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D.C. has not gone a week without a homicide since Mayor Muriel Bowser declared a public health emergency over the coronavirus pandemic on March 11.
There have been 17 murders in D.C. since the city saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 7, and 46 murders since the start of 2020, according to data from the Metropolitan Police Department. Despite a pandemic and orders from the mayor to stay inside, D.C. is on track to match its homicide rate from last year, when the city saw the highest murder count in a decade, at 166. And like last year, the overwhelming majority of homicides involved a gun.
There are now two co-occurring public health crises killing residents: COVID-19 and gun violence. The fear among some is that one could exacerbate the other. With the pandemic forcing businesses to close and creating joblessness, advocates worry that mounting anxiety can aggravate violent crime. While MPD has yet to see a change in behavior that can be credited to the pandemic and its rippling effects, those that work closely with offenders and victims believe it’s inevitable. Domestic homicides, for example, could very well increase.
MPD Chief Peter Newsham says most murders continue to involve individuals who are known to one another and where violence is used to settle disputes. A minor difference in recent shootings is that some of the victims were either selling or purchasing drugs.
“Our violent offenders, particularly the ones who are inclined to use firearms, are not particularly moved by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Newsham tells City Paper. “They will pick up an illegal firearm and use it whenever it suits their purposes and I think for them it’s business as normal.”
Clayton Aristotle Rosenberg, chief of staff of the nonprofit Alliance of Concerned Men, which works to save lives in high-crime areas, is worried that violence will increase as people lose their jobs and resort to desperate acts. While working as a violence interrupter in neighborhoods within Ward 7 and Ward 8, as part of the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets program, Rosenberg has seen more people at risk of being involved in violence. He hasn’t seen an increase in crime, but rather in the temptation to commit them. He sees more people out now that work or school is not occupying their time.
“These are individuals who weren’t on our radar at first and now they are because of all of the new stresses they are dealing with. They are trying to eat and they are in survival mode,” Rosenberg says.
That’s not to say that every person who loses a job due to the pandemic will turn to crime. But as Rosenberg points out, hope counts for a lot, and a lack of economic opportunity often leads people to commit violence. Research suggests there is a correlation between both violent and property crime and the unemployment rate, along with other social and community conditions.
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Cure the Streets identifies individuals for its program based on a number of variables, like if someone was recently shot or released from custody as a result of a gun crime. Rosenberg already works with many individuals who don’t have a job, and says that the pandemic has only complicated the organization’s efforts to connect people with employment opportunities, since so many businesses are laying off workers and implementing hiring freezes.
“Because staff is not out there as much as they were before this crisis hit, it’s almost like the community—the participants they work with—they are a little bit more lax and think they can get away with a little bit more, to be honest,” addsLashonia Thompson-El, who co-leads Cure The Streets. In some cases, Thompson-El says, violence interrupters have heard more from their participants than before over the phone and have even mediated conflict between individuals over Zoom.
The police chief, however, views things differently from the violence interrupters.
“I don’t think you are going to have otherwise law-abiding non-violent people all of a sudden involved in gun violence,” says Newsham. “The violent offenders and the people who are inclined to use firearms are different than everybody else. The difference is they just don’t have any regard for human life. Anybody who would fire a firearm off in our city, as populated as it is and as small as it is, has no regard for human life.”
But there are indications that other kinds of violent crime, like domestic violence, are likely to increase, if they haven’t already. With residents being asked to stay at home, there is the potential for more severe violence, as tension builds between domestic partners and violence escalates faster.
MPD has so far declined to publicly release the number of domestic violence incidents it has logged since the city’s stay-at-home order began on March 30, but Newsham says MPD has not seen a spike in calls or arrests for this type of crime. (A department spokesperson suggested that reporters file a public records request to receive that data, which City Paper has done.) Service providers across the country, meanwhile, say they’re overwhelmed with calls for help. And while D.C. has seen a decrease in domestic violence homicides in recent years, with a low of eight in 2018, advocates are worried that the pandemic could reverse this trend.
“DC SAFE’s numbers don’t look astronomically different right now. They will though,” says Elisabeth Olds, co-founder and strategic oversight manager at DC SAFE. “As this goes on, we will likely see higher levels of violence in already abusive relationships. Although it’s necessary, you can’t lock this many people in with their abusers and not expect that.”
