The Washington Post

D.C. wants to save at-risk people. Violence, missteps marred the effort.

The city has yet to reach about half of those on its “People of Promise” list, and a top official graded the program as a C-plus.

Jahmeze Williams was shot and killed in May, 13 days after city records show the government last contacted him. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post, Photo: Aleathea Cumbo/The Washington Post)

A month after the D.C. government set out to do whatever it took to save Jahmeze Williams and people like him, the 20-year-old collapsed in the back seat of a car, a bullet lodged in his right arm.

He died within half an hour, shot inches above a tattoo of his mother’s name.

His life wasn’t supposed to end this way. Williams was one of about 230 D.C. residents the city had dubbed “People of Promise,” a diplomatic way of referring to a list of those considered most at risk of committing violence — or becoming a victim of violence themselves. The initiative, a key pillar of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s effort to combat crime as homicides continue at a pace that could reach a two-decade high, was designed to bring intense government services to those on the list, assigning a cabinet-level official to supervise each person’s case.

But about five months after the city formally launched the program, two people, including Williams, have been killed, at least eight others on the list have been shot, and more than a dozen have been charged in connection with nonfatal shootings, carjackings and unlawful possession of firearms, according to city officials and a review of the list by The Washington Post against court and other public records.

City officials said they enlisted a wide swath of agencies to implement the program — including behavioral health, public works and transportation. But they acknowledged missteps in the process, and they conceded they have yet to even make contact with about half of those they want to protect. Asked to grade the initiative, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Christopher Geldart said he would give it a “C-plus.”

Critics said the city was too slow in rolling out the program after identifying the names of people they wanted to target. They worry that the city’s decision to show the list to front-line workers who mediate street conflicts — which officials hoped would help them find people — allowed the list to circulate too broadly. Some at-risk residents who have heard about the document view it as a sort of “hit list” that police will use to target people for arrest, and are therefore more reluctant to embrace the city’s offers of help, according to front-line workers.

Officials, including Geldart and D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda Harllee Harper, insisted that someone on the list being shot or killed does not represent a failure, since each person was selected precisely because of the high risk that they would become victims of crime. The officials said they had to take their time to ensure the new program benefited the right people in the most effective way, and that challenges are to be expected for a group selected in part for their aversion to authorities.

The Washington Post reviewed a copy of the list of People of Promise, which the city declined to provide. The document includes dozens of repeat offenders, multiple members of families linked to generations of violence in D.C., and people charged in some of the most high-profile shootings in the region.

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Those on the list appear to be men between 15 and 64 years old, with the majority between 18 and 35. Most people are affiliated with a known gang or crew and have previous charges including low-level drug offenses and first-degree murder.

City officials said they offered Williams resources and that his slaying demonstrates how difficult it is to reach someone who is not fully ready to change their lifestyle. But his mother, Aleathea Cumbo, said she had no idea Williams had been dubbed a Person of Promise, and she said she did not believe he received enough help from the government.

“If that were the case,” she said, “my son would be here.”

‘We are not waiting’

On a Monday afternoon in April, D.C.’s mayor stood at a restaurant in Northeast D.C. and rolled out her latest initiative to prevent crime.

“We are not waiting,” Bowser said, introducing People of Promise. “We need to stop the gun violence that we are seeing in our city before anyone else is killed.”

At that point, 52 people had been slain in the District since January. Over the next five months, that number about tripled.

Some cities across the country have struggled with rising numbers of killings since 2020, a trend that experts attribute to disruptions caused by the pandemic, petty disputes turning deadly because of the proliferation of guns and a breakdown of trust between police and communities. Homicides have dropped this year in major cities like Chicago and New York. But by late September in D.C., the number of slayings was about even compared with the same time in 2021 — when there were more than 200 killings in a year for the first time in almost two decades.

One of the latest homicide victims was Jamal Gibson, a 23-year-old fatally shot in Northeast Washington the afternoon of Sept. 26. He had just been released from prison in August, after he was convicted of threatening to shoot his girlfriend. Gibson was on the People of Promise list. Geldart said Gibson had been enrolled in barber school and scheduled through a city agency to record a rap song with positive themes. Efforts to reach his relatives were unsuccessful.

Bowser has said she can bring gun violence down by 90 percent by focusing on “the people and places where most of the crime is happening.”

Some of her initiatives have been widely praised, such as a transitional employment program called Pathways that targets 20- to 35-year-olds susceptible to gun violence. But her public safety team has struggled to explain how its roster of programs fits together and keeps residents safe.

