But police reform, as D.C. auditor Kathy Patterson once noted, “is never one-and-done.” There are still challenges and the need for new, creative approaches to policing. The times are especially fraught with the country in the midst of an unprecedented public health emergency, a reckoning over the role of police and, now, rising rates of homicide and some other violent crimes in D.C. and many other cities. It is important that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) choose wisely in picking Chief Newsham’s successor and that the D.C. Council forswear knee-jerk politics in favor of a thoughtful discussion about who — and what — best serves the interests of D.C. residents. The council’s appointment of a commission to study the issues was encouraging, but the failure to have police representation on the panel suggests an animus toward police that is both misguided and counterproductive.
The chief’s departure comes as the District is experiencing a spike in homicides and several other crimes. Overall crime is down from this time last year, but homicides are up 20 percent, shootings are up 34 percent, motor vehicle theft is up 47 percent and carjackings (as of Nov. 17) were up an eye-popping 129 percent with delivery vehicles seeming to be a target. The District is not alone; according to the Police Executive Research Forum, violent crime is up across the nation and police chiefs cite what they called a “perfect storm” of factors, including stress from the pandemic; a virtual standstill in the criminal justice system with many courts shut; fewer police on neighborhood streets because of a surge in retirements and resignations and a diversion of resources to deal with increased protests. The forum’s Chuck Wexler cited “the elephant in the room . . . the impact of all this on the working cop” who may be reluctant to be proactive for fear of a legitimate arrest becoming contentious, a video going viral with no context or political leaders grandstanding before all the facts are known. Non-police factors are also involved, such as school shutdowns that deprive young people of social supports while giving them many more hours of unsupervised time.
Far too often, the victims of this increased crime are the people most likely to be victims of police misconduct. They are Black and brown and poor and live in neighborhoods that tragically have become too accustomed to the sound of gunshots. What they want is what residents of more affluent neighborhoods take for granted: being able to let their children play outside without fear of them getting hit in a crossfire of bullets; walking to the corner store without fear, and being able to call the police and know they will come to help, not hurt. Police, of course, are not the sole solution to these issues but must be part of a larger, comprehensive approach that gets to the root of the myriad factors that result in violence.