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D.C. mayor declares gun violence a ‘public health crisis,’ proposes new solutions

Linda K. Harllee Harper, D.C.’s first gun violence prevention director, speaks during a Wednesday news conference announcing Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s new plan. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

After an especially bloody year of shootings in the District, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser on Wednesday formally declared gun violence to be a public health crisis in the city and announced a new “whole-government” approach to combating the scourge, emphasizing more than just police work and prosecutions.

With an initial investment of $15 million and more money to come, said Bowser (D), the city is establishing a “gun violence prevention emergency operations center,” to be staffed by the D.C. government’s “best and brightest” in the fields of education, job training, mental health counseling, housing and other services.

Linda K. Harllee Harper, a top official with the city’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, was named director of the new emergency operations center.

Appearing with Bowser at a news briefing, Harper said the goal is to attack the root causes of gun violence before it occurs. She said the center will “work one on one with the most impacted residents,” focusing on “the circumstances that put people at high risk of engaging in, or being victimized by, violence.”

Those circumstances include such seemingly intractable problems as poverty, unemployment, lack of education, poor physical and mental health care and unstable housing. Bowser called the District’s new approach “the first of its kind in the nation.”

The city recorded 198 homicides in 2020, a 19 percent spike from the year before and the highest annual total since 2004. A vast majority of the killings were committed with guns. In all, 922 people were shot last year, 33 percent more than in 2019.

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In a city where African Americans represent slightly less than half the population, 189 of the 198 homicide victims were Black, and 160 of them were Black and male, including several juveniles.

“We know that 2 percent of the blocks in this city were the sites of 41 percent of all gunshot-related crimes,” Harper said. “We will initially focus on those areas,” although specific programs for dealing with the crisis have not been announced, she added.

The focus in the beginning will be on several blocks in Southeast Washington near Fort Stanton Park in Anacostia, where officials will strive to eliminate conditions that contribute to violence, including the shabby appearance of some neighborhoods, said Christopher Geldart, acting deputy mayor for public safety.

“We’re challenging ourselves as a government to change these places by tackling solvable . . . nuisances like trash removal, streetlight repair, vacant abandoned buildings — the things we know we can change when we focus our city services,” Geldart said.

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