Over the last two fiscal years, the city spent $139 million on efforts outside of policing to combat gun violence. It is unclear what subset of that funding went directly into People of Promise, since the program is meant to streamline an array of services from multiple agencies, rather than offer new ones.

People of Promise grew out of an analysis performed by David Muhammad, executive director of the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, on shootings in 2019 and 2020. The District government paid him $65,000 over two years for a process that included identifying the 230 or so people most at risk of committing gun violence, or being victimized by it. His work began in fiscal year 2021, according to Muhammad and his agreement provided by the city.

To come up with that list in D.C., Muhammad, who has created similar systems to mitigate crime in cities across the country, said he and his staff interviewed police, violence interrupters and other leaders in the community and government. He also looked at people’s criminal histories, affiliation with crews or gangs and connection to shootings in the last year. He focused in particular on Black men between the ages of 18 and 35, who he said are statistically most vulnerable to crime.

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Williams was one of the people who made Muhammad’s final list, which he said he formally handed over to the city in January.

By that time, two people on the list had been charged with killing two others on the list, according to The Washington Post’s review of the names against court records. In total, at least 12 people were already slain, The Post’s review found. Multiple others were serving years-long prison sentences — though they were kept on the list by design, so officials could work with them upon release.

Over the next three months, as the D.C. government refined the list and prepared to formally deploy the program, a 13th person on it was killed, and another was charged with homicide, according to The Post’s review of the list against court records. Then, in April, Bowser announced the program.

The boy with the big smile

Before he became a Person of Promise, Williams was a scrawny kid who liked cartoons and dancing with his sisters.

With big brown eyes and a sharp sense of humor, it seemed for the first decade of his life that Williams had all the natural abilities he needed to make it out of a community where poverty and violence were central to everyday life, his mother said. Addition and subtraction came easy, friends flocked to him, and he showed surprising agility and strength for an elementary-schooler. His mother pictured herself standing on the sidelines, cheering on her son as he won the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals.

But then his family moved from another neighborhood in Southeast D.C. to a house on Alabama Avenue, one of the only locations in the city where they could afford a place big enough for the family of four. It was in that neighborhood, known to many residents as “The Z,” where the boy with the big smile changed.

The years that followed revealed the challenges of trying to save someone like Williams. Government officials decided to help him long before they launched People of Promise, but even with extra attention and resources, he struggled.

By eighth grade, Williams’s mother said his grades had fallen. Police started to pay attention to his movement around the neighborhood, and he was arrested multiple times for petty crimes, according to a Department and Youth Rehabilitation Services report obtained by The Post that detailed his juvenile record and other aspects of his life. His mom said she reduced her work hours so she could watch her son more closely — even joining him on street corners if she sensed that tensions were brewing.

At the age of 15, prosecutors alleged Williams fatally shot another teenager near a playground and stole the Nike Air Jordans off his feet. Williams was convicted in juvenile court, committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitative Services and placed in New Beginnings, the youth detention center, while he appealed the case.

Throughout the years he was under court-ordered supervision, Williams received government services like group therapy and vocational training. When he was released to home detention at 17 years old, similar programs followed him, offering internships and mental health services, according to a timeline compiled by the city and obtained by The Washington Post.

His stepfather, Antoine Rice, noticed a change in Williams when he first arrived home from New Beginnings. He got up each morning to take his sisters to school and talked often about his determination to find a job and take care of his family, which included his now 4-year-old son, also named Jahmeze. But that progress began to unravel, Rice said, as he watched his stepson spend more and more time back in the streets.

In September 2020, Williams was arrested after his GPS monitor put him close to a shooting in his neighborhood. About eight months later, he was shot and injured, though he survived.

“The system, they can do a lot of things, but it’s up to you,” Rice said. “I can’t blame the city because my kid got killed from gun violence.”

But Williams’s mother said D.C. is largely responsible for her son’s struggles. She had long believed Williams was wrongly convicted in the murder. In September 2021, she got some measure of vindication when an appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling defense attorneys were improperly limited in questioning witnesses.

“He was hurt because he was locked up for something he didn’t do,” said Cumbo. “It ruined my son’s life.”

‘A freaking list’

On a Thursday in May, Jawanna Hardy, whose nonprofit Guns Down Friday works to reduce gun violence, said she joined about a dozen other community members for a roundtable discussion with Muhammad’s group about the city’s new gun violence prevention strategy. That is where she first heard of the People of Promise list.

