Washington’s Crime Problem

Mayor Muriel Bowser talks during a press conference to address the recent uprise in violent crime in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

While homicide numbers are on the decline in most major cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., is trending in the opposite direction. On July 3, a former Army interpreter who escaped from Afghanistan in 2021 was fatally shot in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Four more people were killed on the Fourth of July, and a mass shooting at an Independence Day celebration injured nine.

D.C. Councilmember Brooke Pinto declared the city to be in a “state of emergency.” The council last week enacted emergency legislation it hopes will help in the immediate future, but councilmembers and analysts alike say the district must do more.

In 2020, murders spiked by 30 percent nationwide, the largest percentage increase in decades. Violent crime still remains above pre-pandemic levels in many cities, but murders are down by approximately 8 percent from last year in New York and Chicago and by more than 22 percent in Los Angeles

Yet Washington remains an outlier. Violence spiked during the pandemic—2021 was the city’s deadliest year in almost two decades—but murders there are still up by 18 percent this year compared to 2022. Violent crime overall, which includes murder, sex abuse, robbery, and assault with a dangerous weapon, has increased by 34 percent. 

“You can get away with murder in this city,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson in an interview last week. 

Staffing at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) reached a half-century low in April. Mayor Muriel Bowser has increased hiring bonuses and proposed a budget for fiscal year 2024 that invests more money in recruiting police officers. But that’s not a problem unique to Washington: Low pay and negative public perceptions of the police have been driving severe officer shortages across the country, including in cities where the murder rate has decreased. 

Charles Fain Lehman, a Manhattan Institute fellow for policy research, tells The Dispatch that MPD officers aren’t directing enough of their resources toward the geographic areas where the majority of the crime is being committed. “The city’s not really pursuing a ‘hot spots’ approach to violent crime,” he says.

But arrests don’t always lead to prosecutions. In 2022, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of D.C. (USAO) chose not to prosecute two out of three people arrested by the MPD. In 2021, D.C.’s Department of Forensic Sciences lost its accreditation after allegations that the management attempted to misrepresent its investigative conclusions to the USAO. The accreditation loss limits prosecutors’ ability to collect evidence. It’s possible the department may not be reaccredited until next year. “If you don’t prosecute people, you don’t deter them,” Lehman says.

All this has drawn the ire of congressional Republicans, who have attempted to block laws they view as contributing to the city’s violent crime problem. Since the District of Columbia is not a state, all legislation passed by the D.C. Council must be reviewed by Congress. The council recently passed a police reform measure that banned the use of neck restraints by police and improved access to body camera recordings. Congress attempted to overturn the bill, but was blocked by President Joe Biden’s veto.

Bowser, a Democrat, has also found herself at odds with the more progressive council. Last November, she vetoed a measure that would have reduced penalties for the perpetrators of violent crimes. The council overruled her veto, but Congress ended up blocking the resolution. Kentucky Rep. James Comer criticized the council’s legislation for enabling criminals to “run rampant through the District of Columbia.” Bowser’s own measure, the Safer Stronger Amendment Act of 2023, would make it easier for juveniles accused of violent crimes to be detained prior to trial, which drew council criticism: Councilmember Janeese Lewis George called the bill “incredibly traumatizing” to D.C. youth. 

The Safer Stronger Amendment Act is still up in the air. Pinto proposed emergency legislation, the Prioritizing Public Safety Emergency Declaration Resolution of 2023, based on Bowser’s legislation while leaving out the most controversial provisions. More juveniles would face pre-trial detention under Pinto’s measure, but on a smaller scale than Bowser’s. The act also makes “endangerment with a firearm” and strangulation felony offenses, allows GPS records to be used as evidence of guilt in a criminal trial, and speeds up the court process for cases with a child victim, among other provisions. It passed the council in a 12-1 vote on Tuesday but is only in effect for 90 days, after which the council will have to address more permanent legislation.

Although some councilmembers disagreed with parts of the measure, they recognized the need for quick action as summer—historically the most violent season of the year—continues. 

The violence is getting worse, Councilmember Robert White reminded the council Tuesday. “I’m not in love with every aspect of the bill,” he said. “But I don’t think we have a choice in whether or not we’re going to act.”

It’s unclear how the bill will actually affect homicide rates in the district. D.C. Police Union Chair Gregg Pemberton acknowledges the emergency legislation as a step in the right direction, but said that after years of “anti-cop” and “pro-criminal” legislation from the council, the bill is “a drop in the bucket.” “If you really can commit a murder without being caught in the District of Columbia, it’s because of [Mendelson’s] policies.” 

Lehman isn’t yet sure of the bill’s potential, pointing to the limited capacity of D.C. offices and law enforcement as a core issue that legislation can’t easily fix. “All the changes seem prudent to me,” he says. But he questions whether the city will have the manpower and resources “to actually put that law into effect.”

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