On a recent unseasonably warm night in Washington, D.C, many residents of the Congress Heights community in Southeast are out enjoying the weather. Children are in line at an ice cream truck, teenagers are riding on bikes, young girls are giggling and gossiping and a group of police officers gather together for a break from patrolling in the area.
Not far away, Trayon White, a Ward 8 school board member and community activist, tells a reporter about one of the area’s far too frequent incidents of crime.
“There was a shooting today in Southeast D.C. on Morris Road. A young lady was shot in the leg,” White said. “We talk about the homicide rates but we don’t talk about the victims of shootings. Not everyone who gets shot dies.”
Homicides in Washington D.C. are projected to be below 100 this year, according to D.C. police crime stats. As of Dec. 3, there had been 78 homicides in the city, a drop from 108 murders in 2011 and 132 murders in 2010. Even though homicides have decreased city wide, black Washingtonians are still disproportionately impacted by higher murder rates.
2012 homicide numbers reflect a significant decrease over a decade ago when city officials reported 262 homicides in 2002. The change is a longed-for reprieve for city residents who remember in the late 1980s and early and mid 1990s when Washington was known as “The Murder Capital” of the nation. According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), during this time homicides regularly surpassed 300 and reached an all-time high of 482 in 1991.
A look at the homicides per district show that thought murders overall are down, districts east of the Anacostia River are still burdened with the violent crime. So far this year, the Fifth District has reported 11 slayings, the Sixth District 25 and the Seventh District has had 22. In 2011, these districts had 24, 28 and 22 homicides, respectively.
Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier attributed the reduction to gang suppression and success in reducing retaliatory shootings and guns on the street.
Since 2008, gun programs such as the Gun Tip Line and a citywide gun unit have resulted in “gun crimes down three years in a row,” according to the statement provided by the spokeswoman.
Lanier also credits a combination of advance technological crime-fighting tools and information sharing as large contributions to the homicide decrease.
Some community partners of MPD feel Chief Lanier has excelled in bringing down the murder rate.
“Chief Cathy Lanier has done an excellent job,” said William Kellibrew, a member of the Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Prevention Task Force. “As a trauma survivor of double homicide, [I feel] one less murder is a wonderful thing.”
The task force works with the police and community organizations to focus on strategies to reduce homicide rates. Kellibrew highlighted a study where MPD pinpointed six hot spots for crime in the city. Police authorities discovered that some of the ex-offenders returning to the community were affiliated with crimes.
Residents who work and reside in areas with higher homicide rates have also noticed the welcome difference.
“We started donating food to families for funerals when we heard about a death, so I do feel they are going down” said Unique Walker, owner of MLK Deli in the
Congress Heights neighborhood.
Many in the city feel the district has finally begun to shed the era of “the murder capital.”
“I’m a child of the 80s’ and 90’s and the crack epidemic, so there’s definitely a notable decrease in the past 10 years,” said Ed Fisher, a life-long Ward 7 resident and chief of staff to Councilwoman Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7). “Now I see the murders as more isolated or random and the community has a much better relationship with police.”
In addition to better community partnerships with police, residents attribute a variety of different factors to the homicide decrease such as advances in medical treatment.
“I think modern medicine has helped that more than law enforcement or the city overall becoming safer,” said Tony Lewis, an activist and founder of D.C. or Nothing. “If you go to Medstar [Washington Hospital Center] and see how many gunshot victims come through there, people aren’t dying, but people are still getting shot and stabbed.”
Ward 5 Advisory Neighborhood Commission member Silas Grant Jr. attributes the drop in killings to a reduction in drug crimes.
“The murder rate has decreased because the drug activity has decreased,” Grant said. “Those individuals who may have participated in drug activity are now participating in robbery and thefts from autos and homes.”
Fisher believes some perpetrators have aged out of committing crime.
“Some of the criminals from the past have grown up,” said Fisher. “The guys who hung on the block when I was 16 now have families and jobs and realize the life they were leading can’t continue.”
White regularly visits shooting and stabbing victims in local hospitals and is frustrated with the lack of attention given to youth violence—with girls and boys—by city officials.
“They’re painting a picture that the crime is going down but the residents don’t feel like it at all,” White said. “There are so many beefs going on, it’s out of control…I just came back from the hospital this morning from seeing a young man who was shot in the neck.”