She’kita McCallister worked her way through the courtyards of the Southeast Washington housing complex, gathering people to help her mourn her brother.
The group stopped at a makeshift memorial — a white teddy bear, flowers and a bottle of Rémy Martin cognac — where the 23-year-old had been shot. One friend had a box of candles, another a box of fliers with a photo of Antonio McCallister, a poem and a prayer.
As the group joined hands, four homicide detectives looked on. Other officers were not far off.
On the teddy bear’s face, someone had scrawled “A very rough day.”
McCallister’s killing is among the latest at Woodland Terrace, a neighborhood with so much violence that D.C. police have taken the extraordinary step of flooding it with officers. Four people have been slain in the compact housing complex this year, compounding the misery from other shootings, holdups and intimidation by gunmen.
The influx of officers is one way police are combating the recent and inexplicable uptick in violence in the District — where homicides have surged 26 percent this year — and in several other cities nationwide. D.C. Chief Cathy L. Lanier and other police chiefs are struggling to identify what is driving the rise that threatens to undermine the historic crime drops of recent years.
Woodland Terrace is home to about 600 people — 220 of them children or teenagers. A remnant from a half-century ago, when the impoverished were concentrated in similar complexes, it has remained a persistent pocket of crime. Twenty-nine people have been killed there since 2000. Much of the violence, police and residents say, stems from senseless disputes: beefs between gang members, petty arguments between acquaintances.
“Justice in here is different than justice in the rest of society,” said Kimberly Diggs, 41, as she sat outside in the neighborhood last weekend. Pointing to the officers, she said, “You know, once they leave, it’s all going to start up again.”
Over the past week, officers stood sentry at every corner and cul-de-sac in Woodland Terrace, located at the end of a dead-end street off Alabama Avenue near the 7th Police District station.
The police presence, said one D.C. police officer diverted from his assignment in Georgetown, “gives the community a chance to breathe.” His boss, Cmdr. Willie Dandridge, shrugged off comments from some residents and even officers who complained that the show of force was merely that — a show. He said the operation lets residents “know it’s a safe community. People have a right to work, to play, to be safe.” Of the shootings, he said, “We are here to shut it down.”
As police descended, starting last week, families emerged from steaming apartments and children clambered over swings and slides. Two ice cream trucks offered up cold treats. Officers tossed footballs with children.
Residents were reluctant to talk to a reporter, and none dared mention the recent killings or motives behind them. Still, most welcomed the protection. “This is what freedom looks like,” said Gina Summers, 26, who was visiting friends and watching her child on a playground.
Emory Mavins Jr., 52, grew up in Woodland Terrace. On a recent Friday evening, he joined a card game of Spades, played on a folding table tucked in the back of the complex. Players argued over where to sit, grabbing empty milk crates. Mavins is studying to be a barber, and he cuts hair free for the complex’s children. When he was younger, he said, he used and sold drugs here and went to prison at the old Lorton prison.
“I’m no kingpin,” Mavins said. “I’m just an [expletive] from the hood trying to survive. I did drugs. I sold drugs. I helped destroy this neighborhood. Now I’m trying to save it.”
The card game went on as officers nearby leaned against cars. Dusk came, then night, and portable floodlights put up by police brightened the area. Children rode their bikes around the large parking lot, warned by parents not to stray beyond the overflowing trash bin and a discarded mattress.
Mavins, who lost one of his five sons to violence — a stabbing at a banquet hall party in Landover last year — said, “The police are doing their job,” but he wondered, “It shouldn’t take people killing each other to get them here.”
There are four streets in the Terrace’s surrounding expansive courtyards and pathways that make it ideal for drug dealers and difficult for police in cars. Nathan E. Bovelle, deputy director of operations for the D.C. Housing Authority, said it poses unique challenges.
Officials evict or bar tenants, friends and relatives for criminal activity, but many keep returning, he said. Drug dealers shoot streetlights out, so new lights installed on rooftops had to be elevated an extra 10 feet to make vandalism more challenging. When the lights are damaged, the Housing Authority rolls out portable floodlights, but that requires sending one of the department’s 42 police officers to stand guard. Bovelle said the agency failed to get a federal grant to air-condition the 234 apartments and spent $2 million of its own funds to accomplish the task, which D.C. police pushed for to encourage people to stay inside. And safe.
“Our staff, our residents are just as disturbed by what is happening,” Bovelle said of the crime. “What we know is that most of the perpetrators of crime don’t live at our sites. Most of the victims of crimes don’t live at our sites. But the fact is that it happens at our sites, that our residents are victimized by it.”
Bovelle means that many of those involved in violence are not on apartment leases, even though they often either lived in Woodland before or have relatives or friends there. Two of the four people slain in Woodland this year had addresses in the neighborhood, although police reports show that one had been barred from the community because of crime. One suspect arrested in a fatal shooting lived around the corner from the victim, who police say was targeted after allegedly firing at the apartment the suspect’s grandmother lived in.
