The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion At rising crime’s core: An absence of hope

A small pink teddy bear left near the police tape line where Makiyah Wilson, a 10-year-old heading to an ice cream truck, was killed in a shooting in 2018 in Northeast D.C. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Ahead of a D.C. Council hearing in January 2020, the Bowser administration told lawmakers that one of the city government’s top priorities for the coming year would be reducing gun violence and making the District a model city for police community relations. The administration outlined actions it would take to lower homicides in the city.

D.C. police statistics paint a grim picture of the time since. It’s a sad portrait of failure that won’t surprise many residents. The data show there were nearly 1,330 more violent crimes with a gun during the past two years than there were the previous two.

The picture is explicit. From Aug. 4, 2020, to Aug. 4, 2022, the District registered 363 homicides; there were 282 in the previous two years combined. Robberies totaled 2,409, 893 more than the previous period’s 1,516. Assaults and cases of sex abuse involving a gun also climbed.

A tighter focus draws an even starker image. Year over year, homicides, at 128 so far in 2022, are up 12 percent. And robbery is even worse. The Metropolitan Police Department has already logged 1,271 this year, a 20 percent rise over the same 2021 time frame.

Has D.C. been sitting on its hands?

Since 2020, the city has spent — “invested,” officials say — millions in crime-related community based solutions. District-funded workers have been doing violence intervention and street-outreach work, focusing on neighborhoods plagued with gun-related homicides, robberies, assaults with dangerous weapons, as well as locations where most gunshot victims are found. Community groups have been sprinkled with loads of mini-crime reduction grants.

The city is also trying to pair people considered at high risk for involvement in gun violence — due to prior incarceration, criminal histories or having been crime victims themselves — with specialized teams that can help them access services like job training, subsidized employment and behavioral health treatment. It’s too soon to say whether any of that is working.

This week found Linda K. Harper, the city’s director of gun violence prevention, and Chris Geldart, deputy mayor for public safety, at the Correctional Treatment Facility, where they listened to inmates tell them how to address rampant crime in the city. In response to being told by a correctional officer that, “There are a lot of subject matter experts in here,” Harper reportedly said, “That is where the answers will come from.”

Surely Harper must have spoken with tongue in cheek.

She’s been at this work for more than 20 years. From her time as substance-abuse prevention and intervention coordinator, to a senior position with the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services dealing with criminally involved juveniles, to lifelong residency in Ward 4, which plays home to drug- and gang-related activity (and where I live, too), Harper knows her way around crime and gun death. “My view of gun violence is shaped by how much loss I’ve experienced," she said in a 2021 interview. "I’ve had friends who have been killed and I also have had young people that I have worked with be killed.”

This isn’t to say city officials need not visit the D.C. Corrections Department for insight and ideas. One can never learn enough. But what are we doing about what we already know about the forces driving violence?

One of the answers is as old as the problem: illegal guns. The second is as old as the first: repeat violent offenders.

Residents who hear continued gunfire, screaming sirens and see the yellow tape and sheet-draped bodies are left to fear that crime has a firm hold on their city and won’t let go. Need that be the case?

We must confront a reality as old as the socioeconomic ills that contribute to gun violence.

Most people killed in our city are Black. Most firing the guns are Black, too.

But to descend from that point to a senseless debate over Black-on-Black crime wastes time and ignores truth.

Exposure to violence does something to you. So, too, living under economic and social circumstances that tell you — no matter how you try to convince yourself otherwise — that your life has less value, and that drugs and alcohol can help you cope or escape. At bottom, feelings of hopelessness and self-hatred can leave you to live with a smoldering rage. It doesn’t take much for arguments over nothing, or a desire to retaliate for a slight or seize a chance to get your hands on something that doesn’t belong to you, to escalate to the use of a gun. Especially if there is no hope in the future to drive the day.

That is what we need to pay attention to. It’s not moral failures but public health problems coming our way at the point of a gun.

Alleviate poverty, make schooling and a paying job worthwhile? Of course. But let’s deal with the deeper challenges that bring those dreadful crime stats to us.

Face it D.C. We know what’s behind them.