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New D.C. lawmaker fights to bring answers in 13-year-old’s killing

Thirteen-year-old Karon Blake was fatally shot less than a week after D.C. Council member Zachary Parker was sworn in.

D.C. Council member Zachary Parker (D-Ward 5). (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Less than a week after he was sworn in as a new D.C. Council member, Zachary Parker found himself tending to a community in turmoil.

In the early hours of Jan. 7, Karon Blake, a Black 13-year-old, was shot dead in Parker’s community. Police said the shooter, a man, had reported seeing Karon break into cars before pulling the trigger. But while officials said the gunman was cooperating with authorities, the omission of other key details — namely, the shooter’s identity — has left Karon’s family and Brookland residents desperate for more information.

Residents and activists supporting Karon’s family have called on police to publicly identify and charge the shooter with a crime, while police officials are urging patience as the investigation plays out. Police generally do not publicly name people they are investigating before criminal charges are filed.

Stuck in the middle is Parker, who says he respects the investigative process but feels strongly that his neighbors deserve to know more about Karon’s killing. He’s been busy in the days since, first putting out a statement decrying what little information had been shared while calling on police to hold the gunman “accountable.” He then scheduled a community meeting and asked law enforcement to respond to questions from his constituents.

Parker, who also requested that officials publicly release body-camera footage from the incident, has been a primary point of contact between Karon’s grieving loved ones and the rest of the city — all efforts the child’s family says have not gone unnoticed, even though many of their questions remain unanswered.

“He has done a good job, and fast, it’s really impressive — I told him face to face: ‘I appreciate you,’” said Karon’s 55-year-old grandfather, Sean Long, who also spoke at the meeting. “He’s really upset and feels that this could be his child or his grandson — I just hope he doesn’t get in trouble for going overboard; sometimes, politicians aren’t supposed to do too much.”

Long, of Ward 8, has watched many D.C. politicians come and go over the years and recognizes that Parker, now just over two weeks into the job, is still finding his footing as a lawmaker. He’s not the only local official tasked with responding to Karon’s killing while also assuming a new role: Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2) was recently named the new chair of the council’s public safety committee, and earlier this month, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) appointed Lindsey Appiah as the city’s acting deputy mayor for public safety and justice.

Pinto was able to request and access body-camera footage related to the incident, writing in a statement Friday that community members are “rightfully demanding transparency and accountability in the death of this child.” Appiah has recently appeared with the city’s police chief Robert J. Contee III at the scenes of several recent shootings; she stood by Contee’s side silently last week during a news conference about Karon.

Parker, a former teacher who represented Ward 5 on the city’s State Board of Education, admits he could not have anticipated such an intense and emotional start to his term. What’s more, the dearth of detail surrounding the shooting has led some residents to fill in the gaps themselves, causing rumors and speculation to proliferate online. Parker’s constituents began flooding his office with emails and phone calls.

“I realized very quickly neighbors had questions I was not equipped to answer,” Parker said. “I thought it was important to bring people together to begin the healing process, provide a platform to hear our concerns and get answers.”

The meeting at Turkey Thicket Recreation Center was so packed that many residents couldn’t find a seat. At Parker’s behest, more than 200 people filled the room that day, while more than 150 people watched a stream of the event on Facebook.

“I am Zachary Parker, Council member for Ward 5,” the lawmaker began. “I wish we were coming together on better circumstances. But as many of you know, there was a tragedy in our community.”

Once residents were invited to ask questions, Parker who was joined by assistant D.C. police chief Morgan C. Kane, struggled to keep the meeting focused. As he and Kane explained why police have not been able to provide more specifics about the shooting — officials say they are still gathering evidence and that the case will likely go to a grand jury — attendees grumbled loudly.

“I get it, I get it,” Parker said. “I get that we’re not satisfied with the answers.”

But interruptions from the crowd crescendoed even after Parker said he didn’t agree with the way some city officials had shared details about the case. Two members of Karon’s family, including Long, jumped in to help.

“Please respect my grandson. Please listen. We have a dead child — we can’t get anywhere going back and forth,” he said. “Give this man some respect, give [Kane] some respect.”

Karon’s killing comes as conversations about public safety have reached a fever pitch across the District, including Brookland, where Parker says residents have increasingly expressed concerns about violent crime, carjackings and theft. After the meeting, Parker said he had requested extra support from the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety Engagement in Brookland and was also seeking additional resources for the students at Karon’s school.

But he reiterated that scant details from city officials have opened the door for speculation and false narratives about the incident, with potential for further harm. Others, aspiring to identify the shooter, have played the role of amateur sleuths online.

“My office has fielded some of the most vile messages and threats, this shooting has gained the attention of the far right within D.C. and across the country,” said Parker, whose public safety platform during his campaign focused largely on addressing the root causes of violence by increasing access to jobs, mental health support and other key resources. “Because there has been so little information shared, I believe the authorities and the [Bowser administration] have left a wound open to fester, and allowed misinformation to be shared broadly.”

Asked at a news conference last week about Parker and others who had urged authorities to name the shooter, Contee said his department would follow its process, and that identifying the individual could negatively impact the investigation

“If there’s a warrant for his arrest we will release the name at that point,” Contee said. “The problem is that when names are released early on, that could adversely impact this case … unfairly influence community members, because everyone wants to know ‘the name,'”

But Parker said later that he does not believe that identifying the gunman would jeopardize the case.

“A 13-year-old boy was shot multiple times and killed, and the family and community are left wondering who did it, and why no one has been apprehended or is standing in a court of law to defend themselves,” Parker said. “I respect the integrity of this case and would never encourage residents to interfere. At the same time, members of the family have very valid questions and any avenue I have to get answers, I’ll pursue it.”

Sabrina Teichman, a District resident since 2009 who moved near Brookland last year, has also observed her neighbors speaking with increased urgency around crime. She watched the meeting on Facebook while feeling “helpless” about Karon’s killing and how to support the family.

Teichman, speaking about Parker, said she had “never seen a council member step in that way before” — though it wasn’t until last year, after she moved, that she began paying close attention to local politics and community affairs.

That was around the time Teichman, 35, met Parker, who was still on the campaign trail in a crowded Ward 5 Democratic primary race. It was his communication skills, she said, that won him her vote. Months later, she was not surprised to see Parker act so urgently to try to provide the ward with information.

“The speed in which he chose to act says a lot. He didn’t wait for Mayor Bowser to do something, he didn’t wait for anyone,” she said. “He didn’t have all the answers, but what I liked was that he put the child’s family first. They are the most important people in this scenario.”

D.C. Council overrides mayor’s veto of controversial new criminal code

On Tuesday, Parker attended his second legislative meeting and was set to vote on an important measure: whether to overturn Bowser’s veto of the council’s revisions to the city’s criminal code. But Karon was still front of mind, and as he explained his decision to vote against the mayor and in support of the changes to the code, Parker said he felt saddened every time a resident’s sense of security was shattered by crime.

Again, he invoked Karon.

“He was a child. A son. A classmate. A student. Karon’s killer and all others who take or threaten the lives of D.C. residents must be held accountable,” Parker said.

Omari Daniels, Emily Davies and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.