The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Homicides spike in District as shootings become more lethal, police say

In one of this year’s many makeshift memorials for D.C. homicide victims, a small pink teddy bear was left near the police tape marking where 10-year-old Makiyah Wilson was killed in July when four masked gunmen jumped from a car and sprayed 76 shots into the courtyard where she was standing. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

Homicides in the District surged in 2018, driven by what police say are the more frequent use of guns in crimes and more fatal outcomes when a shooting occurs.

The tally of 160 homicides by Monday evening was about a 40 percent increase over the previous year’s 116 total and brought Washington to the cusp of a count not seen since 2015, when a violent summer alarmed residents. The spike came as other violent crime fell.

The 2018 rise occurred as many other large cities saw homicides decline and as killing tallies elsewhere in the Washington region rose slightly or dropped.

Petty disputes between people who know each other and who are armed remain at the root of many D.C. killings, according to law enforcement authorities.

But the city also witnessed grievous random deaths.

The year was only a few weeks old when a 14-year-old was fatally shot in the back during a robbery as he walked home from buying snacks at a neighborhood store.

Boy, 14, killed in botched robbery as killings decried as ‘slow-motion massacre

As 2018 continued, a 10-year-old clutching money for ice cream was killed when four masked gunmen jumped from a car and sprayed 76 shots into the courtyard of her apartment compound. She was hit in the heart.

Makiyah Wilson, 10, shot in hail of bullets during neighborhood feud

A boxer who’d lectured a man about stealing a car was shot and killed. A woman out for a run in Logan Circle was stabbed and died after crawling to a carryout restaurant for help. A stabbing killed a pioneering member of the city’s go-go scene. A social worker driving a car stopped at a traffic light was killed by a stray bullet.

D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said he is trying to engage the broader criminal justice community to focus on gun crimes.

“When you look at our known homicide offenders in the city, about 40 percent of those have a prior gun arrest,” Newsham said. “At all levels of the criminal justice system, we have to do better.”

“Any increase in homicides is a tragedy for this city,” said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D).

The District’s increase of more than 40 killings is one of the biggest jumps nationwide in terms of numbers, yet the per capita homicide rate for the nation’s capital remains far lower than that for Baltimore, St. Louis, Detroit and New Orleans, according to statistics from those departments. Homicides in Philadelphia rose 11 percent as of midnight Sunday. Baltimore’s count declined yet still topped 300 for the year.

According to Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, Chicago has shown the biggest drop in homicide numbers for the year with nearly 100 fewer. Rosenfeld, who has compared statistics in nearly 80 cities, said homicides across the country fell 2 percent to 4 percent over 2017.

Homicides dropped in the District’s two close-in large Maryland suburbs and remained steady in most nearby large jurisdictions in Virginia in 2018, according to details from local police departments and reporting by The Washington Post as of Monday evening.

Tracking D.C.-area homicides

Prince George’s County went from 80 killings in 2017 to 60, one of the lowest annual homicide counts seen in recent years. Two other police agencies in the county investigated a total of five additional homicides — three in Greenbelt and two in Laurel.

In Montgomery County, there were 19 homicides in 2018, compared with 21 a year before.

Fairfax County in Virginia fell from 18 in 2017 to 13 in 2018, with Arlington going from four to three.

But it was the increase in incidents in the District that stood out by year’s end.

In an unusual turn, the city’s total includes 12 deaths that occurred in years past, but were discovered or ruled homicides in 2018. Counting previous deaths is standard practice, but having a dozen prior deaths in the annual tally is roughly twice as many as would appear in a typical year. The District’s 2018 count includes two deaths from a 1985 arson, originally ruled an accidental fire, and three women killed in 2006 whose skeletal remains were found in April during construction work at an apartment complex.

City officials studying the current homicide cases say they see the rise in fatal shootings as part of a larger problem of more gun use in crimes, a shift they said they detected in 2018 after studying violent crimes going back to 2012.

Newsham and Kevin Donahue, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said the look back shows a disturbing trend that is driving up the homicide count but largely has been masked by otherwise positive crime numbers over the past six years.

Although there are fewer crimes, guns have a more pronounced role, the analysis shows.

For example, in 2012, about 1 of every 3 of the just more than 4,300 robberies were at gunpoint. But by 2018, when robberies dropped to about 2,000, 2 in 5 were at gunpoint. Similarly, assaults with dangerous weapons during that span dropped by a third but, by 2018, more of the assaults included guns.