McCallister was shot July 24 on Langston Place. Four days later, a 31-year-old man was killed in a nearby courtyard. That victim had drug convictions on his record, and officers in the Terrace said they found a gun under his body.
Violence can erupt from the most trivial interactions. Earlier this year, police said a member of the 30th Street Crew shot a 16-year-old rival from the Woodland Terrace “Lynch Mob.” The teen had refused an offer to mend fences, telling the other man, “Once you in it, you in it.” Police said the crew member then shot him three times in the back.
Lanier says the killings in the District this year are not linked to corner boys shooting up open-air drug markets, as was the case in the 1980s and ’90s. Lanier has shifted enforcement to focus on synthetic and prescription drugs sold in corner stores and over the Internet.
Instead, police say, arguments over the smallest of differences are fueling violence in the District and elsewhere. Homicides and shootings are up in Baltimore, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee and in other cities, which prompted an emergency crime summit in Washington on Monday.
Lanier and other chiefs blamed more guns, more shootings with multiple victims, more repeat offenders on the streets.
“When you see shootings with six or seven guns involved, 50 or 60 rounds fired, children being shot, increasing numbers of collateral victims, it is extremely concerning,” Lanier said. “And as I listened today, city after city said exactly the same thing.”
The D.C. police union blames the violence on Lanier’s dismantling district vice units — taking 125 officers away from the control of local commanders, who could direct them quickly to hot spots, and putting them in a central narcotic unit — as well as on understaffing. One recent study from the District shows gun crimes up this year in many neighborhoods, including the heart of gentrifying Northwest. Still, the Urban Institute said Thursday that despite a volatile summer, violent crime in the city remains at lows not seen in two decades.
The District had 88 homicides in 2012 — a 50-year low. This year, the city has recorded 87 killings, up from 69 at this point last year, and is already nearing the 105 in all of 2014.
Most occurred in neighborhoods in Southeast, east of the Anacostia River. But gun-related violence is also up in areas that are attracting new residents, high rents and luxury entertainment: Union Station, Petworth, Brightwood, Columbia Heights. Residents in or bordering rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods — such as Logan Circle, Shaw, Edgewood and Bloomingdale — are voicing complaints.
Police and others are taken aback by the brazen nature of some crimes. A man was fatally shot in the middle of Georgia Avenue near Park View, and one resident complained on a police Internet bulletin board that criminals once locked up were returning to “territory they have held with immunity for a long period of time. In a word, reclaiming their turf.”
In Edgewood, in Northeast, a shootout left one person with minor wounds. It occurred near a charter school, after a football practice had ended and before an outdoor movie screening. Residents said that more than 20 shots were fired. In Southeast, video captured a shootout that left one man dead and 52 bullet casings littering a street on July 4. In Trinidad, police said false rumors that a fatal shooting and the burning of a body was linked to gangs sparked days of retaliatory violence until one man was arrested. He claimed he had accidentally shot his best friend and panicked.
Residents across the city are struggling to find solutions.
“I thought that we had turned things and they were better,” said the Rev. Clinton W. Austin, pastor of Woodland Terrace’s Emmanuel Baptist Church for the past 28 years.
Austin said he and other pastors are trying to engage youths, holding outdoor services, marches, festivals and prayer groups. But he worries that the city has neglected such communities as Woodland Terrace as it builds infrastructure on the other side of the Anacostia.
“What’s happening in other places in the city, while it looks positive in terms of reduction in crime and improvement of neighborhoods, is done in a way that isolates the lower-income people,” Austin said. “They’re moved out, things are upgraded and other areas are left without.”
Austin called for more jobs and skills training to help residents find employment. “Then maybe we can break this chain of bad events,” the pastor said.
On Sunday, the pews at Emmanuel were filled, and Austin touched on the violence during his sermon — violence “right on our doorstep.”
At the vigil for Antonio McCallister, a man who led the group in a prayer praised those who came, saying, “It takes courage for people to come together at a time like this, in a place like this.” As homicide detectives looked on, the mourners lit candles and shared stories about the victim.
His 24-year-old sister, She’kita, had been visiting from Atlanta when her brother was killed. She said he was shot “when he had his back turned and wasn’t paying attention.” Beyond that, she would say only: “I feel he was an honorable man. He was an intelligent man. He was opinionated.”
The next night, Dandridge, the 7th District commander, rolled his unmarked SUV slowly through Woodland, saluting the officers standing guard.
Dandridge then turned onto Alabama Avenue, heading to another trouble spot — Congress Heights, where a high school senior had been killed hours earlier. Another dark street. Another street-corner memorial to a dead youth.
“People just don’t care anymore,” Dandridge said. “There is no fear out there.”