For their first crime walk of the summer — the time of year when violence often spikes — Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) and newly appointed Police Chief Malik Aziz rolled through the streets of Capitol Heights, a town bordering the District that has recently been hard hit.

Their first stop was a BP gas station, where a teen was injured and a 23-year-old woman was killed by gunfire this month. Police called the location the “pinnacle” for shootings in the neighborhood.

“We are here because this is our community,” Alsobrooks said to the crowd of county leaders, pastors and law enforcement. “We won’t lay down as we watch crime increase. We are going to continue to get to work.”

Since the onset of the pandemic, Prince George’s County — a majority-Black community of nearly a million people — has seen a sharp increase in homicides.

This year, Prince George’s police have investigated at least 56 killings as of Sunday afternoon — up from around 30 at the same time last year.

Fatal shootings are also up in neighboring D.C., Montgomery County and Fairfax County, though, in most cases, by less significant margins. In D.C., there had been 77 homicides as of Sunday afternoon, up from 61 year-to-date.

The surge in violent crime is not unique, as communities across the country have experienced similar spikes that experts say are driven by the pandemic, historic unemployment and ebbing social services.

But in Prince George’s, where law enforcement and lawmakers have taken pride in lowering violent crime rates over the past decade, the pain of that progress disappearing especially stings.

For the first time in a long time, lawmakers say, residents are once again citing their safety as a top concern.

With homicides continuing to climb, political and law enforcement officials are launching new efforts to combat the recent uptick — and talking about the stakes if they fail.

“There was this idea that Prince George’s was an unsafe place,” said County Council member Todd M. Turner (D-District 4) during a budget meeting this month. “We don’t want to slide back into this kind of same perspective.”

State and federal prosecutors have announced carjacking task forces. Alsobrooks, concerned about rising juvenile crime, has created a youth summer program that will include a basketball tournament and training in the trades. Aziz, just weeks into the job, is taking stock of the community policing programs in place and evaluating reforms.

But officials say the public — parents, educators, religious leaders, community organizers — must be at the center of their efforts. And the work must span job support services, mental health, youth recreation and smart policing.

“This is a community effort, it has to be,” Alsobrooks said during the crime walk. “We just finished fighting a pandemic with one hand behind our back because of structural inequities in Prince George’s County. And we’re going to fight this, too.”

Beating back crime

Violence began to surge in Prince George’s in the late 1980s and early ’90s, around the same time D.C. was declared the murder capital of the nation. By 2005, Prince George’s averaged a homicide every other day — reaching a peak of more than 160 killings that year.

County leaders spent the last decade working hard to shed a reputation of violence by putting more officers on the streets, targeting high-crime neighborhoods with more government services and helping people leaving prison reenter the community and find jobs.

Falling crime rates in Prince George’s, which ran parallel to national trends, were a relief for residents and a point of pride for law enforcement and political leaders.

In 2018, Prince George’s police investigated 60 homicides — the lowest total in the past five years.

At a news conference the year prior, Alsobrooks, then the county’s state’s attorney, touted their success. It was the fourth consecutive year of reducing crime.

“Prince George’s is so much more than crime, and I want the whole world to understand that, as well,” she said.

Six years later, county lawmakers and police leadership are now trying to stem growing violence once again.

On his first day in charge of the police department, Aziz came before the county council at a budget meeting to answer questions about his public safety plans. The homicide rate was already on track to eclipse those for each of the previous five years, and carjackings had increased by over 200 percent since last spring — reaching 106 investigations by late May.

County Council member Mel Franklin (D-At Large) told the chief that after years of bringing up other issues, residents were again citing crime as their top concern. And he said he feared that the police department — which is the smallest it has been since 2012 — does not have enough officers.

“We are nowhere near where we need to be,” he told Aziz.

The chief said later in interviews he has been meeting with faith leaders, civic organizations and community organizers to get a sense of what residents need and want from their police department.

“Violence is on the rise, and Prince George’s County has not been spared,” the chief said, adding that overall spikes in crimes — and an increase in certain types of crimes — can be cyclical. “It’s all about a partnership. The police aren’t alone at this.”

Cities across the country reported surges in homicides in 2020 as the coronavirus shut down their communities. A recent report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice shows that trend continuing in 2021. In 24 cities nationwide, the number of homicides during the first quarter of 2021 was up 24 percent compared with the same period in 2020 and up 49 percent compared with that period in 2019.

Locally, D.C. has reported about a 25 percent increase in homicides from the same period last year. Montgomery and Fairfax counties also reported increases. And in Prince George’s, the 56 killings marked a nearly 87 percent increase from at the same time last year.

In Prince George’s, some residents say they’ve experienced a growing sense of unease — not only because of the number of killings but also because of the prevalence of carjackings, which have spiked regionally and nationwide.

While most homicides in the county are targeted, the victims in carjackings have been mostly random, law enforcement officials have said.

In one case out of Bladensburg in March, a man filling up his car at a gas station was shot at by an attacker from a nearby gas pump who jumped in the front seat and demanded his car at gunpoint. That same month near Route 202 on the way to Cheverly, a passenger struck his ride-share driver in the head with what police believe was a hammer to try to take control of the car.

