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Gun violence reduction plan recommends strategies to make D.C. safer

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council published the plan as the city struggles to address a surge in violent crime

District officials and residents have debated the best ways to reduce gun crimes in D.C. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
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An independent D.C. agency has released a report outlining a gun violence reduction strategy for the city, with some backers of the plan saying it could provide a comprehensive road map to addressing the surge of violent crime in a way the mayor and political leaders have not.

But there are outstanding questions about whether the plan will amount to more than words on paper, and how much of it overlaps with programs the city is already running.

“I think we have an excellent document to build on,” said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) at a community meeting Thursday evening to discuss the plan. “We are here and working urgently on a comprehensive approach like what is represented here to help people choose a different path.”

The Gun Violence Reduction Strategic Plan, published this month by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), includes 16 recommendations that experts say would decrease violent crime in the near-term and begin alleviating the socioeconomic factors that give rise to violence in D.C. over time.

The report recommends that the city establish a “Peace Room” where data and crime analysts, violence reduction managers and liaisons from government agencies coordinate immediate responses to shootings that extend far beyond the police. It also asks D.C. to convene weekly meetings to review every shooting incident, create a citywide database to coordinate services between agencies for each person under supervision, increase the number of violence intervention workers and create an academy to train them.

“The District is unique in that it is one of the few cities in the country that has the needed talent, ability, and resources to drastically reduce gun violence in the city,” the report compiled by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR) said. “However, it is lacking the political commitment, coordination, and a coherent strategy to reduce gun violence.”

Over the last few years, the District has established a permanent office of gun violence prevention and announced a flurry of initiatives that offer holistic approaches to combating gun violence. Some of the programs, like the transitional employment program Pathways, have been in large part celebrated for their success. But what critics say is missing is an overall framework to coordinate resources around one mission that effectively reduces violence in the city. Bowser’s signature crime-fighting initiative, Building Blocks D.C., has evolved into more of a theory that even top city officials have struggled to define.

The strategic plan put forward by the CJCC, according to its authors and D.C. officials, could provide the road map the city needs.

“This starts to create a strategy, not multiple disparate strategies,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee and sits on the CJCC. “That is the pivot point and turning point that is potentially in front of us.”

D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda K. Harllee Harper said the city will use the report as the foundation of its work and expressed pride that the District has already made progress on much of what was outlined in the document.

“Opportunities for public and government input will finalize the plan,” she said in a message. “The goal is to create a plan that can be fully adopted by the city.”

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Public safety has become the chief concern for an increasing percentage of D.C. residents as violent crime continues to devastate neighborhoods across the city. Last year, the District surpassed 200 homicides for the first time since 2003; as of Thursday, it is on track for an even higher number of killings this year. Robberies are also up by more than 50 percent compared with the same point in 2021, according to D.C. police data. A Washington Post poll released in February found that 36 percent of respondents cited crime, violence or guns as the District’s top problem — twice as many as in a 2019 Post poll.

There is added pressure to communicate a strategy around mitigating violence with the Democratic primary on June 21, when Bowser will face challengers from the left who have made public safety a centerpiece of their campaigns. Experts say the new strategic plan provides a response to swaths of D.C. voters who have been calling for ways to address violence outside of simply relying on law enforcement yet are increasingly desperate to feel safe.

If implemented, authors of the report say, their method can achieve a 10 percent decrease in the number of homicides, nonfatal shootings and gun-armed robberies each year — a metric they say they achieved in other jurisdictions with a similar approach. The report prioritizes intervention while also including recommendations that target underlying causes and risk factors of violence such as poverty and chronic unemployment.

At the center of the report is a recommendation to “implement a comprehensive, coordinated, citywide Gun Violence Reduction Strategy,” which experts describe as a data-driven approach that has been used in cities like Boston and Oakland. The strategy involves relying on data to identify the people most at risk of gun violence and providing them with intensive services, supports and opportunity. It also encourages the police to use a tactic called “focused enforcement,” which directs police engagement away from petty crime and toward mitigating violence.

The document also suggests that the District launch a “Guaranteed Income pilot program,” which would provide 200 Black families with children under 10 years old a monthly stipend of $750, in addition to other initiatives aimed at the root causes of violence.

“The idea is for this to be a living, breathing document that has iterations over time,” said David Muhammad, NICJR’s executive director.

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The District already has invested in some programs outlined in the strategic plan, Muhammad and city officials said. The Child and Family Services Agency, for example, has long run success centers that are similar to the community resource hubs outlined in the report. More recently, the city launched its People of Promise Initiative using data compiled by Muhammad. That initiative identifies individuals at the highest risk of gun violence and dedicates resources to them, a central tenet of the strategic plan.

“I want to say that the recommendations are encouraging because we actually have started work already in some form or fashion in every single one of the recommendations NICJR has put forward,” Harllee Harper said at the public meeting. “We are encouraged because it means we are moving in the right direction.”

Community members at the public meeting pushed Muhammad and city officials to commit funding to the recommendations outlined in the report. The proposed budget for the 2023 fiscal year includes a $1.7 million investment in life coaches to work with the highest-risk residents in D.C. The funding will allow for 20 family support workers and three supervisors, the city said. The strategic plan recommends 62 life coaches, but city leaders said they wanted to roll out the program in waves. Both Muhammad and Harllee Harper said they hope to work together “soon” to develop implementation plans.

Peace for D.C. Founder Roger Marmet, who lost his 22-year-old son, Tom, to gun violence in 2018, said he was “surprised, impressed and heartened” to see Bowser show up at the public meeting Thursday evening. But he said he is looking for the city’s budgets to reflect their commitment to the plan.

“I am not 100 percent convinced, and I won’t be until we see those specific recommendations implemented with fidelity, with outside evaluation, with constant improvement,” he said. “That is all possible, but it would be a new way of operating.”

Peter Hermann contributed to this report.