The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. gun violence isn’t an ‘urban’ problem. It’s an American problem.

D.C. paramedics, firemen and police officers at the intersection of 14th and U streets NW in Washington on June 19. Multiple people were shot, among them a police officer. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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It’s not an urban problem, an inner-city problem, a blue city or a red state problem.

“It’s an American problem,” said Salah Czapary, a former police officer and Ward 1 D.C. Council candidate who has been in crowds when everyone scrambled and screamed as gunfire erupted.

That was the scene Sunday night in D.C.’s historic U Street corridor when gunshots cut short a joyful Juneteenth celebration of Black culture, American fathers and go-go music.

Three people, including a D.C. police officer, were injured and a 15-year-old boy was killed. No one has been arrested, as the country whipsaws between talk of police reform and the symptoms of entrenched, systemic issues increasingly erupting in violence. Violent crime is up in D.C. by 17 percent compared to this time last year, and it’s become a front-burner issue in upcoming elections.

Americans are good at sending Monday morning thoughts and prayers after seeing those reports of weekend violence. We shake our heads in disbelief and privately congratulate ourselves for living in the suburbs.

D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, New Orleans. Murder capitals.

But that stereotype — frequently applied to majority-Black cities — lets us off the hook, while perpetuating a false belief that our individual choices can protect us from who we, as a country, have become.

Meanwhile, new cities keep joining that list: Aurora, Newtown, Parkland, Buffalo, Uvalde.

Over the weekend, joining urban Washingtonians in a run from gunfire were suburban Virginians in the Tysons Corner Center mall, where three people were injured in the stampede to avoid bullets. Out west, the same scene played out on Fremont Street in Las Vegas, where gamblers scrambled to duck gunfire that hit two people, killing one.

So now that we know gunfire has no Zip code, are we ready to talk about stopping this?

Before we do, can we agree what this even is? Because it’s not just about numbers. It’s also about the understanding that this can happen anywhere, that we are being terrorized.

Would more cops have cooled the shooting in D.C.? When you look at videos of what happened, there were dozens of officers there. After the defund-the-police movement following the murder of George Floyd, are we back to wanting a beat cop on every corner?

Don't defund the police. Reimagine the police.

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III wants 4,000 officers under his command, about 500 more than he has now. The current department, at about 3,500 officers, shrank thanks to attrition, retirement and the pandemic.

I checked in with two people who know that corner (but grew up in D.C.'s suburbs): the neighborhood commissioner who lives there and represents the area, and Czapary, a former police officer who worked scenes like this during his time in uniform. Both are squaring off in Tuesday’s primary.

“Chief Contee noted there were at least 100 officers already on the scene. More officers wouldn’t have prevented this violence,” said Sabel Harris, 32, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for that part of D.C.'s U Street corridor. “Any calls saying we need more police are blatant fearmongering manipulations and show that it comes from outside of our community.”

Czapary, 31, agrees that more officers aren’t always the answer for every situation.

Czapary said the force is at a hiring low and needs to beef up. But the work to prevent those nightmare scenes of violence begins long before that terrifying sound of gunshots.

We know that first, there are simply too many guns. It doesn’t matter that D.C. has strict gun laws; our borders are porous and gun prosecutions aren’t easy to get.

Ward 1 incumbent Brianne K. Nadeau agreed.

“I will continue to emphasize this — the continued availability of firearms cannot be tolerated, and we must continue our work to get guns off the streets,” said Nadeau, who has been criticized over rising crime in the city and her vote to cut the D.C. police budget.

Morale within the department is low and the connections between police and the people are frayed, Czapary said. It’s a cycle of misery that begins with unmet basic human needs. He worked as a police officer but estimated that 80 percent of his duties were closer to social work.

Harris sees this in the neighborhood, too.

“The pandemic has only heightened and exacerbated issues that existed well before,” she said. “These losses create desperation, feelings of deep anger, resentment, and general hopelessness.”

This American problem — which is about witnessing, anticipating and enduring gun violence — is complex. It’s about dreams deferred, generational trauma, mental illness — “the result of upstream failures,” Czapary said.

Police said the boy killed in D.C. on Sunday was Chase Poole, who was armed and had been shot twice, already — as recently as February. His trauma began all the way at the top of that stream, and that’s where we must begin to repair ourselves.