Jawanna Hardy, born and raised in the county, is a teacher at Suitland High School and the head of an organization called Guns Down Friday, which provides resources to families who have lost loved ones to gun violence.

Hardy said she has experienced firsthand how the crises of the past year spurred violent attacks in her community. While her school building was empty to adhere to pandemic health guidelines, one of her students was shot and killed a couple of blocks away from her house. Another student was charged with stabbing the owner of a laundromat.

She said the fear of being held at gunpoint in her car has changed the way she acts in her own neighborhood.

“I move different now,” she said.

'They're all our children'

As crime has increased in the county, law enforcement, residents and lawmakers are especially alarmed by the number of perpetrators and victims who are children.

In 2021, Prince George’s County police said they have already investigated homicide cases involving at least six juvenile victims and eight juveniles arrested. In all of last year, just three victims and six arrested in homicides were children. And out of the 33 carjacking cases where county police had made arrests as of Friday, 10 were children.

Community leaders and government officials attribute the trend in large part to the pandemic’s disruption of support systems for youth. Alsobrooks at a news conference this month said the pandemic has created “a crisis among our young people.”

The pandemic shuttered schools, youth sports, youth ministries and after-school programs. Economic instability affected young people, who watched as the adults in their lives lost jobs, income and homes.

And some children even lost caretakers to the coronavirus. Prince George’s, which became Maryland’s coronavirus epicenter, has the highest per capita case rate in the region.

The result, community organizers say, is a devastating combination of unprecedented stress on children who have not had their regular support systems — leading them to resolve conflict with violence.

In one of the first homicides of the year, an 18-year-old shot a 17-year-old over an “ongoing dispute,” police said. A 14-year-old was charged in February with stabbing a cabdriver to death. Within a 24-hour period in May, a 6-year-old boy was critically wounded and a 3-year-old was killed in separate shootings.

An inflection point for the county came on a Saturday night in April, when a gathering of hundreds of Maryland and D.C. teenagers in a parking lot outside the Dave & Buster’s in Capitol Heights turned deadly. A 13-year-old was shot and killed. A 12-year-old, police said, pulled the trigger.

The victim, King Douglas, was an eighth-grader at Kettering Middle School in Prince George’s. The boy who police say shot him was a rising star in youth football in the District.

The Dave & Buster’s incident, officials later said, also underscored the unique challenges the community faces as it tries to address rising violence among children: The preventive work of one jurisdiction is only as effective as the preventive work of its neighbor.

“They’re all our children,” Aziz said at the crime walk in Capitol Heights. “Young people, they don’t know boundaries. . . . Boundaries mean nothing. And especially in this area we call DMV, unlike any other.”

The chief said one of his priorities is shoring up relationships with other federal and local law enforcement areas across Maryland, Virginia and the District, including reinstituting a program with D.C. police that partners their officers with those in Prince George’s.

Seat Pleasant Police Chief Devan Martin, whose community also borders the District, has long witnessed the cross-jurisdictional impact of rising violence among young people in the region. He said the recent uptick in crime only underscores the need for collaboration across the region.

“We need church leaders to come out of the pew,” Martin said. “We need civic associations. We need help.”

'Take back the streets'

By the time Ja’Ka Mcknight took the megaphone, the crowd of community organizers, residents and parents like her had swelled to about three dozen. All had gathered in a Seat Pleasant parking lot on a Saturday morning in mid-May with a shared purpose to end gun violence in Prince George’s.

The Black Rhythm Coalition and Breaking Barriers, two community outreach groups in the county, had organized a walk through neighborhood streets.

“My 13-year-old son,” she told the group, “was the one who was killed at the Dave & Buster’s on April 17 by a 12-year-old.”

All around her, the group shouted out affirmations.

They had already heard from the mother of another shooting victim and from the top prosecutor, who invited the group to another crime awareness event Tuesday. Kojo Boampong, the co-founder of Black Rhythm Coalition, had explained why they were all there.

The problems in Prince George’s could not be solved by the government or the police alone, he said. Safety had to start with community, and educating the community meant walking through their neighborhoods and meeting people where they are.

“We have to take back the streets,” Boampong told the group.

Boampong said he wanted Prince George’s to be safer for his children and theirs, that they were there not for accolades, but for “change.”

In Mcknight’s mind, that change needed to start with parents.

“We have to teach our kids better,” she said. “What we’re failing at now is that we’re trying to be friends with our kids, and it’s not about that. We have to create discipline, structure and some more for our children.”

When her son was fatally shot, the people in this circle had taken her in and made her grief their grief. So she had committed to making their violence prevention fight her fight, too, even though it couldn’t save her son.

“We need to be out here supporting, we need to be out here marching, we need to get our voices heard,” Mcknight said. “We shouldn’t wait until the next child dies. We need to do it now, before it ends up being your child.”

“Stop the violence!” Boampong yelled. “Prayers up, guns down!”

And they turned toward their neighbors and started walking.

Peter Hermann, Justin Jouvenal and Dan Morse contributed to this report.