“These violent crimes more frequently involve guns, and when guns are used, they more frequently result in a fatality,” Donahue said.

Two out of three homicides in 2012 were shootings, D.C. police data show. In 2017, 4 out of 5 were.

City authorities said ambulance transport times to hospitals have gotten faster. To probe other explanations for the rise in deaths, they said, they will study whether gunshots more often struck vital organs and whether more victims died before getting to a hospital.

The mayor said many of the shootings are at close range, and Newsham said “the lethality of the shootings has definitely increased.”

About 23 percent of the 534 people shot in the city through mid-December in 2018 died, compared with 16 percent for the same time period in 2017, according to D.C. police. The number does not include suicides.

Rosenfeld said the statistics about the frequent use of guns in violent crimes back the thesis of District officials that the proliferation could be the stimulus behind the homicide jump.

“The immediate precipitants to homicides are assaults and robberies,” Rosenfeld said, noting that, if more of those attacks are committed with guns, “it puts upward pressure on the homicide rate.”

In Prince George’s, County Police Chief Hank Stawinski attributed the drop in homicides to partnerships with prosecutors, the FBI, the county government and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. ATF has worked with Prince George’s to track and stem the flow of illegal firearms, and the FBI has helped the county work across jurisdictional borders to intercept repeat offenders.

“It has taken a few years to develop the kinds of results that we’re getting, but I think that’s impacting our homicide rate, and I think that’s impacting the shooting rate,” Stawinski said.

Nonfatal shootings in the county dropped from 153 in 2017 to 131 as of Dec. 21, 2018.

Newsham — who has spoken about repeat violent offenders and what he sees as inadequate prison terms — said he has asked the U.S. attorney’s office and federal agencies that supervise people out on parole, probation and supervised release to concentrate more on gun crimes.

Bill Miller, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office for the District, said the office’s Violent Crime and Narcotics Trafficking Section handled 70 gun cases through mid-September, a significant increase from the year before. The initiative “focused on repeat offenders and guns associated with drug offenses and violence,” Miller said.

Those cases included that of a man who pleaded guilty to having an illegal .40-caliber handgun with an extended magazine only three months after he ended his prison term for selling drugs, and that of a man who pleaded guilty to illegally selling 31 guns in the District that were purchased at a Virginia gun show. In another case, according to a statement from prosecutors, a man admitted robbing a convenience store at gunpoint while he was on supervised release for a different armed robbery.

As the city’s homicide numbers climbed, Newsham in late May declared a crime emergency in Ward 8, where a great many homicides are concentrated, and ousted the district commander a month later.

He also said he increased overtime for an increase in police patrols east of the Anacostia.

But an incident involving the Gun Recovery Unit that occurred in Ward 8 during the department’s stepped-up effort to curb killings created lingering resentment on several fronts.

In June, the officers working on Sheriff Road in Southeast Washington searched a group of people in a parking lot. Officers found a fake gun, PCP, scales and other evidence of drug use, according to Newsham.

Some people in the parking lot videotaped the tense encounter, which went viral and was later shown at a day-long D.C. Council hearing called to discuss that encounter. Several elected leaders on the public safety committee and community groups complained the officers had been too aggressive and that their actions were emblematic of the force as a whole.

Residents, lawmakers complain of police actions on Sheriff Road

The head of the police union said police and city leaders have acquiesced to those complaints, with the results showing up in the homicide spike.

“I think we’re using ineffective police strategies to avoid police complaints,” said Stephen Bigelow Jr., the chairman of the labor union representing officers. “It’s paralyzing our officers.”

Newsham said complaints about the gun unit actions were generated by misleading claims on social media asserting police had sent in an informant with a gun to create a pretext for a larger raid. The chief said hearing mostly complaints about the department’s efforts “does have a chilling effect on our officers.”

Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the public safety committee, disputed that oversight hinders police work. “The officers I know aren’t afraid to do their jobs,” he said. “We certainly hold them to a higher standard, as we should.”

Allen said more effort and money needs to be poured into agencies that work with troubled youth outside of law enforcement, such as the office on neighborhood engagement that works to quell disputes before they turn deadly and court diversion programs to help people avoid jail and get into jobs.

“There is long-term work we can do that reduces violence,” Allen said.

Lynh Bui, John D. Harden, Ted Melnick, Tom Jackman, Rachel Weiner, Justin Jouvenal and Dan Morse contributed to this report.