Opinion ‘Residents are scared’: Violent crime is all too common in D.C.

(Washington Post staff illustration/iStock images)

Aryeh Wolf was installing solar panels in Southeast Washington on Aug. 10 when an assailant with a handgun shot him multiple times, killing the 25-year-old. On Aug. 24, students at the Mundo Verde Bilingual Public Charter School in Northwest were minutes away from being dismissed on their first day of classes when the school was placed on lockdown after repeated gunshots were heard; responding police found two men dead and three others injured in the nearby neighborhood. Brian Robinson Jr., a running back for the Washington Commanders, was leaving a storefront in the heart of Northeast’s H Street corridor when he was shot twice during a possible attempted carjacking or armed robbery. Mr. Robinson was one of three people shot or stabbed that weekend along the stretch of popular restaurants and bars.

The alarming regularity of violence — predominantly gun violence — is a serious problem in D.C. The city government has undertaken myriad efforts to combat violent crime — establishing the office of gun violence prevention, investing millions of dollars in crime-related community-based initiatives and initiating new police offensives — but so far the city seems no safer.

As in many cities and towns facing rising crime, D.C.’s leaders must respond both with care and urgency. Ensuring that police officials have the funding and tools they need to combat violent crime is crucial. But so, too, are non-policing responses that will take investments of money and time but promise to make the city safer, fairer and more pleasant for all.

While overall crime in D.C. is down, violent crime is up. Homicides are up 1 percent over this time in 2021, a year that ended with murder levels not seen in more than two decades. “Residents are scared,” said Michael D. Shankle, chair of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the Chinatown area, after three people were shot one night last month, one fatally, in two separate incidents. He added, “They are angry. … We feel like we don’t have enough support.”

The underlying causes of crime have long been studied and debated. Many various factors appear to contribute. Complicated societal ills such as poverty and racial inequity factor in, but so do mundane circumstances such as the weather.

Recently, the coronavirus pandemic’s social disruptions appear to have driven increases in crime in communities across the country. A July report by the Council on Criminal Justice showed that homicide rates in nearly two dozen cities with readily available crime numbers are still nearly 40 percent higher than they were before the pandemic. In Prince George’s County, which neighbors D.C., officials were so alarmed by the recent increase in crime — August was the single-deadliest month in the county’s history, with 24 homicides — that they announced a curfew for juveniles, more of whom are being arrested, many for carjacking offenses. (D.C. already had a juvenile curfew on the books, but the city only recently — and quietly — started enforcing it.)

True, cities such as D.C. only have so much power to address gun violence. Congress has failed to embrace obvious gun-control measures, such as universal background checks or a ban on assault weapons. The Supreme Court’s wrong-headed reading of the Second Amendment has made it more difficult for states and localities to fill the gap with their own restrictions. And many Republican-led states have loosened virtually all constraints on guns. The result has been the unchecked proliferation of firearms. Even with some of the country’s toughest gun laws, the District is awash in firearms. Police so far this year have seized 2,249 guns, 815 more than this time last year; they seem to be fighting a losing battle.

Yet local officials can’t just throw in the towel. Responsibility falls firstly on Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who has rightly made gun violence a priority. She smartly chose the capable Robert J. Contee III as police chief, but she also recognized — her critics say belatedly — that police alone can’t solve the problem. Accordingly, she has launched a number of programs focused on prevention and intervention: funding the work of community groups in the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods; putting violence interrupters on streets to quell disputes; cleaning up run-down areas; and pairing those at high risk for involvement in gun violence with dedicated teams that can help them get job training, housing, mental health treatment or other services. Even if these programs work, they will not produce instant results. Some critics say they are little more than expensive gimmicks. The mayor must insist on stringent measures to gauge her programs’ impact.

Ms. Bowser’s reelection is almost assured after she won this year’s Democratic mayoral primary. She must guard against the complacency that often accompanies third terms and not hesitate to change course if her policies flop. A mayoral crime summit might help. The District will be getting a new attorney general, likely Brian Schwalb, who won the Democratic primary and faces no opposition in November. Because the attorney general’s office deals with the thorny issue of juvenile crime, the mayor should forge a healthier relationship with Mr. Schwalb than the toxic one she has had with the incumbent, Karl A. Racine.

Meanwhile, the D.C. Council, and particularly the committee on the judiciary and public safety, headed by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), must do its own soul-searching. The council has enacted measures — such as halting police hiring and abolishing school resource officers — and employed rhetoric that made police feel like they were the enemy, making law enforcement’s job harder and the city less safe. For example, the council barred police officers from reviewing their body-cam footage before writing their reports, which has made it more difficult to prosecute cases, as the D.C. U.S. attorney’s office predicted would happen when it recommended against the policy. Gun cases have been most impacted.

The council is now considering an overhaul of the city’s criminal code, which includes controversial proposals to eliminate carjacking as a separate crime and to reduce penalties for armed robbery and other infractions. It would also expand the Second Look Act, which allows younger people convicted of any offense to petition for a sentence reduction after serving 15 years. The expansion would allow convicts of all ages to petition for a sentence reduction.

The council cannot, as it has so often done, brush aside the concerns that police and prosecutors express about these changes. No one should want a return to the bad old days of draconian sentences and mass incarceration. But, in the interest of correcting past mistakes, the District must not swing too far in the other direction, creating a culture in which people engage in wrongdoing because they think there are few consequences.

D.C. officials — from the mayor to council members to prosecutors to judges — must refrain from pointing fingers and making excuses for the violent crime that has made many in the city fearful to walk its streets. They should express urgency, cut the rhetoric and take a rigorous look at what is — and what is not — working.

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