Federal authorities have stepped up efforts to team with D.C. police to combat a violent crime surge in the District that include embedding FBI agents and others with detectives responding to and investigating crime scenes.
It is one in a series of initiatives designed to help police gather intelligence by increasing manpower and providing quicker access to extensive databases with the aim of uncovering potential suspects or motives.
A task force to partner federal authorities with D.C. police was established last year, but Vincent H. Cohen Jr., the acting U.S. attorney for the District, said the wave of shootings this summer created a new sense of urgency. The effort is targeting high-crime areas, focusing on the 7th Police District — which includes Anacostia, Barry Farm, Naylor Gardens and Washington Highlands — where homicides have nearly doubled this year compared with the same period last year.
“We are targeting the repeat offenders,” Cohen said in an interview this week. “We are gathering intelligence on the worst of the worst.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Gilberto Guerrero, chief of the Violent Crime and Narcotics Trafficking Section, said the initiative helps police gather “pieces to the puzzle.”
“A lot of these shootings are retaliation,” Guerrero said. “When they come in, they might look like they stand alone. But we’re piecing it together. We’re identifying trends and the relationships between some of these violent crimes.”
Cohen also has set up several social and outreach programs to address crime in communities, including partnerships with clergy, and is taking aim at the rise of synthetic drugs by targeting shops that sell the substances and convincing labs to expedite testing to help get quicker prosecutions.
The crime spike focused attention on D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and forced the District’s new mayor, Muriel E. Bowser (D), to address an issue that had not been a top concern during her campaign. District leaders struggled to offer reasons for the violence, including synthetic drugs, petty disputes, historic neighborhood rivalries and repeat gun offenders, before settling on a combination of all of them. Homicides in the city are up 46 percent compared with this time last year.
Lanier and Bowser have repeatedly said officers are arresting and re-arresting people carrying guns, and have called for more people to be charged under federal, rather than local, statutes because the penalties can be harsher. Cohen said his office, which handles federal and local cases, federally prosecutes gun suspects with three prior convictions related to firearms or violence, which can mean a 15-year minimum prison sentence.
Cohen also said that Lanier’s consolidation of district drug squads into one downtown-based division has slowed the intelligence gathering by police on the street. Lanier made the change, citing disappearing open-air drug markets and the need to go after synthetic drugs sold over the Internet. The D.C. police union has said the decision helped lead to the crime spike, and complained that drug corners and associated violence are making a comeback. Lanier disputes any connection.
Cohen said the plainclothes drug officers historically have made arrests that led to valuable intelligence and helped detectives “understand the major players.”
“That sort of information I don’t think is as free-flowing now,” he said, adding that the “benefit of having a unit like that was getting intelligence in real time and exploiting that information quickly.”
Assistant D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham disputed Cohen’s conclusion, saying the more centralized drug units are getting better intelligence. He credited them with recent gun seizures and arrests that he said has slowed the pace of homicides over the past six weeks.
“Their primary mission is to create sources,” Newsham said, adding that he welcomes the extra help from federal authorities. He said that in most cases, the agents — from the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — are providing immediate help to detectives by performing background checks on suspects and victims, and in some cases accompanying them to crime scenes and on investigations.
He said that the 7th District has the city’s highest increase in homicides this year. “We thought that would be an area in which we could work collectively,” Newsham said. “The federal agencies can bring resources that we don't have. They bring a different mind-set, and have different sources. Now, all those tools are available to us.”
The initiative, which began in August and is still being rolled out, is in part designed to help police get a broader understanding of the violence. Cohen attributed the surge in large part to long-standing disputes between neighborhoods and neighborhood crews.
Cohen would not discuss specific criminal cases that have come out of the working relationship, saying it is too early in the process to see such results, and he did not want to reveal any confidential enforcement methods.
Gregg Pemberton, the treasurer of the D.C. police union and a detective in the 7th District, said he has seen a DEA agent working cases. “I don’t know if he’s going to provide the type of assistance that is really going to have the impact Vince Cohen wants, but he certainly is helpful,” Pemberton said. But he called the move a “stop-gap” measure that “falls short of bringing in the cavalry.”
Pemberton said, however, that federal authorities have “better access to background information” on people and do a better job “tracking down individuals and victims that don’t want to cooperate.” He added, “We’re learning what the feds can do that is beneficial to us.”