The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After violence, D.C. officials demand ‘accountability.’ Defining it is harder.

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser stand in front of an abandoned laundromat during a walk through Ward 8. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III stood behind crime-scene tape draped across four lanes of Georgia Avenue, the evening rush hour brought to an abrupt halt by a hail of gunfire that killed one man and injured three others, including an 8-year-old child.

He recited the sparse details of the Jan. 3 shooting and expressed anger, a grim ritual he has repeated often in his two years running the force in the nation’s capital. He did so again on Jan. 11 after two children and a man were shot and wounded exiting a Metrobus in Northwest D.C.

At both shooting scenes, Contee said he hoped the community demands “accountability” for those involved — turning to a word he and other city leaders have used frequently as gunfire has generated headlines and claimed children’s lives.

The word has become a sort of rallying cry for city officials struggling to understand and confront what drives crime. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) used it in her inaugural address. The city’s new deputy mayor for public safety discussed it in her first interview with a reporter after being tapped for the new job. It’s a regular part of Contee’s crime scene lexicon.

But the accountability they refer to is often vague — meaning different things to different people, or meant to imply that someone else, or some other institution, needs to do more.

Judges too lenient. Police too tough. Not tough enough. Too many cops. Too few. Law enforcement not trusted. Defund the police. Fractured homes. Lack of city resources. Substandard schools. Nothing for kids to do. Catch and release. Substandard arrests. Prosecutors drop cases. Judges set criminals free. Alternative justice. Restorative justice. No justice. No accountability.

Violent crime in the District dropped 7 percent last year compared with 2021, with reductions in shootings and homicides. But carjackings, gunfire heard in neighborhoods and violence impacting young people continues to be a challenge. The new year has brought little relief: six killings in the first week of 2023 alone.

On Jan. 7, police say, a man fatally shot a 13-year-old, Karon Blake, whom he claimed to have seen breaking into vehicles in Northeast Washington. The shooting has fueled calls to hold the shooter to account, putting police and prosecutors on the defensive.

Residents, along with activists and Karon’s family, packed a community meeting a few days later to angrily demand police quickly arrest the shooter. Just before the meeting, Contee had held a news conference about the incident, again using the word “accountability” and calling on residents to exhibit “the same passion when we have other homicides that happen in our city.”

D.C. officials insist they aren’t shifting blame by demanding accountability, but instead pointing out that police are but one part of a larger ecosystem that includes a dozen or more criminal justice entities that all deserve scrutiny.

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

Bowser, caught between a reformist Council seeking alternatives to policing and residents wanting harsh consequences for offenders, has said she is pursuing a multifaceted approach. She supports resolving underlying issues such as poverty and addiction, and has put money into alternative justice programs such as violence interrupters to mediate conflicts. But she is also under pressure to stop shootings that are happening now, and has pushed for a larger police force and tougher penalties for offenders.

Earlier this month, Bowser vetoed legislation revising the District’s criminal code, saying it undermines public safety by reducing maximum sentences for some serious crimes. Council members on Tuesday voted to override her veto, saying the revisions stiffen penalties for repeat violent offenders and bring sentences more in line with what judges are actually doling out.

The union representing D.C. police officers says lawmakers shirked accountability by enacting laws restricting police tactics and shrinking the size of the force, and are complicit in “a tragic loss of life and a horrific increase in the number of victims experiencing violent crime.”

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who previously chaired the police oversight committee and became a prime target of the police labor group, said accountability for crime can only be achieved when “there is a fair and trusted” judicial system.

Without it, the lawmaker said in an interview, it “undermines everything.”

To activists, city officials’ use of the word “accountability” is code for mass incarceration, harking back to the old-style, tough policing they are trying to change.

Authorities “can’t police your way out of crime. You can’t cage your way out of crime. And so if that’s what they feel … accountability is, D.C.’s in trouble,” said Nee Nee Taylor, co-conductor for Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, a Black-led mutual aid and community defense organization.

Bowser and others in her administration dispute that. In her inaugural address earlier this month, Bowser defined the term by saying, “We know, especially for our young people, that sometimes accountability is not punishment, it is a lifeline” to ensure people on the margins “get help and that they understand the consequences of their actions.”

As youth shootings soar, D.C. officials vow to bolster efforts

In an interview, Contee also denied accountability means locking people up. He said he uses the term in its broadest sense — holding the criminal justice system, including judges, prosecutors and those supervising offenders, to account. He also includes schools, social programs and any other entity that impacts or influences life choices.

“The police get held accountable for any and everything,” Contee said. “Where else does that happen?” He added, though, that he includes his own department in demanding accountability.

“All I’m saying is that it’s all of us,” he said.

Contee said he doesn’t believe residents are satisfied with the outcomes of criminal cases, and that it’s up to the community to decide what is acceptable. He questioned whether suspected offenders, particularly juveniles, are adequately supervised and given the help they need. Should an arrested youth, he asked, be released “back into a family where there’s no structure, where some of the things that exist in that environment perhaps contributed to this kid being in the street robbing people?”

At a community walk earlier this month with Bowser and other officials in Southeast Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood, following a fatal shooting outside a restaurant, participants offered their own opinions on what accountability means:

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D), of Ward 8, where gun violence is prevalent, said, “Accountability is a universal principle. Everyone. Grandma. Auntie. Nephew. Teacher. Principal. Maintenance man. Post office worker. Bus driver. Council member. Mayor. We all have to be accountable. We have to listen and do everything in our power to address the needs despite the political differences.”

D.C. Director of Gun Violence Prevention Linda Harllee Harper said, “I think it’s to make sure we are all being good stewards of public values. … I think people feel like the pendulum has swung too far away from accountability.”

Ron Moten, Peaceoholics founder and activist, said, “A lot of people in our community were outraged by mass incarceration … but we weren’t fighting for people murdering people in our community to be let back out the day after they commit the crime without a strategy.”

Makhia McCollough, an 18-year-old who lives in Ward 8 and is enrolled in a mentorship program, said, “Accountability means to me when you need to take charge of your community and not just to yourself.”

The District’s newly elected attorney general, Brian Schwalb, whose office prosecutes juvenile offenders, said “real accountability results in people at the end of the day changing their behavior. Accountability for young people is oftentimes an appreciation they have done something they shouldn’t have done, and a commitment to not doing it again.”

At the shooting scene on Georgia Avenue on Jan. 3, Contee noted the incident occurred not only during rush hour, but near a police station. Police have not made an arrest.

“We have no idea why someone would do such a reckless act at 6 p.m. on Georgia Avenue,” Contee said. “But we aim to find out and hold those individuals accountable.”