After recording its lowest number of homicides in five decades in 2012, the District of Columbia will never return to the record-setting levels of violence that wracked the city from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, Mayor Vincent C. Gray said Aug. 6.
“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to those days of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s,” Gray said during an interview on a Northwest Washington street corner, where the mayor joined police officials and about 200 community members for an anti-crime rally as part of National Night Out. The annual event, which takes place the first Tuesday of every August, is sponsored by the National Association of Town Watch.
Gray, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, and officials from other law enforcement and city agencies kicked off the National Night Out on a cordoned-off street adjacent to the Walker Jones Education Campus on New Jersey Avenue NW. Gray and Lanier planned to appear at many of the approximately 35 rallies held throughout the city.
During a brief speech, Gray touted the city’s 2012 homicide total of 88. “Last year, we had the lowest number of homicides in 51 years in the District of Columbia,” Gray said as many in the crowd cheered.
Recording fewer than 100 homicides was an important milestone, some 20 years after the city was known as the nation’s “murder capitol.” In the early 1980s, the city averaged close to 200 homicides a year. Drug markets, primarily for the selling of heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamines, were well-defined and stable.
The violence flared when crack cocaine reached the city in the mid-1980s. The highly addictive drug brought in huge profits, and a younger generation of drug dealers, mostly young men in their 20s and teenagers. Fights over drug turf led to an even bigger surge in violence. Neighborhood gangs or crews formed and armed themselves to fight their enemies. A culture of violence evolved, in which many shootings inspired retaliatory violence.
In 1988, the homicide total shot up to 369. For the next five years, D.C. recorded more than 400 homicides annually, peaking at 482 killings in 1991. Violence remained rare in the wealthy, predominantly White neighborhoods west of 16th Street Northwest, which roughly divides the western and eastern halves of the city.
In the eastern half of the city, drug crews controlled corners and entire blocks in dozens of neighborhoods.
By the mid-1990s, crack cocaine use began a precipitous decline, in D.C. and throughout the country. Violence in the city and throughout the country plunged. In 1998, D.C. recorded 260 homicides, the first time the total was below 300 since 1987. Violent crime in the city has continued to decline.
During the most violent years, police often had difficulty persuading witnesses to come forward. In many neighborhoods, witnesses feared deadly retaliation. As the violence has declined, so has the culture of retaliation and intimidation, police said.
Increased cooperation from the community is a key reason for the decline in violent crime, Lanier said in an interview. “The community working with us is the only reason we’ve been able to achieve this,” the chief said. “They trust us, they provide us with information.”
Community policing, in which officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods and are directed to get to know the people who live and work there, rather than just respond to calls for service, is an important factor, Lanier said.
There are 300 officers on foot patrol assignments, Lanier said. In addition, 19,000 residents communicate with her and other police officials on a listserv, the chief said. “We are virtually present in 19,000 homes,” she said.
Other factors have played a role. In the 1980s and 1990s, much of the violence occurred in or near huge public housing complexes in different parts of the city.
Many of those housing complexes have been bulldozed and replaced with town houses, new apartment buildings and in some cases, office buildings.
The brazen drug dealing that was common during that era, in places such as Barry Farm, a sprawling public housing complex in Southeast D.C., or in the 600 block of S Street NW, three blocks south of Howard University Medical Center, no longer exists. Physically, Barry Farm has not changed much, but drug dealers no longer control the streets.
On S Street, drug dealers used to congregate in front of a huge brick building which shut down in the mid-1980s. In 2012, the owner of the building began renovations on the structure, a refurbishment which is almost complete. The four floors of the former bakery will be used for retail stores and office space.
As of Aug. 6, the city had recorded 54 homicides, and was on pace to record fewer killings than it did in 2012.