Dubious Progress in a Deadly District
By Michael Powell
Despite a downturn in slayings in Washington last year -- a drop that D.C. police officials are quick to take credit for -- the District remains an exceptionally violent city, posting the highest homicide rate in the nation for big cities in 1997.
The number of homicides in the District fell from 397 in 1996 to 301 last year. But consider, for perspective, that New York City, a place of 7.5 million people and a similar poverty rate, reported 767 slayings last year. That's the equivalent of 54 slayings in a city the size of Washington.
The D.C. Council begins confirmation hearings tomorrow for police chief-designate Charles H. Ramsey, a deputy superintendent with the Chicago Police Department. He will assume control as some police officials proclaim new success in the war on homicide.
But that war remains more rhetoric than reality. Officials last year did not reassign 500 to 900 officers from desk jobs to street patrols, as the last two police chiefs reported. Detectives closed fewer of last year's homicide cases than suggested by department statistics. And the department disbanded its anti-gun unit, leading to a sharp drop in guns seized.
"The police department's performance in fighting homicide has been so bad for so long that it invites lawlessness," said Joseph E. diGenova, whose five-year tenure as U.S. attorney for the District ended in 1988.
From 1987 through 1997, among cities of more than 400,000 population, Washington had the highest homicide rate in the United States.
And black males stood squarely in the killing zone: Of the city's 4,390 homicide victims in those 11 years, 87 percent were African American men. A black male in Washington who turned 18 in 1989 had a 1 in 24 chance of being slain by 1995, the most extreme ratio in the nation, according to a National Institute of Justice study.
The intensity of the bloodletting is not easily explained. Washington has the highest median black family income in the nation and a smaller percentage of families living below the poverty line than New York, Boston or Philadelphia. And the D.C. police force has the most officers per capita in the United States: about seven for every 1,000 residents.
Nor has the city suffered extraordinary levels of crack use, which is linked to homicide. In 1996, 35 percent of arrestees in the city tested positive for crack, compared with more than 55 percent in Chicago and Miami.
"There are factors that lead Washington to have a high homicide rate," said James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. "But it's still a much higher rate than you would predict based on statistics."
In search of an explanation for the city's status as the nation's murder capital during the last 11 years, The Washington Post interviewed 40 criminologists, prosecutors, demographers, detectives, parents and former street kids. It also reviewed national and local crime studies and U.S. Census data, some dating back 40 years.
A complex tapestry of reasons emerged.
Washington has a very high concentration of single-parent families and high school dropouts, and these families live disproportionately in the neighborhoods hardest hit by violence. Drug markets are directly linked to violence, and often flourish openly.
Spiraling homicide rates are a recurring generational theme. And the city's caste-like race relations reinforce a dangerous sense of alienation and isolation.
There is, finally, the desultory role played by the city's political leaders and police department. As the homicide rate for black males ages 17 to 24 climbed from 67 per 100,000 in 1985 to 652 per 100,000 in 1991, Mayor Marion Barry and the D.C. Council evinced little sense of urgency.
The 1990 and 1994 mayoral campaigns centered on fiscal affairs, tenants rights, race relations and Barry's political fall and redemption. The homicide rate received cursory mention. And the police department struggled under the dead weight of mayoral meddling and hundreds of poorly screened and ill-trained recruits hastily hired in 1989 and 1990.
"You've never had a political consensus develop in D.C. about the need to fight crime," noted George Kelling, a Rutgers University criminologist who has studied national anti-crime strategies. "In New York, in Boston, nothing changed until a consensus developed."
So why did the number of homicides fall last year?
The most obvious answer is provided by the city's Housing Authority, which reported 48 fewer homicides in public housing last year. That accounted for half the decline citywide.
David I. Gilmore, the authority's court-appointed receiver, and the agency's new 177-officer police force brought a sense of order to the most dangerous housing complexes. When a group known as the Alliance of Concerned Men brokered a cease-fire between warring youths in Benning Terrace in Southeast Washington, Gilmore cemented the peace with training and jobs for the young men.
Benning Terrace has not recorded a slaying since the truce.
Then there is the incredible shrinking city. As Washington's population fell from 606,000 in 1990 to 529,000 in 1996, the number of residents most at risk of dying of homicide -- black males ages 18 to 24 -- declined by 44 percent. Washington has far fewer residents in that age group than most cities. Statistically, that population change alone would account for 115 fewer homicides than 1990's record high of 488.
Finally, if homicide resembles a plague, as some criminologists and public health specialists now believe, in which violence begets violence in a geometric expansion, the disease may have run its course in some areas of Washington.
"It's like a disease cycle, where you burn out the potential victims," said a National Institute of Justice researcher who spoke on background. "If you do something dramatic in one neighborhood, you can reduce murder rates across the whole city."
Few speak to this possibility so eloquently as those caught in violence's maw.
"Since I've been a boy, I've been in this world," said Lajon Watson, a husky man of 26, a Benning Terrace survivor who embraced the recent truce. "If someone wasn't in your crew, in your 'hood, you don't care. You didn't have rules or respect."
