The car plowed through a white fence and zoomed past a small grove of trees before crashing into a District Heights, Md., apartment building. Inside the gray sedan, Marquita Wimms was found dead. She had been shot.
Her death became the 54th homicide for Prince George’s County police. That was the same number of killings the department investigated in 2014.
After recording three straight years of reductions, Prince George’s this month joined the growing number of jurisdictions locally and nationwide whose homicide counts surpassed the totals from the previous year. County officials say that although the grim milestone is a concern, overall crime remains at lows not seen in decades and that to address the killings, police have implemented new strategies.
“One homicide bothers me, let alone 54,” Prince George’s County Police Chief Mark A. Magaw said. “We’re always looking to reduce any kind of crime and every kind of crime.”
As of Sunday, Prince George’s police had investigated 57 killings this year. Many of those cases involve suspects and victims who knew each other, according to police. That includes drug-related killings involving low-level marijuana dealers fighting over turf and people firing guns to resolve petty disputes, Magaw said.
In response, the police department has reorganized street-level narcotics teams to focus on smaller drug dealers, Magaw said. And the department has partnered with federal agencies — the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — to address increased gun violence.
“I’m confident that our relationship with federal partners and reallocation of narcotics officers will stem this uptick,” Magaw said.
Outside of homicides, the county’s only other crime category that has increased is shootings, up more than 35 compared with the roughly 100 at this time last year, according to the police. Violent crime is down 10 percent, and overall crime is down more than 17 percent.
Prince George’s is not the only jurisdiction in which homicides have increased. Chiefs from large cities across the country met in the District in August to discuss this year’s rise in violence. After the summit, the Major Cities Chiefs Association released data showing a nearly 20 percent increase in homicides among 35 agencies that participated in a survey.
The District has recorded more than 120 homicides this year, passing in August the 2014 total of 105. And one of the bloodiest summers in Baltimore in decades has pushed that city’s homicide count above 265, well past the 211 recorded last year. The Montgomery County police have recorded 24 homicides this year, up from 19 in 2014.
Charles A. Brown, a longtime Prince George’s resident and president of the Chief’s Citizens Advisory Council, said that given the county’s border with the District, he is not surprised to see an increase in Prince George’s.
“When you consider our largest neighbors have crossed their homicide numbers last year to a greater degree, you should expect there is probably some spillover,” Brown said.
Brown said the numbers are not alarming to him and added that many of the residents with whom he talks tell him they feel safer in the county than they have in years. But, according to Brown, residents also have expressed concerns that nearly $9 million in budget cuts county officials have required of the police department could reduce public safety.
Barry Stanton, deputy chief administrative officer for public safety in Prince George’s, said he is confident in the police department’s plan to address shootings and homicides and said that it is important to keep the numbers in context. The county averaged 126 slayings per year between 2000 and 2010.
“I don’t want to be judged by just the homicides,” Stanton said. “Our crime numbers are still low, and last year was at 30-year lows.”
Officials attribute much of the crime reduction in recent years to the county’s Transforming Neighborhoods Initiative, a program aimed at cutting crime in targeted areas through focused social services and law enforcement resources. Crime has fallen by almost 18 percent since January in communities within the initiative, on top of reductions from years past, Stanton said.
And even some residents who have seen incidents in their neighborhood say they feel safe.
Two weeks after Wimms’s Oct. 3 death, Charles Barnes stood on his balcony overlooking the splintered gate and stuffed animals left as a memorial near the apartment building where the crash occurred.
“It was nothing but chaos that night,” said Barnes, 66, who has lived in the apartment complex for 19 years.
Police announced Sunday that they were looking for a suspect in Wimms’s slaying, obtaining an arrest warrant for Joseph Poteat, 29, who lives in the block where the crash occurred.
Although homicides in the county are up and the circumstances surrounding Wimms’s killing seem bizarre, Barnes said he still feels safe, noting that other jurisdictions passed their 2014 homicide totals sooner than Prince George’s did.
“Seems to me like they’re doing okay,” Barnes said .