DC SAFE, a 24/7 crisis intervention organization for domestic violence survivors, has not yet seen a noticeable increase in the total number of people who say they are being abused, or who are looking for emergency shelter. But the organization has seen a higher volume of calls as its advocates transition services to focus on the hotline. Before the pandemic, advocates were stationed at D.C. Superior Court and United Medical Center. (DC SAFE is still providing shelter and survivors can still file for temporary protection orders under the public health emergency.)
MPD is monitoring changes in crime. So far, crime that you might expect would increase, like theft or burglary, has not. Property crime in the last 30 days is down 39 percent compared to the previous 30 days, Bowser said during an April 20 press conference.
Like everyone else, gun violence prevention advocates planned for a very different kind of year. They were hoping to strengthen public safety initiatives and improve community-police relationships with enhanced oversight, since the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act was finally implemented. Instead, advocates say community-police relationships might actually worsen, since MPD officers are responsible for enforcing the stay-at-home order. Those who work with minors are especially concerned about police interactions with schools closed.
“We were gaining momentum on a czar and vision zero for gun violence and I don’t want to lose that traction,” says Rachel Usdan, a volunteer leader with the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action.
Groups like Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for gun control measures, are now refocusing their advocacy efforts. Instead of helping students pay tribute to classmates they lost due to gun violence, Moms Demand Action is supporting community-based organizations that connect students to food while school is out. The Comprehensive Homicide Elimination Strategy Task Force, tasked with submitting a report to the D.C. Council that identifies the most effective strategies for eliminating homicides, had to cancel its most recent meeting in April.
Every group working to curb violence is likely concerned about money seeing as D.C. has to operate on a tighter budget. During an April 6 press conference, Bowser said the D.C. government has to cut $607 million in spending from the current fiscal year budget, along with next year’s. Newsham is prepared for the financial hit, telling City Paper, “if we have to make cuts here at MPD, we will do so.”
Advocates were actually looking to increase money for gun violence prevention efforts prior to the pandemic. Now, they are worried about maintaining current levels of funding for the Cure the Streets program, which is funded through the attorney general’s office, and for the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and the Office of Victim Services and Justice Grants under the Executive Office of the Mayor. The latter grants provide funds to organizations like DC SAFE as well as hospital-based violence intervention services.
“At the very least, we are hoping that it can be sustained,” Usdan tells City Paper.
Funding interruptions could deal major setbacks to newer programs like Cure the Streets and the ONSE’s Pathways Program, which launched in 2018. Gun violence intervention programs like these have proven to reduce shootings and homicides elsewhere, but only when sustained. The Cure the Streets program receives much of its funding from existing OAG sources and remains a priority for Attorney General Karl Racine. To the extent that supplemental funding is required, a spokesperson says the OAG plans to work with the Mayor and the Council to keep funding at current levels, but could also seek philanthropic grants to fill any gaps.
For those who have been paying close attention to D.C.’s homicide rate, the city’s lack of coordinated response to the violence before March is a source of frustration—especially since the city is proving that it can respond to a public health crisis in a way that involves every government agency as well as the private sector. Every department is being asked to address the coronavirus because it intersects with everything. People like David Bowers, the founder of NO MURDERS DC, would argue the same is true of homicides. Unequal access to opportunity derives from inadequate education, health care, and housing, his thinking goes, so leaders in each need to respond to the prevalence of homicides.
“Folks have been getting killed and dying in this city from homicides for years and we have not had the kind of commensurate response that we should have,” says Bowers with NO MURDERS DC, a movement to end murder in the District that started in 2000. “There is a hierarchy of value that people consciously or unconsciously put on life. If we are going to talk about racial equity and be about racial equity then let’s be about that.”
Like homicides, COVID-19 has revealed the racial inequity still pervasive in D.C. While the whole city has been impacted by the virus, deaths are disproportionately high among black residents. A concern now is these very communities are being hit hard twice. As of Wednesday, Ward 8 has seen the most homicides, at 12, and COVID-19 related deaths, at 29, this year.