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Mayor invokes D.C.’s darkest years at meeting on anxiety over crime

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser said the sound of gunfire in D.C. neighborhoods reminds her of the 1990s crack epidemic

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and Police Chief Robert J. Contee III talk to elected advisory neighborhood commissioners and community members about crime trends at the Deanwood Recreation Center on Saturday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

At a crime summit Saturday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said sounds of gunfire reverberating through communities has left a palpable fear reminiscent of the violence that soared during the crack cocaine epidemic three decades ago.

She quickly noted that crime statistics show a far safer city now than in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when D.C. was dubbed the nation’s murder capital. But Bowser told members of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, ANC, from across the city: “You know I grew up in a town that had more than 400 homicides in a year, and I feel more anxiety across the city right now about safety.”

It was a stark opening to a two-hour meeting at the Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast Washington in which the mayor and her public safety team discussed violence and how her administration is confronting it, and fielded questions and listened to proposed solutions.

Amanda Beale, an ANC representative from Ward 8, pleaded for more resources for violence interrupters who mediate disputes before they erupt in gunfire, saying, “When they are able to prevent retaliation, that is effective.”

Beale also told the mayor that “children are picking up their first gun at 12.”

Saturday’s meeting came as the District is struggling with killings and gun violence, particularly involving youths. Though violent crime went down last year compared to 2021, homicides topped 200 for just the second time in nearly two decades.

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

The number of shootings also dropped during that period, but nearly twice as many juveniles were struck by gunfire in 2022 as in the year before. Sixteen youths were killed in gunfire last year, double the number in 2021. And homicides are up through the first three weeks of this year.

The forum reflects a continued effort by Bowser to solicit ideas on solving some of the city’s most intractable problems from community members, a stated theme of her third term.

In November, one day after Bowser was reelected, her administration asked residents to submit “transformational” ideas through an online portal around public safety and other issues.

But the convening also marked a different approach in how Bowser has typically engaged with advisory neighborhood commissioners in recent years — people who represent the lowest rung of elected leadership in the District but are often crucial eyes and ears for their communities, helping residents navigate government bureaucracy while alerting city agencies of problems.

She noted through the meeting that she was a former ANC member herself before being elected to the council.

While Bowser urged the ANC members to make their voices heard as legislation is written and debated and as budgets are drafted, she steered away from directly criticizing members of the D.C. Council who have enacted several laws that her administration feels makes confronting crime more difficult.

At a news conference after the meeting, Bowser said her comments are “reflecting what I hear in neighborhoods across the District of Columbia.”

Most of the roughly 150 ANC representatives who attended the summit asked how they could help. Some voiced concerns about recreation centers being open and urged that programs match the needs and wants of young people using them. Some urged officials to talk to youths.

Many demanded more police. The department has shed officers due to budget cuts, which Bowser is trying to reverse. Some complained city agencies are unresponsive. Only one person demanded more police reform.

The ANC members were given several unofficial polls, and one-third answered they knew a victim of a violent crime. Asked to describe their feelings, the top answers were: anger, frightened, concerned and hopeful.

Salvador Sauceda-Guzman, an ANC representative from the area around Trinidad and Kingman Park in Northeast D.C., said the lack of city services “just makes situations worse.” He noted “trash on our sidewalks” and “bullet holes in vehicles on our blocks.” He urged officials to be “focusing on violence” and on people engaged in criminal activity, “and why they are doing things they are doing.”

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

Police Chief Robert J. Contee III told the group that officers seized 3,152 illegal firearms in the District last year, more than 800 more than the previous year. Of those, he said 624 where “ghost guns,” made from home kits and untraceable. He said 127 of the firearms had illegal switches so they could fire at fully automatic.

Around 2015, the chief said people heard the “pop, pop, pop” sound of gunshots, Now, Contee said, it’s more like “brrrrrrrrrr.” He said, “More rounds are being fired, with more opportunity for innocent people to be victims of gun violence.”

And Contee noted a disturbing trend in which teens’ introduction to the criminal justice system is too often in the form of a violent crime. “They’re not showing up because they stole of bag of chips,” the chief said. “It’s because they put a gun in somebody’s face or they used that gun.”

While Bowser drew comparisons to the late 1980s and early 1990s, crime, and the city, was different than now. Today, the city is larger and more gentrified, with far less violent crime and twice as few homicides.

When police talk about shootings, they mean people struck by bullets. Bowser said she includes as victims people who hear gunshots that don’t strike anyone, but cause alarm in neighborhoods.

“They are hearing gunshots more and more and more,” she said.