Watson walked to the edge of the Benning Terrace complex and pointed to distant ball fields that slope away toward Alabama Avenue. Toward what was enemy territory.
"I lost my best friends out here. And I got tired, real tired. After a long while, it's like you can't take it any more. So you stop."
History Behind Homicides
Rampant homicide in the nation's capital is not a new phenomenon. Its roots lie in decades past.
Life in Washington's poorest precincts in the 1950s was ever a rough game. Numbers kings and neighborhood gangs held sway, and the weapon of choice was a knife. Homicides in the city that decade peaked at 81, in 1958.
"It was rough -- you got jumped if you walked into a different neighborhood," recalled Tyrone Parker, who helped negotiate the Benning Terrace truce. "But the street elders kept a certain order."
Then the Federal City Council led a campaign to tear down "the wall of slums" that surrounded the Capitol. From 1955 to 1965, thousands of black families -- including refugees from the tenant farms and racial violence of the Deep South -- were moved to new housing complexes to the north, and to the east, across the Anacostia River.
If there was a distant trigger for the homicides that now beset Washington, many criminologists and activists locate it in this huge dislocation. The destruction of neighborhoods and the grouping of thousands of poor families in isolated public housing at a time of social unrest fed a growing alienation and violence.
By 1970, the District had 280 homicides. Its homicide rate that year was higher than the worst rates to date in New York City, Philadelphia or Chicago.
But the slayings then had a different cast. The typical victim and killer were older than 35. And most homicides were domestic affairs, committed by acquaintances inside a house. Now, strangers and non-family members carry out 96 percent of the city's homicides. And the typical killer is 23.
Still, criminologists look at that violence and discern a generational link. They see the violence of the fathers playing out in the lives of the sons. "Violence is learned," said Alfred Blumenstein, a professor of public policy at Carnegie-Mellon University and former staff member with a presidential crime commission in the mid-1960s. "It's what you find in your family history, and the clues you pick up on the street."
Several factors kept homicide from exploding as lethally as today, however. Heroin was the drug of choice in the 1960s and 1970s, and -- unlike the teenage-run crack markets of today -- its markets were stable affairs, run by adults, for adults.
The city and Congress reacted quickly to the killing surge, hiring and training 1,500 new police officers in the early 1970s. And homicide detectives solved 70 percent to 80 percent of their cases in the 1970s.
"It was a violent time, but not like today," said Arthur Rico Rush, 51, who with Tyrone Parker founded the Alliance of Concerned Men. "We still believed that police could solve a crime."
Within 15 years, much would change -- all for the worse.
A Torrent of Slayings
The transformation came with the suddenness of a summer storm. In 1985, homicides in Washington bottomed out at 148, a 20-year low. Three years later, the city had 372 slayings. Five years later, 489 killings.
A narcotics detective who worked in the Shaw neighborhood recalled when 35-year-old heroin pushers yielded to teenage crack dealers, cheap revolvers to rapid-fire Glocks with foot-long bullet clips.
"For years, the worst you saw was a Saturday night special," the detective said. "All of a sudden, you're staring at kids with semiautomatics."
It was the spring of 1987 in the Benning Terrace houses when one of Abigail Lee's sons, Wayne, threw a punch at another boy. The kid warned Lee's son: "I'm going to bust your mommy's car window." And he did.
So Lee came out and grabbed the other youngster's arm. She'd known him for years. "I wanted to drag him to his grandma's house," recalled Lee, who is a bookkeeper. "But the whole street decided I wasn't taking that little boy anywhere. These little 12- and 13-year-olds pulled guns on me."
Lee retreated inside as the kids demolished all the windows in her car. "Something had snapped," she recalled. "After that, it was just shooting and more shooting."
Starting in the mid-1980s, crack-fueled killings overwhelmed many cities. But few police departments and political leaders were as slow to grasp the nature of the threat as those in Washington, according to criminologists, former prosecutors and officers.
Top police officials, very few of whom had served in narcotics or homicide units, did not craft a coherent counterattack.
"The mayor and police leadership figured crack would come and go," said former police captain William L. Hennessey, who commanded the homicide unit in 1994 and 1995.
As the homicide rate fell in Northwest and exploded across parts of Southeast, officials did not shift officers and resources to the worst-hit neighborhoods.
And personnel systems broke down. From 1985 to 1997, not a single homicide and narcotics supervisor or detective received an annual performance review.
There were successes. In the 3rd District, just north of downtown, commanders added 30 narcotics officers in the late 1980s. And veteran undercover operatives conducted sophisticated year-long drug sweeps, arresting dozens of dealers. Homicide rates in the 3rd District, known as the city's bloodiest, fell noticeably after 1989.
But department officials rarely replicated these strategies. When public outcry swelled, they saturated drug areas with police officers. "It was like they panicked," said one homicide detective. "They simply made arrests to push up their numbers."
Political interference, too, exacted a toll. By law, Barry approved any appointment above the rank of captain. And his late-night misadventures, his penchant for consorting with suspected drug dealers, generated headline after headline. Barry's disengagement during this period was palpable. As he told reporters in 1989: "I'm not going to let murder be the gauge since we're not responsible for murders, can't stop the murders."
