Overall, violent crime has gone down 16 percent since early March, when the District’s first confirmed coronavirus case materialized and residents began self-isolating.
But some categories remain relatively unchanged or are even worse. Assaults, including shootings, are up. And the number of homicides is keeping pace with 2019, which ended with a decade-high.
“I think that for our most violent offenders, this pandemic has not changed their behavior at all,” said D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham.
Data analyzed by The Washington Post shows the District mirroring other cities, which recorded drops in property crime while violent crime remained flat. In 15 cities, including Dallas, Atlanta and Chicago, statistics showed decreases in crime as coronavirus cases began to surge and residents were asked to work from home. Baltimore had a spike in deadly violence at the end of March but also has seen a drop in property crime.
Newsham attributed the drop in robberies to the fact that few people are outside. But the number of burglaries in the District remains unchanged, bucking a trend in other cities and against expectations that fewer homes would be broken into since they are for the most part occupied. Newsham said the department is trying to determine whether burglaries of private homes are down but have increased at closed businesses.
The chief also said domestic violence is a concern, though there hasn’t been a sharp increase in complaints or arrests. Newsham warned that the numbers could be artificially low because victims may not be able to report abuse if they are in the presence of their abusers.
James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University in Boston, said traditional street crime such as robberies and attacks involving strangers appears to have dropped in the past month in many American cities. “If you want to reduce crime in the street, you take away the street,” Fox said. “That’s essentially what is happening.”
He said fewer people at bars and other venues where alcohol is involved lessens the chances of spontaneous disputes occurring and getting out of control. But Fox said shootings targeting specific individuals probably will continue.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the public safety committee, agreed, saying that the “overwhelming number of homicides are because of conflicts between two people. Just because there’s a pandemic doesn’t mean those conflicts go away.”
Police in the District have taken pains to remind residents that they are still responding to calls and targeting crime. But officers have altered the way they do their jobs, trying to adhere to social distancing by arresting fewer people and issuing citations in more instances to avoid sending people to jail. Police also are responding to fewer calls in person, taking reports and some witness statements over the phone and online.
Arrests in the District have plunged 75 percent, according to Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue, whose portfolio is public safety. Law enforcement, he said at a recent news conference, has made “profound changes since the start of this pandemic.”
Still, police are taking more guns off the streets than they did last year, a trend that began in January and is continuing through the state of emergency. Officers in one week in March seized more than 55 illegal firearms, one of the highest weekly counts in a year. Thefts of vehicles were climbing before the pandemic, and statistics show stay-at-home orders have had little impact on that category.
Serious crime continues, even if at a slower pace.
A young man was fatally shot outside the Waterfront Metro station March 25; police said he was targeted in a dispute that the victim’s father said had begun years ago. Police said a 2-year-old boy was beaten to death inside an apartment in Northeast Washington on April 1. A young woman was fatally shot in a car Tuesday night in Southeast Washington.
In the past two weeks, police chased a man on a red moped from Columbia Heights to Capitol Hill after shots were fired on a residential street. A suspected robber was caught as he left a bank in Southeast. Detectives are investigating a crew breaking into pharmacies and stealing safes containing money and prescription drugs.
“There still are some pretty horrific incidents occurring during this health crisis,” Cmdr. Morgan Kane told residents during a community meeting on crime, held on a telephone conference call this month.
Kane runs the 1st Police District, which oversees the Waterfront, and about three dozen residents joined the meeting, expressing concern about how the coronavirus is shaping the fight against crime.
The commander said some people “want us to engage folks on minor crime, and some people want us to push folks into their houses and practice social distancing.”
Kane said that she wants her officers to “steer away from some of the low-level crimes,” but she also said that “we absolutely still have to have face-to-face interactions” when confronting more-serious issues.
She mentioned break-ins of vehicles “parked longer than normal” and told residents to watch out for the theft of packages from front porches, “now that a lot of people are getting home deliveries.”
Several residents expressed concern about the March 25 fatal shooting of Marquis Osborne, 21, outside the Safeway grocery store at the Waterfront station. Others said they worried about juveniles hanging out around the Greenleaf Gardens housing complex.
“We have resources deployed down there,” Kane told the group. “We still have to make sure we’re engaging. . . . We know if we let up, we have incidents. We still have a job to do.”
Even with social distancing, Kane said, sometimes “we do kind of have to go hands-on.” She said that a day earlier, her officers “were recovering guns and locking people up.”
At a meeting in the 6th District, covering neighborhoods from Marshall Heights to River Terrace, Capt. Sean Connors warned residents of car break-ins and noted a “huge increase in shoplifting in one area.”
He, too, fielded questions about shootings and homicides, and described arrests and seizures of illegal firearms. In Marshall Heights, Connors said, “property crime is not what’s driving” the numbers. “Unfortunately, it’s our violent crime.”
Darran Simon and Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.