Facing two men armed with a silver handgun, the Shepherd Park man handed over the keys to his Mercedes on Jan. 5. Five days later, a 65-year-old woman watched as a gunman raced across her lawn, demanded her purse and car keys, and stole her Lexus.
The robberies have continued in Shepherd Park, a quiet and diverse enclave of single-family homes near the city’s northern tip: Armed robbers rifled a 35-year-old man’s pockets and took his car keys last week, a liquor store was robbed Saturday evening, and residents have reported a rash of thefts from cars.
Concerns have bubbled over. On Monday night, more than 200 residents packed the Shepherd Elementary School gymnasium — some found seats on the floor — to share stories of frustration and fear at a meeting attended by police and community leaders.
“I was robbed at gunpoint under the light of my porch. I run into my house and run to my car,” said the 65-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used out of concern for her safety. “I once felt comfortable. I felt safe. I no longer have that feeling.”
City officials say there’s an increase in robberies across the District. In Police Service Area 401, there were eight armed robberies in the first three weeks of the year — four in Shepherd Park — where there were none the year before, according to department statistics. PSA 401, one of the largest in the 4th District, covers the northern tip of the city, east of Rock Creek Park.
The robbers “have shattered the sense of peace in the neighborhood,” D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who called the meeting, said in an interview.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, who attended Monday’s meeting, acknowledged a spike in robberies, though she said police don’t have a clear understanding of what’s behind it.
Police began deploying more uniformed patrols and plainclothes officers in January, Lanier said. The city also plans to deploy on-duty firefighters in the area to add more eyes and act as deterrents, according to Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander.
“Robberies don’t happen when there are witnesses around who will testify in court,” Quander said.
Police are investigating repeat offenders and people recently released from jail, Lanier said. They are also considering using crime cameras — typically set up in high-crime areas to quickly gather data after an incident — and other technological tools in the neighborhood. Lanier declined to elaborate.
D.C. police also said they are stepping up coordination with officials in nearby Montgomery County to combat what they consider a shared problem. Fourth District Commander Kimberly Chisley-Missouri told the crowd Monday that city police are cooperating with their Maryland counterparts.
“We’re constantly communicating,” Chisley-Missouri said. “We still have work to do, but we will not stop until we identify who the suspects are.”
Police have been able to quickly recover two vehicles stolen in Shepherd Park, but they had made no arrests in the cases as of Tuesday evening. Some residents remain concerned.
Lifelong Shepherd Park resident Charles Branche Jr. said Monday that his two young sons were robbed at gunpoint across the border in December. In an interview, Branche said crime has always ebbed and flowed in the area, but this spree carries a different level of urgency.
“This is about people being rolled up on with guns,” said Branche.
Robberies appear to be on the rise citywide. In the first three weeks of 2012, according to department statistics, they are up nearly 70 percent from last year’s numbers; armed robberies have more than doubled.
Lanier has been called to meetings with other neighborhood groups, among them residents of Upper Northwest contending with a string of street robberies. On Tuesday, at another appearance, she said police arrested more than 100 robbery suspects in the first three weeks of the year and plan to launch a program meant to encourage tips in robbery investigations with rewards of up to $10,000.
At Monday’s meeting in Shepherd Park, discussions turned at times to police staffing levels. Lanier told residents the department has more than 100 fewer officers than it did at this time last year due to attrition and budget pressures that prevented hiring.
In the 4th District, she said, there are more officers in part because police service boundaries were realigned last year. Bowser said she has noted increased police patrols in recent days and hopes to see them continue — but also said the city must ensure that the department is sufficiently staffed and funded.
“Long term, there can’t be a time we don’t provide these officers we need,” Bowser said.
Quander promised the city would support the police department. “There’s a sense of danger,” he said. “I get it. The mayor gets it.”
Tim Shuy, who owns a Ledo’s Pizza on Georgia Avenue and is president of the Shepherd Park Citizens Association, said in an interview that he has been pleased with the recently increased police presence but is worried that if crime recedes, so will police deployments.
“When the next fire comes somewhere else, is that where all the resources will go? Presence stops a lot of crime,” Shuy said.