When Muriel E. Bowser was running for mayor last year, managing the city’s lightning-fast gentrification and turning a page on a political ethics scandal were clear requisites for the job. Battling a soaring murder rate was not.
But in Bowser’s first summer in office, a 36 percent jump in homicides has captured the mayor’s — and the city’s — undivided attention. Shooting after shooting has dominated the headlines and left Bowser (D) and her seasoned police chief searching for answers. The number of killings reached 101 early Saturday — nearly as many as in all of 2014. Nine occurred in the past eight days.
Washington is far from alone: Four of the nation’s largest cities, New York, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, had recorded a rise in homicides by mid-July, and many more showed an uptick in gun violence. Baltimore, still reeling from riots over the in-custody fatal injury of a man this past spring, has recorded more than 200 homicides.
Still, a mayor who has been trying define her campaign promise to find new “pathways to the middle class” is now under fire for not doing more since day one on public safety — and for shifting explanations for the rising death toll. And with D.C. schools preparing to open Monday and police scrambling to prevent more killings, Bowser has found a new job No. 1 thrust upon her: calming a skittish public and slowing the body count.
“People want to know why there has not been a clear answer given, and that’s not to say that there is an easy answer,” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said. “But first we were told by the mayor that it might be synthetic drugs or domestic violence, then it was illegal guns. Homicides are up. Not just up, but up by 30 percent. Layer over that changing explanations and it gives people cause for real concern.”
Across the city, makeshift shrines and idling police cruisers mark the places where the violence has struck. Among the victims: an American University graduate outside a bustling Metro station; a journalist waiting at a bus stop; a mother of a 12-year-old shot inside her Southeast Washington home.
Evident, too, are raw emotions and growing fear that the District is less safe. Tensions over the killings reached a boiling point this past week, when a man died of a gunshot wound on the steps of a Catholic church in Southeast Washington. A crowd of family members and onlookers rushed a police line, shouting for justice. And after a spray of 18 bullets north of the convention center left pedestrians diving for cover, neighborhood e-mail groups lit up with newcomers questioning whether they had been reckless to try to raise small children in the District.
Tyrone Parker, head of the Alliance of Concerned Men who works with youth in the Shaw neighborhood, said both the families terrorized by the violence and the often low-income teens behind the shootings are seeing two sides of the same problem: “An escalation of hopelessness,” he said. Those acting out don’t have any hope they can be part of the city’s growing prosperity. “We need to get these kids into services, make sure we can walk them” through how to succeed. “We don’t want to go back to being the murder capital of the USA.”
After two decades of mostly falling crime rates, a wave of private investment has enlivened the District’s downtown, attracting tens of thousands of new residents, lifting property values and allowing the city to spend billions of dollars more annually on top goals such as rebuilding public schools.
Keeping that red-hot prosperity going was a key promise of Bowser’s campaign, as was spreading the success to low-
Those priorities have been pushed aside, at least temporarily. This past week, the mayor repeatedly jettisoned scheduled meetings as daily shootings pushed the District’s homicide count toward 100 — close to last year’s total of 105. Suddenly, the city was on pace to log its deadliest year since 2008, when 186 people were slain.
Bowser has rushed to crime scenes to stand beside Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and to community meetings that social media posts described as increasingly tense.
She has also addressed the news media almost every day for a week. Bowser has tried to project an image of calm and used the word “unacceptable” more than a dozen times to describe the violence, even as she said that a visit to one crime scene, where a mother of a 12-year-old boy was killed Tuesday, had made for one of the saddest days of her life.
“It is my job to make sure the police have what they need,” Bowser told a community gathering that night. “I am committed to making sure every available resource is put to use.”
The next day, as she faced cameras in Shaw, where a 23-year-old financial analyst was killed walking to a restaurant often packed with families, Bowser proclaimed that the neighborhood “belongs to us” and that the city would “battle through” the violence. She and Lanier announced that the city would begin by doubling to $2,500 the reward for turning in illegal guns.
Privately, however, Bowser was searching for solutions with increasing urgency, according to three members of the administration who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the mayor’s evolving response.
