Crime has become the biggest problem in Washington, say D.C. residents, far surpassing concerns about the economy and the quality of public schools for the first time in almost a decade, according to a new Washington Post poll.
After a year in which homicides have spiked, fewer D.C. residents said their neighborhood is safe, the poll found. After high-profile attacks that have rattled neighborhoods from Chevy Chase in upper Northwest to Anacostia in Southeast, 1 in 4 respondents said they feel “not too” safe or “not at all” safe in their communities, up from less than 1 in 5 in 2011. More than 1 in 3 said crime is the biggest problem facing the city, up from 12 percent four years ago.
The concern comes during a reversal of homicide rates in the nation’s cities after more than two decades of steady declines. With a simultaneous — and still unexplained — surge in killings in many large cities this year, gains made in tamping down deadly violence appear in danger of eroding. Although the poll found that residents rate Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) positively overall, it also showed that any continued uptick in homicides presents a clear political threat for the city’s leader, who took office in January. A majority give her handling of crime negative marks.
The District, however, stands apart from cities including New York and Baltimore, the poll found, where fatal incidents of violence involving police have led to recriminations and even rioting over how law enforcement officials operate. By almost 2 to 1, residents still believe that D.C. police are doing a good job, although positive marks are down from 2014. A majority of black and white residents in the District rate police positively.
Counter to chants for police restraint by activists in the District under the banner of Black Lives Matter, 51 percent of D.C. residents said that if anything, police have not been tough enough in responding to the city’s rising homicide rate. In fact, support for tougher policing is 10 percentage points higher among African Americans than whites. Just 5 percent of all respondents said D.C. police have been too tough.
On Wednesday morning, the city’s homicide tally stood at 144, a 58 percent jump from the 91 slayings at that point a year ago.
“It can’t be all weapons and guns and pushing everybody around, but we need more from police,” said LaToya Pearson, 40, of Fort Totten, who has two children and teaches at Roots Public Charter School.
“We need McGruff the Crime Dog and Officer Friendly and to make police more human to kids,” she added.
Although the spiking concern about crime in four years is dramatic, the levels are far below the fear that violence stoked a generation ago, when the city was known as the nation’s “murder capital.” A 1993 Post poll, for instance, found that 7 of 10 respondents cited murder, crime or drugs as the city’s biggest problem.
Still, facing the unexpected challenge of a soaring homicide rate, Bowser has tried to thread the political needle in that sentiment over her first year on the job. She has promised a bigger police presence on city streets as well as more community policing and money for programs to prevent teenagers from turning to crime.
But respondents gave the mayor negative marks on her attempts so far. More than 6 in 10 residents rated Bowser as doing a not-so-good or poor job of reducing crime in the city.
District residents, however, have by and large not held Bowser responsible for the city’s crime rate. Indeed, in the first Post poll of her overall job performance since taking office in January, 58 percent approved of the way Bowser is handling her job, and 25 percent disapproved.
Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, long one of the city’s best-liked officials, saw her approval rating drop over the past year by 10 percentage points — from 71 percent to 61 percent. Similar to the mayor’s rating, 25 percent now disapprove of Lanier’s performance.
The poll of 1,005 District residents was conducted Thursday through Sunday on land line and cellular phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points.
Follow-up interviews with dozens of poll respondents offered a look at why the approval ratings for the mayor and police chief have remained immune to further fallout: Many residents see the city’s rising homicide rate as part of a larger societal phenomenon, tied in part to rising economic pressures on the city’s poorest residents.
“I don’t think either the mayor or the chief have done a particularly good job, but the spike in crime cannot be placed totally at their feet. There is a huge responsibility that must be laid on society at large,” said Ralph J. Chittams Sr., 55, who lives in Ward 7, east of the Anacostia River.
The rise in concern about crime, however, has not greatly shaken residents’ optimism about Washington. A majority of D.C. registered voters — 56 percent — said the city is going in the right direction, down six points from last year but above the 53 percent average in Post polling since 2010.
But when overlaid with a map of the year’s violent robberies and homicides, the strength of that optimism fades closer to where most of the crimes have occurred.
Among residents who live east of the Anacostia, in the epicenter of this year’s homicide spike, only 37 percent of voters said the city is headed in the right direction, down sharply from 55 percent last year. Feelings of personal safety there are among the lowest, with nearly a third saying they do not feel safe and only 13 percent of all residents saying they feel very safe.
In Wards 2 and 3, which have benefited from much of the city’s downtown building boom and skyrocketing upper Northwest home prices, 70 percent said the city is on the right track and 24 percent said it is on the wrong track.
But even there, a sense of personal safety has fallen slightly among residents.
Perhaps the year’s indelible image of crime occurred in Ward 3 in May, blocks from the vice president’s mansion along a leafy stretch of Massachusetts Avenue: Three members of a family and their housekeeper were held captive, killed and set on fire.
Indeed, a sense of general safety has dropped most among whites, from 89 percent who felt very or somewhat safe in 2011 to 74 percent today.
Perhaps that’s partly because random attacks have confounded many who once perceived patterns in the city’s violence, even during its dark days of almost 400 homicides a year during the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
“My impression is it’s the economy. When the economy goes down, crime goes up. When the economy goes up, crime goes down,” said Peter Bleakley, 79, a retired lawyer who has lived in Woodley Park since 1980.
Lanier and Bowser have tried to assuage residents’ concerns about crime and have pushed back against generalizations that the city is witnessing a wave in all forms of violence. In community meetings across the city, they have stressed that the District’s total number of robberies, shootings and other incidents are actually down (from 5,433 to 5,336, or a drop of less than 2 percent, as of Wednesday).
But armed robberies are up sharply in some District neighborhoods and are elevated slightly over the entire city. The poll found the biggest drop in feelings of personal safety in Ward 6, which encompasses most of Capitol Hill and as of last month had a more than 50 percent increase in gun holdups. The share of residents feeling at least “somewhat safe” has dropped from 84 percent to 63 percent since 2011.
Ellen Opper-Weiner, a mother of three adult children on Capitol Hill, said such crimes seem “idiosyncratic,” making it hard to know when and where they will occur.
“Almost all of my friends say they are afraid to walk on the street,” said Opper-Weiner, a lawyer. “I’m apprehensive because so many of my friends feel that way. . . . I’m pretty fearless, and I’m not so fearless anymore.”
Despite growing racial parity on feelings of general safety, black residents are still less likely to feel “very safe” in their neighborhoods than are whites, and they are most apt to want police to do more about it.
In follow-up interviews, respondents said they are skeptical of the shifting reasons — from synthetic drugs to domestic violence to the proliferation of guns to repeat violent offenders — that Bowser and Lanier have given for the homicide spike.
Although Bowser and Lanier eventually settled on repeat offenders being the prime culprit, it is likely a combination of all of those reasons and more, several people said.
Josh Calder, 50, who lives in Chevy Chase, said he started studying possible reasons for violent crime as the issue attracted the news media’s attention and became the talk on his block this year.
“When I read long lists of violent criminal suspects, all of whom have recently committed crimes and they’re still out committing more, I sort of end up blaming the entire criminal justice system. That may be one reason that I and others are thinking less of” the fact that Lanier and Bowser do not have an answer. “They definitely have not given an adequate explanation, in part because they don’t know. It seems to be a national trend happening in large cities.”
Abigail Hauslohner and Perry Stein contributed to this report.