“I want nothing to do with it,” Hardy recalled saying to the room, though she acknowledged there were parts of the program that could be useful if officials dedicated more resources to the people involved. “In our community, you don’t want to be associated with any type of list.”

Hardy, who said she later saw the list and recognized names on it from her work in neighborhoods, worried about privacy — what would happen, for example, if an employer got hold of the document — and how community members would react if they learned they were among the 230 people the government had their eye on.

Other front-line workers tasked with mediating street conflict similarly said the list has made it harder for them to do their jobs. These violence interrupters can only mediate turf wars, they say, if they can earn trust with key players in neighborhoods — and that involves intentionally distinguishing themselves from police. Any association with the list, some violence interrupters said, could make it seem like they are conspiring with law enforcement.

Lashonia Thompson-El, who runs an academy for hundreds of people who mediate street conflict, said front-line workers tend to know who they need to reach simply by existing in the neighborhoods they serve. A list, she said, could have helped fill in any gaps in information — but only if the city had adequately trained violence interrupters on how to use it.

“You can’t just go walking up to people and say they are on the list. That could damage their reputation in the community,” she said. “It was reckless and thoughtless.”

Harllee Harper conceded that the list is “taking on sort of this life of its own” and might at least have to be renamed.

“I think it’s really important to not frame People of Promise as a targeted list by the government,” she said. “It’s that you’ve made yourself known to the government, and we want to intervene and help.”

D.C. officials said they appointed 20 of their top front-line workers to act as a bridge between the government and the people on the list. Two of those employees, interviewed by The Washington Post after being made available by the D.C. government, praised the program. They spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing safety concerns.

“We have a red carpet service,” one mentor said, noting those dubbed People of Promise jump ahead of others in line for assistance. She said having a direct line to a member of the mayor’s cabinet enables her to quickly follow through on promises. Sometimes help means finding a safe place to live. Sometimes it’s a bus pass. Or a new pair of jeans.

One of the People of Promise assigned to her, also interviewed on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety, said he is in a job training program. But he said what really helped was the city providing a place to stay away from areas where he had been caught with guns and once shot.

The young man said he was initially skeptical of yet another intervention program, but the workers behind People of Promise had “proved that they were trying to help.”

Harllee Harper, who had met Williams personally, said losing a Person of Promise to violence or prison does not mean the program is failing but instead that “we weren’t able to catch them and convince them to change their minds in time.”

She said she tells at-risk people that their choices are stark: “If you continue the way you’re going, you’re going to die or be in prison. … We’re working very hard to prevent it, but it’s a fact.”

‘It took my son to die for them to help me’

City officials hoped Williams would not be such a case.

Williams was identified as a Person of Promise by November, when Muhammad was finalizing a version of the list. By the time the program formally launched five months later, Muhammad said the city should have already developed an outreach plan tailored around the then-20-year-old.

“To be effective in successfully implementing an initiative like this really requires strong and tight management,” he said. “So I hope that is happening in the District.”

As of mid-September, Geldart said the city had made contact with 122 people on the list of about 230 — about 40 of whom are currently incarcerated. He said government workers had been able to “actively engage” about 94 of the people they reached. That, he said, means they did something like providing employment or mental health services, or successfully conducted safety check-ins.

Twelve people were receiving emergency housing services, five people were enrolled in Pathways, and 13 people were receiving mental health support as of Sept. 16, according to data provided by Geldart.

When Williams’s case was overturned, he lost access to some court-ordered services provided by the city. Through People of Promise, D.C. was able to extend his eligibility for a program that allowed him to work with a mentor toward his high school diploma and goal of becoming a firefighter.

“They continued efforts to engage, particularly around education and workforce development,” Geldart said. “They were able to locate and work with him regularly.”

Geldart stressed that the program was in its inaugural year and that officials were already discussing “lessons learned” to improve it. He said the city hopes to have a second, updated and refined list completed by next April with more input from community members.

Williams’s mother said the support for her son was unreliable and that what her family really needed was a new and safer place to live. City officials said they tried to relocate her. Cumbo and one of her social workers dispute that claim.

City records show the government’s last contact with Williams was May 11. He was killed 13 days later.

By late September, police had not made an arrest in his slaying.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.


A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the reason an appeals court overturned Williams’s murder conviction. The appeals court decided a judge had erred in limiting defense attorneys’ ability to question witnesses. This version has been updated.