"The mayor was palling around with suspected drug dealers, and all the upper-echelon police appointees were political," recalled Carl Rowan Jr., a former FBI agent and a frequent critic of the department. "You tell me what message that sent to cops?"
It all came to a frenzied peak in 1990.
Ordered by Congress to put more officers on the street, the police force hired hundreds of poorly screened recruits. (More than 100 later faced charges as serious as drug running and murder.) Barry was videotaped in an FBI sting smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room while his police bodyguards stood downstairs.
And the violence accelerated. In 1990 and 1991, Washington's homicide rate was three times the highest rate ever recorded in New York, Los Angeles or Miami. As gangs killed witnesses, and detectives solved fewer cases, public confidence eroded.
"Half the street guys were laughing at us, and the other half thought we didn't give a damn and figured they'd handle it on their own," Hennessey said. "Once the neighborhood loses faith, murder is the most difficult crime to solve."
Hennessey's career is emblematic of the department's decline. When he was homicide commander in 1994 and 1995, case closures rose and homicides fell faster than the decline in population.
But in 1994, Barry was reelected mayor and he appointed Larry D. Soulsby as police chief. And Soulsby, with the mayor's blessing, transferred Hennessey and installed Alan Dreher as homicide commander. Dreher had no experience managing a unit as large as homicide.
Clearance rates plunged again, and homicides shot up in 1996. Hennessey fell into an administrative limbo before retiring recently.
To hear to D.C. police officials tell it, the war against homicide turned around in 1997. They carefully analyzed crime data and redeployed officers, and homicide detectives remarkably closed more than 90 percent of their cases -- better than their counterparts in almost any other city in the nation.
"Is the city really safer? Will it last? Yes, it is real," Interim Chief Sonya T. Proctor told reporters three months ago.
But few of the department's claims withstand scrutiny.
The homicide unit was decentralized in July and recentralized in January. Dreher was summarily replaced in September, after it was revealed his detectives were closing just 34 percent of their 1997 cases.
Assistant Police Chief Alfred Broadbent took over. Under his command, he said, detectives solved nearly a case a day, pushing the unit's 1997 closure rate to an acceptable 70 percent.
But a close look raises questions. Detectives closed 210 cases last year, but just 139 were for 1997 homicides. The remainder dated from 1989 to 1996. Thus the clearance rate for 1997 homicides -- the standard the D.C. police used before -- was a modest 43 percent.
Moreover, police closed 51 of their 210 cases last year without making arrests. These are known as "administrative closures" -- cases in which police say they have enough evidence but the homicide suspect is dead or in prison for another crime.
Administrative closures are rare in most departments. Baltimore homicide detectives solved 200 cases in 1997 -- 4 percent by administrative means. In the District, however, detectives closed 24 percent of their cases by administrative means. To prevent abuses by statistics-conscious detectives, the Baltimore state's attorney signs off on administrative closures. The District has no such requirement.
The department further undermines itself with poor data collection. The National Institute of Justice recently found that it could not accurately analyze the District's homicide patterns because of "fragmentary" and "missing" data.
"The police department's data collection is useless, the worst," said Fox, who maintains a crime database at Northeastern University. "Data is important not just to pointy-headed academics like me. Modern police forces rely on it to save lives."
Finally, the police chief claimed that a reassignment of 500 to 900 officers to street patrol last year fed the decline in homicides.
But that redeployment, by and large, was a fiction.
The 7th District, in far Southeast, which had the most homicides in the city, ended 1997 with eight fewer police officers. The 5th District, in Northeast, had a net gain of two. And police in the 4th District told the mayor that far fewer officers are available for street patrols than was publicly reported.
"We're still fighting the problem of deployment," said Stephen D. Harlan, vice chairman of the D.C. financial control board. "Blasting officers out of headquarters remains a great challenge."
Amid the bleakness, there is reason for hope. Homicide in the first four months of 1998 is down 25 percent from last year. The anti-gun unit has been resurrected. And Gilmore, the Alliance of Concerned Men and Robert Woodson's National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise have forged truces in other public housing complexes.
But criminologists caution against the assumption that homicide is on an irreversible downward arc. Too little is known about the epidemiology of homicide, and about the peculiar nature of Washington's periodic violence, to proclaim a corner turned.
Census projections show a population increase at hand for the 15-to-24-year-old age group in the District -- the group most at risk to kill and be killed. Steering young people away from trouble is perilous work. The District only recently launched a program akin to Operation Nightlight, an initiative pioneered in Boston, in which probation officers team with police officers to track troubled young people. Since the inception of its program in 1995, Boston has recorded just one juvenile homicide.
Thomas Ross, who was among the warring Benning Terrace youths who agreed to a truce, is confident that he will not forsake the straight life. And he has proven himself an intuitive leader, often navigating the former band away from violence's shoals.
But he's an expert on the generational damage already done.
"My younger brothers want to live the life like I did." He pointed to a map of the District, to the Capitol East public houses. "My little 13-year-old brother hangs there. And the whole danged neighborhood is run by 13-year-olds. No old dudes."
He flashes the somewhat bewildered look of an elder.
"Now, that's scary."
Staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company