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Crime skyrockets in the nation’s capital

Experts and community members debate what’s at the bottom of the violent trend

Washington Metropolitan Police investigate a suspicious vehicle near the Supreme Court and Capitol near the Supreme Court and Capitol, Oct., 2022. Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, File

Crime skyrockets in the nation’s capital

The District of Columbia tallied grim numbers last year. The city recorded 274 homicides—a 35 percent increase over 2022 and the highest number of murders in one year in over two decades. Carjackings and other violent crimes also took off. Last month, the Department of Justice announced it would surge resources to the city to target individuals and organizations driving violent crime.

“We’re seeing that kind of wide-scale pain of what these crimes are bringing,” said LaTrina Antoine, the editor-in-chief of D.C. Witness, which tracks every homicide and nonfatal shooting as it makes its way through the courts. Antoine said the grief is palpable every time she enters a courtroom or joins a virtual hearing. “A lot of what we do is listening to what’s happening in the court proceedings to families.”

Violent crime has declined in most major cities across the United States following a major uptick during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the FBI recorded the largest spike in murders since formal record keeping began in 1960. But in 2023, homicides fell more than 12 percent in over 200 cities, and in some urban areas, violent crime rates hit their lowest in decades. In Baltimore last year, homicides dropped nearly 21 percent, a historic decline.

The nation’s capital, however, bucked this trend. As neighborhoods grapple with the increase, criminal justice experts and community residents are debating what’s behind the troubling rise and what should be done to stem the tide.

In Northeast Washington, 10-year-old Arianna Davis was shot and killed on Mother’s Day. Tyejuan Harkum, the 24-year-old father of a young daughter, was gunned down on Dec. 6. Reginald Jones, 66, fatally stabbed his romantic partner, Regina Morris, 52, in May 2023. Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Police Department arrested a 15-year-old for the December 2023 murder of Jihad Darden, 27.

D.C. Witness’ Antoine said many of the killings originated as petty disputes that quickly spiraled because people are “unable to really process anger in a healthy way.” Other violent crimes involved mental health issues or illicit drugs.

And many of the perpetrators are still on the streets. “If we look at the statistics,” Antoine said, “the arrest rates have been pretty low.” By the time the city recorded 256 homicides last year, police had only made 90 arrests, according to D.C. Witness data. The homicide clearance rate, calculated by dividing the number of cases closed per year by the number that occurred that same year, fell by 10 points to 52 percent in 2023.

“There are a number of reasons why D.C., in contrast to other cities across the country, has experienced a significant increase in homicides and nonfatal shootings,” said Joseph Richardson Jr., an African American studies professor at the University of Maryland and a gun violence researcher. Richardson, who also co-chairs the D.C. Violence Fatality Review Committee, pointed to a lack of coordination between the city’s community violence intervention programs.

Unlike other cities that generally have one coordinated effort, Washington has two major violence interruption programs: the D.C. Office of Attorney General’s Cure the Streets program, and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. Hundreds of other smaller violence reduction and outreach programs also operate throughout the city, according to Richardson. Outreach workers identify areas of the city at high risk of violence with the goal of mediating disputes before they become deadly. “We’re very well-resourced if you compare us to other cities, but we’re also not very well coordinated,” Richardson said.

Leadership changes and police shortages have contributed to the chaos, he noted. Last fall, Mayor Muriel Bowser blamed the city’s surge in violence on Metropolitan Police Department staffing. About 450 police officers have retired since 2020. Just days after Bowser’s comments, three armed men carjacked U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, at gunpoint near the U.S. Capitol.

But some criminal justice experts point out that other major cities are also struggling to fill police staffing shortages. They accuse the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Matthew Graves, of contributing to a perception that people who commit a serious crime can escape the consequences. Graves’ office, which prosecutes most adult crimes in the city, has declined to pursue many gun possession arrest cases. In fiscal year 2023, the office prosecuted 44 percent of all cases, though the office filed charges in 90 percent of serious violent crimes such as homicides and carjackings. Graves’ predecessor prosecuted 65 percent of all cases in 2017.

Brett Tolman, the executive director for the conservative criminal justice group Right on Crime and a former U.S. attorney in Utah, said Graves has “​​all the tools that he would need to disrupt the cycle of violence and to lower crime rates.” Unlike district attorneys in other cities, the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington can utilize federal statutes. For instance, most states do not have the equivalent of the federal carjacking law at their disposal, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years to life in prison and even the death penalty depending on whether the incident caused injury or death. Carjackings in the city nearly doubled from 485 in 2022 to 959 in 2023, and police data shows officers have only made about 170 arrests.

“That’s something that could be used right now,” said Tolman in reference to the federal carjacking statute. “We don’t need new laws. We don’t need longer sentences. None of those things matter if you don’t enforce what you have.”

Graves has fired back at critics, blaming the city council for lowering penalties for juvenile offenders, who in 2023 accounted for 63 percent of individuals arrested for car jackings. In 2021, the district’s crime lab lost accreditation, which forced the city to subcontract its forensic analysis until it opened again in 2023. Graves said the chaos crippled prosecutions. “We must do everything we can to vigorously prosecute crime, particularly the violent crime that’s currently plaguing our community, and we are doing that,” he said.

Antoine with the D.C. Witness said the group’s data show that most homicides occur year after year in the same neighborhoods and city wards. The neighborhoods of Congress Heights and Randle Heights accounted for the highest number of incidents in 2021, 2022, and 2023. “They want to see a stop to the crime happening in their particular communities,” Antoine told me as she recalled conversations with residents. But they are also wary of aggressive or discriminatory policing tactics.

Tackling violent crime, especially the surge among juveniles, requires earlier intervention, said Jay Brown, a lifelong Washington resident and the executive director of Community Shoulders. The organization focuses on rebuilding communities by supporting families and acts as a liaison between neighborhood residents, city officials, violence interruption programs, and other support groups.

“A lot of the kids that have truancy issues are directly involved [in] or victims of [a] crime,” Brown said. He wants schools to hire more case managers who can visit the homes of kids and teens with a track record of truancy or violent behavior. “That will give you access to their homes, then you will see what other needs are going on,” he pointed out.

Initiatives aimed at lowering violence must involve the community members they are aimed at protecting, Brown said. He’s wary of violence interrupter programs and other government initiatives forcing their strategies on communities without listening to residents or getting them involved.

Brown organized meetings with community leaders in Ward 7, which has experienced the second highest number of homicides of the city’s eight wards during the past three years, according to the D.C Witness data Antoine shared with WORLD. Brown said that neighborhood residents, including the president of the tenant association, met twice a week for about 10 weeks in Mayfair Mansion Apartments so residents could voice their concerns about rodent infestations, the mold on their ceilings, and the overflowing trash piles that weren’t getting picked up. He added that the participants also expressed their fears for their children’s safety. “We got the federal government involved,” he said, but residents “felt like they were part of the solution.”

“We have a lot of resilient people in the community, a lot of beautiful minds, a lot of go-getters,” Brown said. “You have to be a part of your own salvation … What do you contribute to public safety every single day? You have to be a part of it.”

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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