Community Safety Update

Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we can make the District a safe city in every neighborhood, in every ward. I want to thank you for writing to me with your concerns and ideas on how to improve public safety. I’ve seen some of you at community meetings focused on this issue; thank you for your time and input. It is so important for me and my colleagues to hear from you. The recent uptick in crime, particularly homicides and armed robberies in specific areas of the city, has been upsetting and unnerving. I want to let you know that there is a sense of urgency at the Wilson Building on this matter, and I am committed to making sure we use evidence-based policies to approach this important issue in a way that truly protects all residents.

I had a two-hour discussion with Chief Cathy Lanier last week to better understand MPD’s approach to crime hotspots, community policing, and efforts to get illegal guns off the streets, as well as overall issues regarding staffing and morale in the police department. Thank you very much to Chief Lanier, Commanders Daniel Hickson and Ralph Ennis, and Kelly O’Meara for a candid and productive conversation. You may have heard about Mayor Bowser’s new public safety agenda focused on reducing violent crime. I, along with colleagues on the Council, received a briefing on the legal changes from Chief Lanier and the Mayor, but we have not yet seen legislative language. I will be following these changes actively and closely. If you have input, feel free to write Kelly Hunt, my legislative fellow, at khunt@dccouncil.us. Kelly is my point person on public safety.

Here are some of the meeting’s key takeaways, along with answers to some of the concerns you shared with me:

Community Policing in Neighborhoods: Visibility of officers is a concern throughout the city, and some of you have expressed worries about taking a U-turn back toward bad stop-and-frisk tactics. Chief Lanier spoke forcefully about efforts to get as many uniformed officers on the beat as possible and using community policing approaches that truly protect residents and do not violate civil liberties. The chart below shows MPD’s current and historical staffing. Chief Lanier plans to add additional capacity to the force (up to the level of 4,000 officers) primarily by continuing to recruit and train 300 cadets per year and by moving some sworn officers out of civilian roles, especially in the forensics lab where officers have been filling civilian positions since a freeze on civilian hiring.

The city is divided into seven police Districts, and they are staffed according to the average number of calls in each District. Crime is not spread evenly throughout the District of Columbia, so different neighborhoods have different demands. I expressed to the Chief how many of you asked for more visible patrols either on foot, on bike, or on Segway. I have also started to meet with Commanders in the Districts and have expressed your concerns with them as well.

Increase in Homicides: I want to thank Chief Lanier and MPD for releasing data on our violent crime trends because it puts our crime uptick in context. A couple of things jumped out at me. First, violent crime on the whole is down, as are non-fatal shootings, but homicides are up. As the Chief has said in press conferences, the shootings we have had are more likely to be fatal due to firearms being used. We have fought for the toughest gun laws and will continue to do so, but this is an issue of war-like guns being brought into our city illegally. High capacity magazines are part of the reason the number of non-lethal shootings have gone down and homicides have gone up; multiple rounds mean there is an increased chance that the shooter will hit its target.

As you can see in the data, the homicide increase is largely in the Fifth and Seventh Districts (the Second District uptick was due to the Savopoulos case). The Shaw neighborhood in the Third District has also had some very high profile cases. I will work with MPD and the Bowser administration, as well as Judiciary Committee Chairman Kenyan McDuffie and my Council colleagues, to make sure we are focusing on these communities. I am also concerned that a number of homicides happened in or near DC Housing Authority properties, which relates to my work on the Housing Committee.

Guns: The MPD Gun Unit has 24 officers focused on getting guns off the street. It is a Sisyphean task due to the more lax gun laws of our neighbors. I applaud the father of Alison Parker, the Roanoke reporter gunned down on live TV, for calling out elected officials who are against safe and sane gun laws in this Washington Post op-ed. While many guns come from Florida and South Carolina, the vast majority of illegal guns in DC come from Maryland and Virginia. Straw buyers are able to drive across the border, or take other transportation, and bring large numbers of guns into the District.

There are currently two ATF agents working with MPD to address the illegal gun problem. The tip lines are also increasingly successful, especially for reporting illegal guns. Lack of federal enforcement remains a challenge for cities across the country, but especially in the District where our gun crimes are prosecuted by federal prosecutors, who may not always have the capacity to engage in the kind of gun-deterrence activity that has proven successful in other jurisdictions.

I wanted to share this information because I think that transparency is incredibly important. Public safety is not just about policing, however. Every time I read a report of violence, I have taken to looking at the age of the victim and the suspect. Often I find both are between the ages of 18 and 26. We need to make sure that we are intentionally and actively creating alternatives to crime, through our schools, our jobs programs, and our re-entry programs that provide safe housing and employment for those coming back from incarceration. We have to do better for these young people and their communities.

That is why I have been focused on getting better outcomes from our Summer Youth Employment Program and why I hope the conversation about crime can lead us to invest at least as much in our at-risk youth in the coming months as we invest in additional police resources. Further, I will be pushing for us to use those resources on evidence-based interventions that really make a difference in people’s lives. On Thursday, I am meeting with Brenda Donald, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, to discuss how we can replicate high-quality programs in other jurisdictions to both reduce crime AND improve other life outcomes for our residents.

We also want to continue hearing from you about things that are happening in your neighborhoods. You can email Legislative Fellow Kelly Hunt (khunt@dccouncil.us) or Community Outreach Director Ashley Fox (afox@dccouncil.us) with discussions happening in your community or concerns that would be helpful to share with MPD and other agencies.

Thanks so much.

Elissa.