The mayor decided to back an idea proposed by Lanier to hire 100 civilians to fill desk jobs at police stations. Lanier told the mayor that it would free up officers to boost street patrols.
Bowser also instructed her top public safety official to pivot from a program designed to support the family of one crime victim at a time with counseling and other social services. The city, Bowser said in a meeting with senior staff members, needs to figure out how to broaden its response and triage entire neighborhoods.
On Thursday, Bowser also instructed her deputy mayors to seek “bold ideas” for how to ramp up and tie together a patchwork of city job-training programs, recreational activities and social services to get young, unemployed residents out of harm’s way.
If anything, public safety had before this summer been the least of Bowser’s worries, not only because of the city’s steadily low crime rates but also because of the soaring popularity of its police chief.
Days after she won the Democratic primary, and seven months before last fall’s general election, Bowser announced that she had met with Lanier and asked her to stay on as chief.
As the campaign wore on, the District also appeared relatively insulated from the kind of rioting and other outbursts that had emerged in several cities amid a series of racially charged police shootings, beginning a year ago in Ferguson, Mo.
So unexpected was the coming crime wave that, in March, in one of Bowser’s first meetings with the full D.C. Council, she outlined how she expected to further reduce gun violence.
Meanwhile, a drumbeat of increasingly deadly street crime may have been masked in the first half of the year by a handful of sensational killings that dominated crime news in the District: An attorney was killed in a trendy downtown hotel in February after he solicited a rendezvous online. In May, a wealthy family and a housekeeper were tortured, killed and burned in their Northwest Washington home.
By mid-June, however, concern had set in among Bowser’s aides that the homicide tally was trending high. Bowser convened a Saturday conference call with acting U.S. attorney Vincent H. Cohen Jr. and others. After the call, her office released a statement saying that the city and federal partners planned to work together “to combat a recent uptick in violent crime.” But within days, the homicide tally jumped. A body found shot and left burning in a trash bin in Northeast Washington set off a wave of what police said were retaliatory shootings among rival neighborhood crews.
Bowser and Lanier have struggled to offer consistent explanations for the crime spike.
At the start of the summer, they focused on what they said was the increasing prevalence of synthetic drugs on D.C. streets. They tied the drugs to a handful of violent crimes, including a horrific stabbing on a Metro train on the Fourth of July.
Early this month, they added another culprit: illegal guns. Lanier said the District had confiscated almost 1,000 firearms since the beginning of the year, some with high-capacity magazines.
More recently, yet another explanation emerged: repeat violent offenders — with the suggestion that criminals who shouldn’t be free are responsible for some of the killings. Bowser called on Cohen and other federal partners to attend a long-standing monthly meeting on the status of outstanding cases.
In an interview, Mendelson, the council chairman, said he still thinks the city is safe, but he criticized Bowser’s team for not being more precise in assessing causes for the rise in deadly shootings.
He also questioned whether Bowser had set up an adequate structure to fully focus on public safety issues. He pointed to Kevin Donahue’s dual roles as deputy city administrator and deputy mayor, noting that he oversees not only the police and fire departments and 911 center, but also all procurement, transportation and other areas.
“I think there are distractions to what should be a focus on public safety,” Mendelson said.
Delroy Burton, head of the D.C. Police Union, also blamed the mayor and Lanier for creating a “vacuum of leadership” in a year in which law enforcement officers nationwide have felt under siege. Burton said more than 200 officers have resigned over the past year, in part because they don’t want to be the “next officer on the evening news using force.”
Burton also criticized Lanier for stationing officers around the clock at or near the site of some shootings, sometimes without a vehicle, to maintain a show of force and ease residents’ fears. That has left officers disengaged, he said. “They didn’t come here to stand guard. They came here to be mobile and police.”
Lanier played down Burton’s concerns, noting that the department, as of Friday, had made arrests in 56 homicide cases, compared with 38 at the same time last year.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), chairman of the public safety committee, said it wasn’t the time to point fingers. But he urged Bowser to listen to the community.
“We need a collaborative effort, the help of the whole community is where we need to start,” he said. “The mayor and the chief can’t solve this problem alone.”