A STARTLING increase in D.C. homicides in the summer of 2015 prompted Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), during her first year in office, to propose an expansion of law enforcement powers that would have made it easier to search for illegal guns in the hands of repeat violent offenders. The proposal was pretty much rejected out of hand. Critics likened it to ineffective “tough on crime” experiments of the 1980s and 1990s, and the D.C. Council instead adopted a community-based public-health approach to violence prevention. Homicides soared again last year, and with a deadly start to the new year — eight homicides in the first eight days — it is fair to ask whether the city adopted the right approach and whether more needs to be done.
The District recorded 160 homicides in 2018, an increase of nearly 40 percent over 2017 and a counter to the national trend of fewer murders. Violent crime in the city overall declined, but authorities said the surge in homicides was driven by the more frequent use of guns in crimes such as robberies and the growing lethality of shootings. Most of the killings are concentrated — as long has been the case — in the city’s poor, struggling neighborhoods; Wards 7 and 8 are the epicenter of violence that mainly affects young black men. Police said many of the killings stem from petty disputes between people who know each other and that many of the victims, as well as the perpetrators, have had contact with the criminal-justice system, often for crimes involving guns.
About 40 percent of known homicide offenders in the city have had a prior gun arrest, according to D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham. He is trying to focus attention on illicit guns and whether the handling of gun crimes has led criminals to conclude that carrying a firearm — which are easy to get despite the District’s gun laws — is not a serious offense. The criminal-justice system in the District divides responsibility and authority between local and federal officials, and it’s not always clear whether the players — police, prosecutors, judges, probation and parole officials — are all playing from the same playbook. The chief’s concern about convicted felons committing new crimes with guns mirrors that of Ms. Bowser and then-Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier when they unsuccessfully pushed for the expanded police powers.
Following a protracted debate, the council in 2016 adopted the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, which provides for a wide range of public safety initiatives that seek to identify and address the root causes of crime. The $8.2 million initiative is modeled after programs that have proved successful in other cities, and supporters say it is too early to judge results. It is clear that policing alone is not the answer, and we hope the program, with its outreach to youths and neighborhood supports, succeeds. But there should be a clear-eyed, serious examination of whether its goals are being met. Equally important is the need to determine what else can be done to get illicit guns — and those who wield them — off the city’s streets. The concerns Mr. Newsham raised deserve a hearing.