“We’ve talked too much about taking the guns off the street. It’s time to take action and actually take the guns off the street,” said Lynn Wilson, an owner of the nearby Mexicue restaurant.
Chief Robert J. Contee III spoke to the group bluntly: “It’s getting the attention that it’s getting now because it happened where it happened.”
Where it happened is one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, a potent symbol of the city’s renaissance over the past 20 years, with condos and restaurants replacing auto shops and quality-of-life crimes in the area.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) had rushed to the scene the night before, telling reporters she was “outraged” after yet another act of gun violence. But amid a surge in shootings and recent high-profile incidents across the city — such as last week’s gunfire outside of Nationals Park and the killing of a 6-year-old girl in Southeast earlier this month — there is pressure on the two-term mayor and her administration to do something.
“Obviously, what’s in place isn’t working,” said Chellee Walker, who manages a store called the Outrage, next to Mexicue. “What can we do, from the mayor, from the city, from the administration to make sure we’re safe as we try to live and work in the city?”
The difficult questions come as Bowser has used her perch to promote the reopening of the city, encouraging residents and tourists to visit museums and patronize businesses after the lockdown caused by the coronavirus. But these efforts have run parallel in recent weeks to mounting fears of violence and incidents that have garnered national headlines, leaving lawmakers and residents wondering if the District’s recovery could be hampered.
As the city awaits Bowser’s decision on whether she’ll run for a third term in 2022, violence has become a talking point. Homicides last year reached a 16-year high, spurring the mayor in February to formally declare gun violence a public health crisis. While overall violent crime is down slightly across the city, in a letter to the council this week authorizing more police overtime, the mayor wrote that residents “do not feel safe while the threat of gun violence looms.”
“Statistically the city is not more dangerous. But these open, brazen shootings are very concerning,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “We can point to statistics, but it doesn’t change the fact we’re national news now several times per week. That’s deeply disturbing. We’ve got to find a way to get ahead of this gun violence.”
To do that, Mendelson said, police should focus on known gun offenders and use intelligence to intercept them before they commit new offenses. His ideas aren’t novel: Contee said in an interview that police will continue to place themselves strategically in areas of interest.
But Contee also said pandemic-related delays in the courts have caused some people who might otherwise be in jail to be released to the streets again, even after being arrested with guns in their possession. In a Friday newsletter, Bowser pushed federal officials to “fully reopen the courts.”
A spokesperson for Bowser referred questions about the recent shootings and the city’s response to Contee.
“People are trying to make this such a simple issue and it’s more complicated than that. I wish I could tell you putting a cop on a block is going to stop someone who’s intent on killing somebody from doing it, but that’s not reality,” Contee said. “The reality has to be when we do catch up to the people who did that, how are we holding that person accountable? Is that person back out in our community?”
Council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), whose district includes 14th Street, described her constituents as fearful and even “traumatized over what they witnessed” in the corridor as well as gun violence across the city.
“I’m hearing from residents that if more doesn’t change and gun violence does not reduce in our city, they may move,” she said. “Every resident deserves to feel safe and deserves to live in a neighborhood that they’re not worried they will be hit by a stray bullet.”
She encouraged the mayor to do more to combat retaliatory violence by streamlining and expanding violence interruption programs.
“It’s important that as a city we stand together on this,” she added.
The spate of recent shootings prompted Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), two days before Thursday’s shooting on 14th Street, to issue a lengthy statement that “residents deserve a thoughtful and long-term response” to gun violence.
“Our city needs a comprehensive plan,” he said in the Tuesday statement. “It needs a clear, consistent, and all-hands-on-deck approach.”
Some who frequent both the 14th Street NW corridor and neighborhoods on the opposite side of the city where gun violence is far more common said they wonder if the shooting in the busy restaurant and shopping district will finally draw a more vigorous, cohesive response from city leaders.
Stephanie Wilkinson, 28, lives in Southeast and works on 14th Street at Jeni’s ice cream shop. “It motivates them more, because that’s what shown on TV,” she said, but added she is not sure what city leaders could do to fix the violence that she has witnessed all her life in the District.
