Despite a show of police force designed to curb a surge in violence, the nation’s capital reached a disturbing milestone Friday night when a rash of gunfire pushed this year’s homicide count to 105 — already equaling 2014’s total.
Two men died and eight people were wounded overnight, even as hundreds of police officers flooded Washington’s streets in an “all hands on deck” strategy meant to make this rattled city feel safer. Amid Twitter alerts about the spate of seven shootings, D.C. police were also posting photos of illegal guns they had seized. On Saturday, they announced that they had recovered nine weapons and made the same number of arrests.
The onslaught began just one day after Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) detailed her $15 million “Safer, Stronger DC” response to the spike in killings. Protesters angry about how the city has handled the rise in crime disrupted her announcement with chants of “Black lives matter!”
During the most serious incident Friday night, in Southeast Washington, witnesses estimated that at least 15 shots were fired.
Omoni Johnson, 26, who lived in Northeast, died about 11:45 p.m., police said. Shaheed James, 21, who lived in Clinton, Md., was taken to a hospital, where he also died. A third man, whom police have not identified, was wounded.
Johnson’s mother, Sharon, questioned D.C. officials’ efforts to make the city safer.
“It’s supposed to be ‘all hands on deck,’ and they let something like this go on?” said a distraught Johnson, 63. “How can something like this happen?”
On Twitter on Saturday, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) called the mayhem a “crisis.”
“We need to treat this violence — particularly the homicides, like a health epidemic,” he wrote.
What has triggered the surge — which has taken lives across the District — remains mystifying. City officials have offered an array of explanations, including the increased circulation of illegal guns and the growing use of synthetic drugs.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has offered other possible reasons, including repeat violent offenders being involved in new crimes. On Friday, just hours before the chaos began, Lanier said in an interview with WAMU (88.5 FM), “We’re seeing a dramatically increasing number of people who are out on community release, under supervision, that have long, violent histories who are continuing to commit crime.”
Lanier and Bowser did not respond to requests for comment Saturday.
The mayor has proposed keeping a sustained police presence in the “hardest-hit areas” until the upheaval subsides, increasing penalties for those who commit crimes in certain public spaces and expanding law enforcement’s ability to supervise people on parole or probation.
The plan has encountered resistance both from activists and from the city’s police union, which this past week posted an anonymous online poll that asks its members whether they have confidence in Lanier’s ability to manage the department. They plan to tally the results Sunday.
Union leader Delroy Burton said he thinks that a number of factors have precipitated the rise in homicides. Burton, who estimated that about 3,000 officers would work this weekend, said he believes that the nationwide scrutiny of police shootings has made officers less assertive — the “Ferguson effect,” as it is known.
“The bad guys are emboldened,” he said, “because the officers are hesitant.”
He and other union members also insist that the police force is understaffed, and they have repeatedly criticized Lanier for eliminating plainclothes operations that police once used to monitor outdoor drug sales, which have declined.
Severing that connection to the streets, Burton said, has made it more difficult to gather information that could prevent violence.
The chief has dismissed his assertion, noting that the increase in violence started before she made the change and that many of this year’s homicides have had nothing to do with drugs.
Among those killed: Charnice Milton, a 27-year-old community journalist who was shot in Southeast in May as she was returning home from covering a community meeting at Eastern Market; Tamara Gliss, a 31-year-old mother who was shot during a Memorial Day cookout in Shaw; and Shaun Simmons, an 18-year-old who was about to start his senior year at Ballou High School when he was shot Aug. 1 in Congress Heights.
Friday’s gunfire was reported across the city, from the 4400 block of Sixth Place NE near Catholic University, to 16th and R streets SE near Anacostia High School, to the 2400 block of 18th Street in Northwest.
The bloody scene in Southeast Washington was a short walk from the grounds of St. Luke Roman Catholic Church on East Capitol Street, where Amari Jenkins, 21, was killed Aug. 18.
What prompted Friday’s killings, in the 4900 block of B Street SE, is under investigation.
A 45-year-old woman was at home Friday night when she heard the gunshots and came out to find James on the sidewalk.
She held his head as his eyes rolled back, the woman recalled Saturday. She saw no one else offer help.
“I’m trying to get him breathing,” she said, “but when I heard him gurgling, I was like, ‘It’s done.’ ” She spotted Johnson nearby, clutching a chain-link fence before he collapsed to the ground. He tried to talk. She told him to hold on.
“I’ve known Johnson his entire life,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety. “I held him when he first came home from the hospital, and I held him when he took his last breath.”
James went by “Shy” — short for Shaheed — but he was anything but. A few years ago, Khadijah Pettaway was walking home from her job at a hair salon when he approached her and asked her name. He made her smile.
The two dated for a couple of years and remained friends after they broke up. She gave birth to his daughter, Ayawna, now 10 months old, late last year. And although they had split up, Pettaway said he accompanied her to doctor’s appointments and to the baby shower and that he was there when Ayawna was born. He visited his daughter frequently.
“He was very genuine and very outgoing,” Pettaway said. “He just . . . has you laughing all day.”
James attended Friendship Collegiate Academy, a charter school in the District, and had worked as a tattoo artist. He also rapped, performing under the stage name Real.
His uncle, Daryl Stone, said that James was a “mama’s boy” and remained deeply attached to his mother, Sherril. He had three heart tattoos — one for her and a pair for his late grandmothers.
On Saturday morning, Carlos Richardson, who teaches U.S. history at the school, posted on Instagram about James.
“A young man who was trying to do better for himself,” Richardson wrote. “We would talk for hours while I was getting tattoos done about life & a bright future.”
Johnson had a lengthy history of arrests and had served stints in prison three times on weapons charges, but his mother said he recently started working at a construction company and had yet to miss a day of work.
“He was serious about his life,” she said. “He was doing the best he could, trying to make a life for himself.”
Johnson, who had three young daughters, liked to swim and play chess, his mother said. He excelled at math as a kid and especially enjoyed teaching his friends to use a protractor. He had a good sense of humor, too. “He would always poke fun at me,” she said.
On Saturday afternoon, the August air sweltering, his mother sat on the cracked sidewalk next to her son’s drying blood.
“You killed my baby,” she yelled, looking up at the sky before her eyes returned to the ground. “Why is this always happening?”
Alice Crites, Peter Hermann and Moriah Balingit contributed to this report.