Anger over a rising murder rate and the District’s response to it boiled over into a shouting match Thursday as Mayor Muriel E. Bowser struggled to tell a crowd about a new initiative to fight crime while being shouted down by protesters.
Bowser (D) planned to announce a wide-ranging, $15 million plan to boost both community programs and police presence in response to a 43 percent spike in killings this year. The plan includes financial incentives to keep police on the force despite a looming retirement bubble, as well as legislation that would increase some penalties for violent crime and give police the power to search the residences of violent ex-offenders.
But protesters linked to a nationwide movement that has mobilized over allegations of police misconduct erupted at her first mention of putting more officers on the streets. Community activists quickly joined the chants of “Black Lives Matter” with their own demands for jobs and recreation centers.
Bowser fought back, at times acknowledging the voices of dissent and at other times simply raising her voice over the roar. “I will not be shouted down or scared away,” she said as her supporters stood and cheered over the din of protest, effectively splitting the room into opposing sides.
The tense standoff was the latest indication that the city’s spike in violence has become a political challenge for Bowser, a first-term incumbent who campaigned at a time when crime was not a major concern and whose chief focus had been managing gentrification in fast-changing neighborhoods and moving beyond the ethics scandals of her predecessor.
Bowser and Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier have faced criticism for offering shifting explanations for the surging homicide rate, including greater use of synthetic drugs and increasing circulation of illegal guns. On Thursday, Bowser stressed that there appears to be no single explanation for the increase but rather a multitude of factors — and therefore no single fix.
The mayor also continued to tie her fortunes on public safety to the city’s popular police chief, saying she had “every confidence . . . Lanier will lead us through this spike in crime.”
The mayor left the stage after her nearly 30-minute speech Thursday to a mix of applause and boos. She later huddled with reporters in a hallway — with her security detail keeping others away — to answer questions and finish outlining her agenda.
She chose a shuttered school in Congress Heights, east of the Anacostia River, as the backdrop to lay out her plan. That area of the city has seen the greatest increase in homicides, which are up 95 percent in that area from this time a year ago.
The choice of the venue also put Bowser before a crowd where her support remains most fractured. Some of the protesters Thursday were also vocal critics of LaRuby May, Bowser’s choice to succeed Marion Barry in representing the ward on the D.C. Council.
“Some critics have said that today’s event will be about arresting black men,” Bowser said. “We’re not here to talk about arresting black men — but about how we can save their lives.”
Thursday’s announcement focused heavily on police action, however, that would be geared toward reining in repeat violent offenders, who Bowser said have been involved in an “inordinate” number of crimes.
According to police, 10 of the nearly 60 people arrested on suspicion of homicide this year had prior homicide charges, and nearly half had arrests on prior gun-related charges.
Bowser also promised to increase the penalties for violent crimes committed on Metro, and she said she will propose legislation to make it harder for suspects awaiting trial to violate the terms of their pre-trial release. She said she would create a tax incentive to encourage businesses and property owners to install security cameras. And she said that the city would use micro-grants to fund nonprofits that work with people who live in high-crime areas of the city.
Eugene Puryear, a local activist with the Stop Police Terror Project, and other activists who attended the event, said the mayor’s initiatives do too little to address what he called the driving forces behind the District’s spiking violence.
“I think poverty, deprivation, the concentration of socially deprived neighborhoods — that is the key factor,” he said.
He and other activists, including Franklyn Malone, a local community leader, accused the mayor of mostly ignoring the role that a rapid tide of gentrification in recent years has played in stoking feelings of anger, isolation and hopelessness among black youths in the District, who activists say are more likely to turn to violent crime when they feel they have no other options.
“The city is becoming a city of haves and have-nots, and some people are feeling left out,” Malone said.
Pressed on those concerns by reporters after the event, Bowser pointed to the city’s massive ongoing school modernization program, her recently expanded Summer Youth Employment Program and other social projects.
“We’re continuing the effort for jobs and expanded opportunity. Just this year alone, we continue to make that robust investment in jobs, but there is so much more we have to do.”
She insisted that she and the activists share the same values.
“Our positions are not different,” she said. “I think it’s unfortunate that the people didn’t actually get to hear about the policies and programs that I think they [too] advocate for.”