D.C.’s quadruple murder in May is only one occurrence in the city’s rising homicide count. (AP Photo)
The rise in homicides in the District has generated a robust discussion among city leaders and residents on what should be done to prevent more unnecessary killings. Statistics compiled by the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, as of Aug. 11, report that there were 91 homicides in the city, compared with 71 at this point last year, an increase of 28.2 percent. D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who is the chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary, said that the rising homicide rate must be addressed by city leaders.
“Reducing instances of gun violence is not just the job of the Metropolitan Police Department, but the responsibility of every government agency,” McDuffie said.
The homicide rate was on a downward trajectory for about 15 years until 2013. MPD statistics report that the lowest rate in 20 years took place in 2012, with only 88 homicides, compared with 397 in 1996.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier have stated publicly that the rampant use of synthetic drugs is one of the reasons for the homicide uptick. “I think that is part of what we’re dealing with right now, is this influx of synthetic drugs and the impact that it is having,” Lanier said on June 27 after a community meeting. “You will get lots of batches of it where it is much, much more potent, and when it happens you see these spikes in overdoses and violence.”
District community and law enforcement leaders agree with Lanier that synthetic drug use isn’t the only reason homicides have risen recently. “The reasons for the rise are complex,” Delroy Burton, the chairman of the D.C. Police Union, said. “One of the problems is that during the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, the mayor and Cathy Lanier bragged about the low rate of homicides but didn’t talk about the rise in other crimes such as robberies and assaults. One crime was going way down but that was balanced by the rise in other crimes and nothing was really done about those crimes.”
Burton said the MPD is operating without adequate staffing and that has an effect on fighting homicides. “Lanier said that in order to be fully manned, there should 4,000 officers on the force,” Burton said. “We have 3,869 officers and even though we have 150 officers in the police academy now, when the new officers come on duty, the force will still be short of 4,000 because of officers who are retiring, on administrative leave, on military leave and those who are being disciplined.”
Burton said that the homicide rise could be that people haven’t learned to resolve conflicts amicably. “When I was younger, when a conflict arose, we fought it out with our fists and moved on,” the union chairman said. “These days, people will go get a gun and shoot someone if they feel disrespected.”
Douglass Sloan, an advisory neighborhood commissioner for single-member district 4B09, said police officers need to be more visible in the city. “We need more cops on foot patrols,” Sloan said. “Officers need to get out of their cars and engage people in the community.”
Sloan agreed with McDuffie that District agencies like the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation could do more, such as opening their centers on Sundays so that young people can have a safe place to go and engage in productive activities.
D.C. Council members have attempted to get the community involved in stemming the homicide tide. D.C. Council member Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4) held a community meeting with residents and police officials in his ward on July 23. McDuffie convened a public safety and crime summit on July 30 with a panel discussion including Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Vincent Cohen and District Attorney General Karl Racine.
One of the possible tools in fighting gun violence and homicides is the use of body cameras by police officers. The District is in the process of requiring all its officers that are patrolling neighborhoods to have cameras and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) wants the federal government to help pay for it.
“I am sponsoring a bill, “The Safer Officers and Safer Citizens Act of 2015,” Scott told the AFRO on Aug. 5. “My bill will provide $500 million over five years to help law enforcement officers afford police body cameras at an affordable price. The bill requests that the participating municipality put 25 percent match for the funds.”
Scott said that body cameras benefit law enforcement and the community. “Cameras change behavior because statistics show that there is a 90 percent drop against police officer complaints and a 60 percent drop in the use of force against officers,” the senator said.