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Homicides drop in D.C., but mayor calls youth violence an emergency

Killings also decline in Prince George’s County, but carjackings in both jurisdictions remain problematic

A mural outside the D.C. Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement in the District, where the number of homicides in 2022 is down compared with the previous year. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

The number of homicides in the District and neighboring Prince George’s County dropped in 2022 but remained high compared with pre-pandemic years, as leaders struggled to confront gun violence and carjackings involving youth.

Authorities said 203 people were killed in D.C. in 2022 as of Saturday afternoon, ending four consecutive years of rising homicides in the nation’s capital. The 11 percent drop marked a reversal from 2021, which had been the District’s deadliest since 2003. Still, the District hit 200 homicides for the second time in nearly two decades.

Prince George’s County police investigated 103 killings in 2022 as of Saturday afternoon, nearly 23 percent fewer than in 2021.

The downward trend in homicides in the D.C. region is reflected in large cities across the country, with overall homicide figures on pace to drop about 6 percent compared with 2021, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post that includes data from more than 80 police departments. Cities where killings went down in 2022 include New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago.

Although killings decreased over the prior year, the number of homicides in D.C. was still up 21 percent and about 38 percent in Prince George’s from 2019 — before the coronavirus upended the social safety net. And seemingly encouraging statistics, including a roughly 7 percent drop in overall crime in the District, were tempered by concerns about carjackings and violence involving juveniles as both perpetrators and victims.

Two juveniles arrested in the shooting and attempted robbery of a Washington Commanders running back in Northeast Washington were each linked by police to other unrelated killings, and a 15-year-old was arrested in the fatal shooting of another teen at a street festival on U Street. In Prince George’s, a 13-year-old was fatally shot while raking leaves, and the county executive reinstated juvenile curfew enforcement after one of the deadliest months on record.

Shootings of youths are soaring in D.C., vexing city leaders

D.C. police said they confiscated at least 3,154 illegal firearms in 2022, 30 percent more than in 2021. Shootings in the District went down in 2022 compared with 2021, but through Dec. 29, nearly twice as many juveniles — 105 — were struck by gunfire as the year before. And 18 people under 18 were victims of homicide in the city in 2022, 16 felled by gunfire. That is up from eight juveniles fatally shot of 12 killed in 2021.

“An emergency” is how Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) described the rising violence among youth at a graduation this month for workers trained to mediate street conflicts. In an interview later, the mayor, noting the overall crime drop, said efforts through policing and public health programs are starting to see results. But she cautioned: “We’re not satisfied until we get guns out of the hands of kids, and families feel safe in their neighborhoods.”

Authorities have blamed crime, particularly involving youth, on disruptions of schools, courts and organized activities following coronavirus lockdowns, as well as a continuing struggle to get back on track after most restrictions ended. Bowser said that children are “showing up in our criminal justice system, after covid, in tough shape,” and that “unfortunately, the [police] chief and his team have seen younger and younger people involved in more serious crime.”

Carjackings continue

Elsewhere in the D.C. region, homicides in Montgomery County dropped from a near-two decade high of 32 in 2021 to 26 in 2022, according to The Post’s totals. Several gained widespread attention, including a man who police said fatally shot a gas station clerk after having killed his pregnant girlfriend.

In Virginia, homicides in Fairfax County, Alexandria and Loudoun did not shift dramatically. In Prince William, nine more people than in 2021 were killed, driven in part by a domestic-related shooting that left four dead inside a home.

Of the homicides investigated by Prince George’s police, at least 85 were fatal shootings. Prince George’s Police Chief Malik Aziz said his department worked with lawmakers, the courts and the community to “put a blanket” over specific neighborhoods seeing mounting violence by increasing patrols, working with residents and targeting resources. Those efforts have required cross-border collaboration with D.C. officials to curtail a wave of carjackings across the region since the onset of the pandemic.

In Prince George’s, detectives have made arrests in four carjacking-related killings and are investigating a possible fifth. By late December, police said they had arrested at least 108 juveniles and 104 adults for carjacking crimes, up from 84 juveniles and 72 adults arrested the previous year.

In D.C., carjackings have spiked more than 200 percent since 2019. D.C. police said nearly 70 percent of carjacking cases in 2022 involved juvenile offenders.

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

Bowser is promoting an all government approach to confronting crime, putting every agency on notice that they are responsible for helping extricate people from lives and situations that can lead to violence. She launched an ambitious program called People of Promise that aimed to help more than 230 people identified on a list as at risk for being the next victim or perpetrator of a shooting.

The initiative struggled at the start; in its first five months, two people on the list were killed, eight others were shot, and a dozen were charged in violent crimes.

Bowser’s team has struggled to explain how various initiatives fit under one cohesive anti-crime plan, and she said officials are working to consolidate programs and initiatives, “so there is a clear, clear direction.” She said that People of Promise is growing and that officials are getting the most vulnerable “on a pathway of where they need to go.”

