lost 267 officers in the past 16 months, the police chief told lawmakers last week, a situation that the administration blames on budget cuts imposed by the D.C. Council in 2020.

Over the summer, amid a streak of gun violence, Bowser authorized police to use unlimited overtime, calling for a “sustained police presence” and telling lawmakers that residents “do not feel safe while the threat of gun violence looms.”

Earlier this month, Michael Reed, a project manager at the National Institutes of Health, dropped his 5-year-old son off with his mom and saw dozens of police lights flashing on his way back. There had been a shooting, he learned, at a corner just 15 minutes after he had driven by with his son.

“I heard bullets went into establishments and not just the intended target,” said Reed, a 35-year-old who grew up in Ward 8. “If I was driving past at that time, could a bullet have hit my car? That is my biggest concern.”

Reed said gun violence seems to have gotten particularly out of control lately, and that sense is driven largely by the volume of crime reports he sees on social media and in the news. He particularly remembers articles about the D.C. Council candidate who was carjacked at a gas station, which he said was not far from where he lives.

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

The Post poll finds 63 percent of residents think violent crime would be reduced by using outreach workers, such as violence interrupters, to quell disputes before they escalate. And an overwhelming 82 percent say that spending more money on economic opportunities in impoverished neighborhoods would be effective, including nearly half who think this would reduce crime “a lot.” Fewer than half of residents, 44 percent, say increasing prison sentences would reduce crime.

Nearly 6 in 10 residents (59 percent) say “increasing the number of police officers patrolling communities” would reduce crime, numbers that are about even across wards of the District.

Residents say crime is Washington’s No. 1 problem, poll finds

Lesia Alleyne decided to buy a condo for the first time in her life, and she chose a building in Ward 7 that seemed affordable and spacious.

Two years later, the 49-year-old said she is frightened to walk outside of it when the sun goes down. Her neighbor’s contractor was robbed going to his van; her Nextdoor hyperlocal group chat is constantly pinging with news of smashed car windows; she hears gunshots almost daily, especially when it’s warm outside.

The looming sense of danger is all the more upsetting because Alleyne lives with her young adult children.

She worries most for her son, who she said has gotten in trouble with the criminal justice system and was recently the victim of a violent crime. She worries he will have run-ins with troublemakers in the neighborhood or will have confrontations with the police.

She fears that either could end his life.

“These boys don’t feel safe,” she said. “They’ve got it coming from both sides. The other brothers and then the police.”

The Post poll suggests some residents who feel unsafe are considering leaving the city. Among residents who feel unsafe in their neighborhoods, 40 percent would like to move away from D.C. if they could, compared with 20 percent who feel safe.

Alleyne believes there needs to be more resources to keep people like her son safe and out of trouble but does not think police should be part of that equation. Instead of more police, Alleyne wants the city to provide job training and mentors to people like her son.

She said she never heard of Building Blocks DC — the mayor’s signature crime program to draw together city agencies and groups to confront crime as a public health issue — or other such initiatives. But she said she supports any program that provides opportunities for Black men who feel trapped in a cycle of economic hardship.

Until she sees such initiatives start to work on people she knows, however, Alleyne’s focus will be on getting her son out of D.C. “There is an inherent safety issue with Black boys in D.C.,” she said. “I am not even a religious person, but I pray like crazy when my son goes out. Every single time.”