D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier on Wednesday defended her strategies for confronting the city’s escalating violence, rebuffing accusations by the officers’ labor union that her policies have stymied the policing needed to effectively fight crime.
Appearing at a community center in Shaw, a neighborhood in Northwest hit hard by gunfire, Lanier upped the bounty for reporting illegal firearms — more than doubling the reward for a tip leading to a gun to $2,500. A tip leading to a conviction in a gun crime remains at $10,000.
The chief has blamed the 35 percent surge in deadly shootings — including three within five hours Tuesday afternoon — on a deluge of firearms, repeat violent offenders and petty disputes. Lanier listed motives behind some of this year’s fatal shootings: losses at dice games, a crying baby and thrown rocks.
The union says that the number of shootings escalated earlier this year when Lanier dismantled local drug units that had been used to target street dealers. “The open-air drug markets are flourishing,” the union said in a statement, “spurring unchecked violence between the factions fighting for control over the drugs, guns and money.”
Lanier moved the drug squads under one central command to combat large-scale narcotic organizations instead of the corner drug markets that she said have largely disappeared. She is focusing on large, sophisticated drug organizations that use the Internet and other means to sell. The new squad, she said, is “the only way we’re going to be effective in dismantling drug organizations of today.”
The chief said police have made 550 drug arrests since mid-June. “Vice units were very, very effective for drug organizations in the ’90s,” Lanier said. “But they are not as effective today.”
On Wednesday, the District’s homicide count climbed to 98 as police said that a man found dead around 8 a.m. in Southeast Washington had been shot. His body was found in woods in the 3000 block of Stanton Road, near Barry Farm, and police identified him as Johnson Jonas, 29, of Southeast. Two other people were injured in shootings Wednesday morning in Southeast, four miles and 10 minutes apart.
Nearly eight full months into the year, the District is nearing the 105 homicides that occurred for all of 2014. Tension over the killings and other crimes has been building in neighborhoods across the city, evident from anger at community meetings and in repeated demands for more police.
At Wednesday’s news conference at the Kennedy Recreation Center, frustrated residents had a chance to question Lanier and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).
Torrey Burns, a volunteer at the recreation center, asked if they thought violence stemmed from young people having “nothing to look forward to.” It was more a statement than a question. He said later, “A lot of them come from broken homes, where the only thing they have to look to is the streets.”
Authorities on Wednesday continued investigating Tuesday’s violence. The first of three killings claimed the life of Amari Jenkins, 21, of Southeast, who was fatally shot shortly after noon near the steps of St. Luke Catholic Church, near the corner of 49th Street and East Capitol Street SE.
Police released a photo of a blue Honda Odyssey occupied by three people suspected in the shooting. Relatives of Jenkins could not be reached to comment. A small memorial with purple roses, a plant and five candles was left at the spot where he died.
No updated information was released about the death of William Conley, 24, who was shot about 4:45 p.m. in the 2700 block of 17th Street NE.
But police did charge a 17-year-old as an adult with first-degree murder in the shooting of Tenika Fontanelle, 31, in her apartment on Savannah Street SE in Congress Heights. Her 12-year-old son was shot in the arm in the incident. Authorities identified the suspect as Kevin Lee. He also was shot, although police haven’t said how, and he remained hospitalized Wednesday. Police said the teenager had been arguing with Fontanelle’s son and went to their apartment with a gun.
Neighbors and friends remembered the victim as a loving, protective mother of two who dreamed of opening her own fashion business and who sewed skirts, shorts and backless dresses. She was the type of mother who “would jump in front of a gun and take a bullet for her child,” said Wanda Smith, 40, a friend of the victim’s.
“She was like the neighborhood babysitter,” Smith added. Fontanelle spent mornings on her apartment stoop, watching over children as they played ball and rode bikes in the parking lot. “The neighborhood lost a guardian,” Smith said.
Shekita McBroom, another neighbor, said she is sure that Fontanelle was shot “as a result of her being protective of her children.” She said the violence reminds her of the killings during the District’s crack-cocaine epidemic. “It’s a city under siege,” McBroom said.
Indeed, the union representing the city’s police officers demanded that Lanier immediately assign 100 officers to restart the disbanded drug squads for 90 days to “provide a rapid response” to curtail crime. The union also said that of 22 assignments at a recent shift meeting in the 7th Police District, one of the city’s most violent, 18 of 22 officers were assigned to stand at a trouble spot to increase visibility.
“This city needs proactive policing,” the union said, “not scarecrows on the corner.” The labor group called such “fixed posts,” along with spotlights and pop-up tents filled with police, erected in Shaw, “nothing short of an embarrassment.”
Lanier insisted that the light towers are effective in helping police identify suspects. She said her office gets so many requests for lights and cameras that she can’t keep up with the demand. Police say that drug dealers often shoot out streetlights, leaving neighborhoods dangerously dark.
Noting that 102 guns were seized in 30 days and 944 this year, along with 544 drug arrests since mid-June and four homicide arrests since Monday, Lanier said, “I think the numbers right now are showing that we are being effective on the drug organizations that are involved in violence.” She said the new centralized drug squad is smarter than hitting corners and is “the only way we’re going to be effective in dismantling drug organizations of today.”
Meanwhile, Bowser on Wednesday appealed to residents to use the gun tip line. The mayor had visited the community where Fontanelle was killed, calling it “among the saddest experiences of my life.”
“We can’t tolerate this amount of violence anywhere in the city. No one should be used to it. My message, especially to the children I encountered yesterday, is that ‘this is not normal. This is not how life is supposed to be.’ ”
But as a reporter conducted interviews Wednesday in a courtyard near where the mayor had visited, gunshots popped two blocks away. One man was wounded. Onlookers watched the scene through a metal fence on 13th Street as one man warned them to stay back. “They’re not done shooting,” he said.
A community activist, Nichole Brooks, said the shootings are over honor. “I believe the young guns out here are trying to uphold the real name” of Congress Heights.
Amid the sound of the gunshots, Wanda Smith wiped a tear over her neighbor’s death. “No, no, no,” she said. “Not again.”
Keith L. Alexander and Dana Hedgpeth contributed to this report.