Thirty years ago, those headlines were “normal” when D.C. earned the humiliating title of the United States’ murder capital. Tallying 400 homicides a year, D.C.’s violence drove fearful residents and businesses into the suburbs, worsening economic opportunities for those left behind and emptying city coffers.
But then-D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and police chiefs Charles Ramsey and Cathy L. Lanier ramped up enforcement, police staffing and budgets. Crime plummeted, and D.C. became one of the safest big cities in the United States.
But D.C.’s astounding gains are being squandered. Murders are on track to exceed 200 for the first time in nearly two decades and 100 more per year (a 90 percent increase) than five years ago.
Homicides and violence aren’t just soaring — they are taking innocent lives and spilling over into the neighborhoods of D.C.’s privileged and powerful that were previously immune to the daily dangers faced by other D.C. residents.
In July, a 6-year-old girl was gunned down riding her scooter near her home. The following night, shots rang out near the gates of a Nationals baseball game, sending fans into a panicked stampede. Days later, a gun battle erupted in the ritzy Logan Circle neighborhood.
Meanwhile, gunfire is the soundtrack to daily life in many neighborhoods. D.C.’s ShotSpotter system, which detects gunfire, recorded nearly 14,000 shots in 2020 compared with roughly 4,900 in 2017 — a 185 percent increase.
And most offenders see little to no consequences for their actions. In 2019, before the pandemic shut down the courts, 62 percent of those convicted of carrying illegal guns got six months or less in jail with more than 45 percent given only probation. Even violent offenders get leniency, with 2 out of 5 violent offenders receiving six months or less in prison.
After the July incidents, D.C.’s new police chief, Robert J. Contee III, blamed D.C.’s zero-consequences justice system for the violence, saying it demoralizes police, victims and law-abiding residents.
“What does the community expect?” Contee fumed. “You cannot coddle violent criminals, you cannot. … They might not want a job, they might not, they might not need services. What they may require is to be off our streets because they’re making it unsafe for us. And if that’s what it requires, then that’s what it requires.”
Yet some of the city’s leaders remain in denial and offer only excuses and deluded solutions.
The chair of the D.C. Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee, Charles Allen, doubled down on excuses and the no-consequences approach to crime in his newsletter in July, even after the little girl’s killing and the shooting near Nationals Park. Allen blamed poverty, racism and hopelessness for the violence — everything but the perpetrators.
But Allen refuses to countenance punishing killers in any meaningful way, writing: “If we are serious about reducing violent crime in our community for good, we have to recognize that the threat of serious jail time and the certainty of punishment aren’t always enough.”
A 2016 Post series examining the Youth Rehabilitation Act, which gives offenders under age 22 shorter sentences and record expungements even for violent acts, found that in six short years, 121 of its beneficiaries were charged with murder, accounting for 20 percent of the killings.
Instead of imposing stiffer sentences, the D.C. Council, at Allen’s behest, doubled down on leniency and extended it to offenders (who are mostly murderers and rapists) as long as they commited their crimes before their 25th birthday.
And the police asked to prevent and pursue such crimes are themselves stretched thin and demoralized by hostile politicians. Since last June, the D.C. Council has cut the budget by more than $100 million (18 percent) from 2019-2020 levels, reducing the department’s ability to fully staff its command and complete investigations.
Worse, the revolving door for violent criminals that Contee bemoaned discourages police further since the dangerous criminals they arrest today will be back on the streets terrorizing their communities in a few weeks.
So, it is unsurprising that the D.C. police department is hemorrhaging cops — especially experienced ones — to resignations and retirements without replacing them. In the past nine months, 261 officers have left and only 44 new ones have joined. The department is now below critical staffing levels with the fewest number of sworn officers in decades, even though the population and crime have risen.
When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) asked for funds to hire 170 new officers, the council fought her tooth and nail, offering funds to hire less than 20 percent of the officer shortfall.
And there’s a widening gap between what D.C. residents and their leaders want. A recent poll found that more than 90 percent of D.C. residents want more or the same police presence in their area and 71 percent oppose cuts to the police budget.
And D.C. residents closer to the grim reality on the ground are increasingly fed up with anti-police policies. Denise Krepp, an elected advisory neighborhood commissioner who serves part of Allen’s own Capitol Hill district, demanded accountability and action from the council, saying, “It’s up to each individual person in D.C. to contact their councilmember and express support for the police.”
Those who need the police want the police. Only those who don’t need the police — hiding behind gates and guards — don’t want the police.
Unfortunately, more and more Washingtonians need the police now more than ever. If nothing changes soon, the nation’s capital is well on its way to becoming the nation’s killing capital again.