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District leaders urge comprehensive approach to reducing homicides

Amid a violent January in which 18 people have been killed in the District, city leaders on Tuesday pressed for additional resources for crime prevention, including a new effort to help find jobs for inmates nearing release from the city jail.

Speaking at the monthly breakfast for the mayor and D.C. Council, authorities discussed a wide range of strategies to address a spike in killings in 2018 that has not abated with the start of the new year.

“As you all know, 2018 was a bad year for the city for homicides,” Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety, told the group. “And January is even worse.” But, he added, “there is no single magic program or investment that is going to solve this.”

Donahue and the mayor updated council members about existing programs aimed at quelling crime. One puts former drug dealers hired to be “violence interrupters” into neighborhoods to identify tensions and try to stop violence before it occurs. The other, called Pathways, aims to find people who are likely to become the next victim or perpetrator of violence and diverts them into an intense jobs program.

Pathways recently graduated its first class of 18, and Donahue said 17 of those people found jobs within five months. Another class graduates Friday. The program at the jail will be called READY ­(Resources to Empower And Develop You), and is expected to open in about a month. It will be housed in a modular-style building behind the jail, and every inmate leaving the facility will go through it.

They will be able to review jobs already available, sign up for a variety of reentry initiatives and get an ID card or driver’s license. The idea is to get them jobs and other help before they return to their old neighborhoods and their old ways.

Violence interrupter tries to stop shootings before they start

City officials said programs such as Violence Interrupters are in their infancy and difficult to evaluate.

D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine noted his office has its own violence-interruption program, called Cure the Streets, working in two small areas of the city: sections of Congress Heights and Washington Highlands in Southeast and Trinidad in Northeast. He said there has been a significant decrease in fatal and nonfatal shootings in areas targeted by the program compared with adjacent areas.

Discussion of crime dominated the breakfast meeting. Officials repeated figures they made public in December — noting that while homicides increased in 2018, the number of shootings has remained constant over the past several years, and other violent crime has gone down.

Donahue said shootings have become more lethal, with 23 percent of shooting victims dying in 2018, compared with 16 percent in 2017, resulting in 34 additional deaths. The deputy mayor said gunmen are standing closer to their targets. He noted a recent triple homicide “that was done feet from the victims. There was no question of the outcome.”

Homicide spike due to increase in lethality of shootings

Donahue cited arguments between people who know each other, retaliation, robberies, domestic assault and access to illegal guns as the prime motivators for homicide. His presentation also listed root causes that include untreated trauma, fear for survival on the streets, lack of jobs and “social influences that normalize violence.”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said the broad approach of using police and social programs to combat violence shows the District is understanding the problem goes far beyond law enforcement. He said he talked to a Pathways graduate who told him about enrolling his daughter in health care for the first time.

“It completely changes his future and his family’s future,” Allen said.

Two council members questioned whether the District is fully committed to both pay for and follow through with the programs and whether they’re sufficient. Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) noted that Pathways had just 18 slots, a small number compared with the people who might need it.

“We can have these little victories,” she said of the 17 graduates who found jobs. “But we know the issue is massive.” With city leaders vague on how much expanding these programs would cost, Bonds asked the mayor, “How serious are we about this?” and pondered whether the council would get a budget request for $100 million.

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) said some programs being sold as new — such as Violence Interrupters — existed before under different names and forms. He said the program should grow with interrupters stationed in schools and the jail.

“The city is not getting any safer,” White said. “There are several neighborhoods where I hear gunshots and it sounds like I’m in a Third World country. . . . I don’t feel like we take public safety seriously.”

Donahue said measuring the success of these programs is difficult, especially “the question of whether they have a broader impact” on violence. He said many programs and institutions can contribute to crime drops, not all of it provable.

“Having really good schools reduces crime,” he said, citing a few examples. “Reducing truancy reduces crime. It’s already a ­100-million-dollar question.”

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