Inside the Outrage, Walker sells gifts and gear aimed at the protesting class, meant for Black Lives Matter and Pride marches. In the window, which was visible in news coverage of the shooting, the store displays sweatshirts and toddler-sized T-shirts printed with the words “Thoughts & Prayers” crossed out and replaced by “Policy & Change.”
But Walker isn’t quite sure what policy changes would alleviate the gun violence in the city. She believes Bowser is too quick to turn to police as a response and the city should invest more in alternate responders such as mental health professionals — safety and gun violence initiatives that the mayor put $59 million toward in her proposed fiscal 2022 budget.
Cities across America have grappled with a surge in homicides this summer, and few mayors have solutions. Republicans point to recent efforts at overhauling policing as a possible culprit, saying law enforcement has been hampered in its response to violent crime, while Democrats tend to blame the proliferation of guns.
The violence has been politically toxic for some of them, including Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, a confidante of Bowser, who surprised observers in May by deciding not to seek reelection in the midst of a crime wave in her city.
Ron Lester, a pollster who advised former D.C. mayors Marion Barry and Vincent C. Gray, said voters do not typically blame mayors “for random violence.”
But he also said that the violence creates fear and anxiety “and that is not good for an incumbent,” including one such as Bowser, whom he says voters have given generally high marks for her handling of the pandemic.
“It’s never good to have a heightened state of anxiety heading into an election year,” he said. “Something has to be done. The mayor is going to have to take bold action beyond what she has already done to let voters know she understands their fears and anxiety.”
On the morning after the 14th Street shooting, members of the D.C. Council pressed the Bowser administration for updates on Building Blocks DC, the mayor’s initiative to promote social programs on the 151 blocks of the city most plagued by violence, and the annual Summer Crime Prevention Initiative.
“At this point shootings are happening across the District in every ward,” said council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) plan to hold a public roundtable Thursday to address gun violence in the city and scrutinize the programs.
Bonds said after the July 17 shooting outside Nationals Park, her neighbors asked if they would be safe going out for basic errands. Tensions only increased after the 14th Street shooting, she said.
“Supposedly, the recent data says that we are down even with homicides from last year,” Bonds said. “But it doesn’t speak to what’s going on this week and last week.”
Lauren Victor, an urban planner, has lived near 14th Street for more than 20 years, and plans to stay. “I like being able to walk to 500 restaurants,” she said.
But she worries the shooting may keep others away. “It’s going to be really hard for those restaurants this summer and fall to convince people to keep sitting on those corners, if the appropriate leadership doesn’t get a handle on what’s going on,” she said.
Others offered a similar assessment. Andy Altman, co-owner of the developer Fivesquares that built the Liz, a new complex with an Amazon grocery store and a Sephora just across from the shooting, said “of course” he is concerned about the corridor’s future. But, he said, he believes it will withstand any bad publicity. Sitting outside at Chicken and Whiskey, a restaurant on the block where the shooting took place, 14th Street resident Jeff Cook said he was “frustrated” by the violence but had “mixed feelings” about whether the mayor could address it.
“I don’t know that there is a good easy solution here. It’s complicated,” said Cook, a tax attorney. “I don’t know where more can be done. It’s a hard job for her.”
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) disagrees. Asked if Bowser should feel pressure to do more to remedy gun violence, McDuffie replied: “Absolutely.”
He said the recent spate of gun violence not only endangers citizens but could hamper the city’s economic recovery, especially if fans at baseball games don’t even feel safe.
He said he’s heard from community members who feel the city’s response to violence has been disjointed — with various agencies reporting to different people, and at times, a lack of commitment to initiatives that have already launched.
“We cannot do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. It’s insanity. Residents deserve more from their elected leaders than rhetoric,” he said. “Whether it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue or the 14th Street corridor, everyone is outraged and expects more from the city.”
Karina Elwood contributed to this report.