The Bowser administration has poured at least $139 million on efforts outside of policing to combat gun violence in the past two fiscal years, including jobs programs and violence interrupters, who embed in their own often dangerous and under-resourced neighborhoods trying to stamp out grievances before they escalate to gunfire.

But the mayor continues make traditional policing an important part of her plan. She said she will continue in 2023 to push for hundreds more officers to reach a force of 4,000, despite reluctance from the D.C. Council, which cut back on similar plans in 2022.

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

Bowser and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said a public health approach to violence needs to be coupled with a criminal justice system that holds violent offenders, including juveniles, to account. Contee said there is a question of “whether or not young people are really being committed to the city’s care.”

Progress without police?

The city began making significant investments in violence interrupters five years ago, and programs run by D.C. and the independently elected attorney general have expanded. By the end of 2021, there were more than 300 people working in communities across the District and, for the first time, a privately funded academy to train them.

One neighborhood in Southeast Washington once known for its high concentration of killings went months without a homicide. This area, spanning Fort Dupont and Benning Ridge, also saw assaults with guns fall by more than 45 percent compared with the same time in 2021, and more than 65 percent compared with the same time in 2020.

“This used to be a danger zone,” said Dodson Robey, an operations manager at the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, as he drove around a cul-de-sac in Fort Dupont. The area was quiet, with air-conditioning units hanging out of windows and three young men watching the van pass by.

Some people in the neighborhood held cookouts for the first time this summer, feeling safe enough to spend time outdoors.

That improvement, city officials and community members said, came after front-line workers negotiated a truce between two crews who had been feuding for more than a decade. It took over a year and drew on the ability of outreach workers to navigate sensitive conversations with key players both inside and outside the D.C. jail.

The success, officials said, shows the power of violence interruption — a non-law-enforcement approach to crime reduction.

Dwayne Falwell helped negotiate the truce. Asked why he could play a role in diffusing a volatile dynamic, he pointed to his years of building relationships with people who had grown up with him around the neighborhood. He also said their shared experiences gave him credibility.

“I used to be part of the problem,” he said.

Delano Hunter, interim director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, called those agreements “a contributing factor to us experiencing a decrease in homicides and also in violent crime” in 2022.

“It is something that is tangible,” he said.

Curfews and crime

Prince George’s County's 11 p.m. curfew for kids 16-years-old and under went into effect on Sept 9. Teens and parents in Lanham, Md., shared their thoughts. (Video: The Washington Post)

In neighboring Prince George’s, authorities said they relied on the county executive’s youth summer programming and the Hope in Action initiative, which offers microgrants to community anti-violence organizations to address crime beyond policing.

The courts, prosecutors and public defenders were also working with law enforcement and elected officials to alleviate burdens on the system and address juvenile justice concerns exacerbated by the pandemic.

But 24 killings in August — the county’s highest monthly death toll in more than three decades — tested those relationships. On Labor Day, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and Aziz announced a curfew for juveniles under 17. Officials blamed the crime spike on young people, their parents and the courts, accusing them of failing to hold juveniles accountable.

Some residents and parents praised leaders for taking action to address mounting safety concerns, while others called the curfew a politically motivated attempt to solve a complex problem. Police data showed a decline in homicides and carjackings since the curfew was imposed, though a Post analysis of data back to 2017 demonstrated difficulties in crediting the curfew alone for crime drops.

Prince George’s curfew aimed at curbing violence draws fans and skeptics

Alsobrooks has said there is “still so much work to do,” and that the curfew was one tool to combat violence, such as the string of killings in August, capped by four fatal shootings Labor Day weekend. Those killings included the fatal stabbing of a gas station clerk, with boys 12 and 15 charged, and a 16-year-old boy fatally shot in the parking lot of a convenience store.

Aziz said officers heard from parents who had tried to use the curfew as a way to keep their children home, and from students who cited it as a reason not to stay out late with friends. When the curfew first went into effect, Aziz said officers and community leaders identified places throughout the county where teens were known to congregate or get into trouble. Then officers and violence disrupters focused their attention there, educating children about the curfew and increasing proactive supervision.

“We disturbed those areas, we interrupted those areas, because we were looking for cooperation and compliance,” Aziz said. “We were not looking to put a bunch of young people in the system.”

A spokesperson for Alsobrooks said the curfew will remain in effect pending a reevaluation from the county executive in January.

Jawanna Hardy, director of Hope in Action, said that although the number of violence interrupters working in the county is small, additional hires are being made. She noted that much of the violence in Prince George’s mirrors the District, and that programs and other initiatives to confront crime should be more integrated.

“The community doesn’t see a borderline,” Hardy said.

Dan Morse, Justin Wm. Moyer, Salvador Rizzo and Olivia Diaz contributed to this report.