Rise in D.C. robbery rate eases amid crackdown

Behind James Bunn was the thick bulletproof glass of the Hong Kong Delite service window, upon which hung green, blue and yellow placards advertising ham-and-cheese sandwiches and buffalo wings. Before him were two men in black ski masks.

Bunn, 70, had visited the carryout location, on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE near his office, many times. He’d never been robbed.

“I thought they were just joking at first,” Bunn said. Then one of the men flashed a gun tucked into his pants.

A steep increase in robberies that alarmed District authorities and residents in early 2012 has eased at the midyear mark. Police credit a range of tactics for helping slow the rise.

“Our officers have been working tirelessly to address the robberies throughout the city,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in an e-mail last week. And while robberies were up in every police district as of mid-March, that’s no longer the case.

Still, in many parts of the city — such as Congress Heights — police continue to battle resistant robbery trends, and residents continue to contend with sometimes-dangerous streets.

Although robberies rose 20 percent year over year through March, they were up less than 8 percent as of June 28, the most recent day for which department statistics were available. Robberies in which the suspect used a gun, up about 55 percent after three months of this year, are now up 21 percent.

In the 2nd Police District, which covers much of Northwest Washington, robberies were up more than 25 percent through March; they are now down year over year. They are also down in the 3rd and 4th districts.

Progress has been slower in the city’s eastern police districts. The 5th District, which has seen robberies rise about 15 percent so far this year, is slightly ahead of the pace set through March.

And in the city’s southeastern 1st, 6th and 7th districts, the rate of increase has slowed since March — particularly in the southernmost 7th District — but robberies are nevertheless still higher than in 2011.

Arrests are up. As of June 27, police reported 639 robbery arrests — up 26 percent from the same period in 2011. “It won’t change overnight, but our work seems to be paying off,” Lanier wrote in her e-mail.

Police tactics

Police officials declined to discuss tactics in detail. But Lanier did say police are sending more officers to specific areas where high numbers of robberies have been reported since May: Benning Ridge, Congress Heights, Washington Highlands, Carver/Langston and Rosedale in the east, and the North Capitol Street-O Street area near New York Avenue.

Since May, according to police, those areas have seen decreases in robberies, together totaling about 26 percent.

Metro Transit Police Deputy Chief Ron Pavlik said his department has shared intelligence with Lanier’s, trading information on incidents and suspects. Metro Transit Police have placed decoy officers on trains and in stations to attract and catch criminals, Pavlik said. Lanier said her department has also used covert tactics.

And city police have encouraged residents to share tips that lead to robbery arrests, offering rewards of up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of robbery suspects or individuals who resell stolen goods.

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D), whose Ward 2 spans Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Shaw, lauded the police department’s focus on high-robbery areas. “That type of approach seems to really work — where we focus on where the problems are and take care of it that way,” he said.

Police have also worked to increase resident awareness, turning to Twitter and other electronic methods to spread information about crimes in the city in near-real time. But they also say robbery is a crime of opportunity in which victims may make themselves appear to be easy targets by flashing expensive electronics or other items while ignoring their surroundings.

“Keep an eye out for suspicious behavior and don’t get distracted by your cell phone or music player,” Lanier wrote in her e-mail.

Visiting residents

The increase in robberies reported earlier this year had city and police officials visiting groups of residents all over the District to discuss the trend.

In February, Lanier and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) held a joint news conference. In an interview at the time, the chief said her department was “hammering” robberies.

Citing “community concerns,” police began reporting robbery-related arrests in news releases — a practice that seems to have slowed along with the robbery reports themselves.

In Congress Heights, residents are alternately wary and grateful for the increased police presence. Several gathered in the back of Georgena’s Restaurant and Bar recently to share viewpoints and personal experiences.

Sherita McLamore-Hines, whose City Beats shoe store was robbed late last year, described how three people rushed into the store — one put a gun to her head, she said — and cleaned out the cash register.

Bunn, who works at an organization that promotes economic development in the area, recounted the robbery at the carryout, where he lost about $50 that spring evening.

McLamore-Hines is pleased with the police response in her neighborhood.

“Over the past four months, five months, they have done a 180,” she said. “I have never seen this many police patrols in Southeast — never.”

But for arrests to turn to convictions, residents such as McLamore-Hines often must testify.

Police rely on the cooperation of residents to help put criminals behind bars — not only in the form of anonymous tips but also testimony in court — and that often concerns residents who fear retribution if they cooperate with police.

Bunn, a neighborhood activist who sits on Lanier’s citizens advisory council, said he wishes more residents would take part in discussions about how to combat crime. But he also remembers being recognized by one of the men who robbed him.

“One of them was nice enough to say, ‘Give Mr. Bunn back his credit card,’ ” he said. “I knew he knew me, even though he had on a ski mask.”

“I have to go to court to testify about the people that robbed me, and I’m not really thrilled about that,” McLamore-Hines said. “That’s something that makes me fearful.”

“But if you don’t testify, they’re going to rob somebody else,” Bunn replied.

“That doesn’t make it any less fearful,” McLamore-Hines said.