The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dangerous, difficult week sharpens safety focus in D.C. mayor’s race

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser speak to the media at the scene of a shooting in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 22. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

On Friday, a sniper targeted students and adults near a school in Northwest Washington and left four injured before taking his own life. Three other people were hurt in a separate shooting in Northwest Washington and the gunman remained on the loose. On Saturday morning D.C. police fatally shot a woman who would not drop a firearm, authorities said.

The city already was on edge from a rash of carjackings as D.C. police statistics show violent crime has leaped 25 percent year-over-year and robberies have spiked 57 percent. Voters are weary, and the politicians challenging D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) are seeing the growing public concern over crime as a way to make inroads into her lead in the polls.

Bowser, who took to social media Friday to decry gun violence, on Saturday faced sharp criticism from her opponents in a campaign season increasingly centered on public safety.

At the end of a dangerous and difficult week in the District, crime was very much on the agenda Saturday afternoon as Democratic mayoral candidates debated in the basement of a Northeast Washington church.

“Violent crime is up across the city and it’s terrifying,” D.C. Councilmember Robert C. White Jr. (At-Large) said in his introductory statement at the forum hosted by Ward 5 Democrats at Faith United Church of Christ.

And former Ward 5 ANC commissioner James Butler used almost all of his opening salvo to attack Bowser’s record on crime.

“One of my first priorities as mayor of this great city will be to restore hope and a sense of safety and security in this city,” Butler said. “I will make D.C. one of the safest cities in the country. Folks, I’ll say it again if you didn’t hear me. I will make D.C. one of the safest cities in the country.”

Someone tapped on his car window, then pointed a gun. It was yet another carjacking in the D.C. region.

Bowser didn’t specifically mention crime in her opening statement, but she acknowledged that residents want continued progress with public safety.

The day before, she wrote a public letter following the shooting at the Edmund Burke School in the Van Ness neighborhood connecting D.C.'s challenges with “the epidemic of gun violence in our country.”

“Today has been a heartbreaking day for our community,” Bowser wrote. “Unfortunately, tonight, I looked into the eyes of parents who were terrified, and they were terrified thinking of what might happen to their children. This epidemic of gun violence in our country, the easy access to firearms — it has got to stop.”

In her letter, Bowser said there were two other shootings in the District on Friday.

“People should not be scared taking their children to school. People should not be scared sitting in their cars when they run errands. People should not be scared standing outside their homes and talking to neighbors.”

Bowser holds a wide lead over her Democratic challengers, but her approval rating among D.C. residents has dropped according to a Washington Post poll released in February.

D.C. mayor’s budget would expand police ranks amid crime worries

Asked to name the District’s top problem, 36 percent of respondents cited crime, violence or guns — twice as many as in a 2019 Post poll. Over the same period, the share of residents saying the city is headed in the right direction dropped from 59 percent to 49 percent.

In an interview following the debate, Bowser said the D.C. Council needs to act and pass her administration’s budget to provide additional funding and resources to police.

Her proposal would add 347 officers to the police force in fiscal 2023. And she wants to expand to 4,000 a department that has shrunk to about 3,500 officers. Police estimate that achieving that goal could take until 2031.

Police told The Washington Post earlier this month that responding to calls about violent crime took 90 seconds longer than in 2020. The police chief described that as an “eternity” for victims and a bonus for escaping criminals.

“They have defunded our police force for the last two years and we have to have the right amount of police to respond to huge incidents like we saw last night as well as neighborhood crimes,” Bowser said following the debate. “Public safety is my top priority every day.”

But White pushed back at Bowser’s attempt to blame the council.

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

“Violent crime has gone up drastically and it didn’t just start going up,” White said in an interview following the debate. “It has gone up consistently throughout the mayor’s term and particularly homicides over the past five years.”

White put the blame for the leap in crime squarely on Bowser’s shoulders.

“The mayor is the one who develops a public safety plan,” he said. “But here we are years into a homicide crisis and she still has no plan.”

White has proposed a program that would guarantee jobs for every District resident that he said would increase the city’s workforce by a third and provide residents with respectable jobs.

Candidate Robert White pitches guaranteed job for every D.C. resident

“This monumental program will drive down violence. … People want to be involved in improving their communities, and we want to give them an opportunity to do that,” White told The Washington Post earlier this week, comparing his proposal to former mayor Marion Barry’s creation of the Summer Youth Employment Program, which gives paid work to District teenagers.

Councilmember Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who arrived 45 minutes after the debate began, did not specifically address the rising crime rate in his remarks.

During the lively and occasionally raucous debate Saturday in front of about 125 voters, the candidates extolled their positions on everything from schools and food deserts to affordable housing, homelessness and transportation. But as concerns over violent crime continue to grow, it’s likely that will take center stage in the campaign as the June 21 primary election day approaches.