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By New Year’s Day, nearly every local news outlet in D.C. had the story: The city saw its highest homicide count in a decade in 2019. We lost 166 people—a 4 percent increase on the 2018 count, which was a 38 percent increase on the 2017 count.
Two weeks into 2020, the numbers are holding steady.
This is happening in D.C.—a city that witnessed nearly 500 homicides in 1991 and spent two decades getting those numbers down to a low of 88 in 2012. A city that’s seen such a productive ongoing building boom, some neighborhoods are nearly unrecognizable to those who have watched it change. A place where most other crimes, including robberies and assaults with dangerous weapons, have been on the decline for the last three years.
Why is the homicide count rising in D.C.? And how can the city stop the killings?
City Paper asked those questions of more than a dozen people who deal with homicides and their aftermaths every day, whether as part of their jobs or volunteer work or their personal lives.
Nearly all of them, from city officials to the formerly incarcerated, responded that there are people in D.C. who face a stunning lack of opportunity—who see a shiny new city, but no way to take part. They also say that rising rents have forced some residents into unfamiliar neighborhoods, pockets of the city where people feel insecure and on edge. And several people City Paper spoke with described a deeply fractured relationship between residents and the police.
And many homicides fit into no box: The story behind every death is different, but for those paying close enough attention, this is a source of hope.
“Every time I’m on the scene, every family that I’ve talked to, it’s a different story,” says Jay Brown, a community advocate from Ward 7 who spent his career working in social services. He testified about the murders to the D.C. Council and at community town halls more than 15 times in 2018 and 2019. “There’s a story behind each and every one of them, and if there’s a story behind them, they can be prevented,” he says.
Clayton Aristotle Rosenberg, who works as a violence interrupter for Alliance of Concerned Men, mentoring at-risk youth and acting as a first responder to shootings and stabbings in Southeast D.C., says: “If we treat each person as an individual, then we will be able to get to the root cause and understand why the violence is occurring so much, what’s going through a person’s mind where the violence can be the trigger.”
“How do we get to the root cause?” he asks. “By building those relationships.”
A trip to D.C. Superior Court, where judges hear many homicide cases, provides some insight into why someone would murder another person. D.C. Witness, a local nonprofit news site founded in 2015, logs every murder and observes every homicide case until the end if the alleged perpetrator is arrested. D.C. Witness reporters listen to cases in the courtroom and read police reports, and compile the information in an internal dataset.
“Increasingly, people aren’t denying they did the shooting, but they’re saying they had to do [it] for self-defense, because they needed to—they needed to have a gun for protection,” says D.C. Witness founder and publisher Amos Gelb. “The data says, very clearly, that the number one motivation is petty insults. Another is neighborhood beefs.”
LaTrina Antoine, D.C. Witness editor-in-chief, recalls recent cases her staff covered that further illustrate these points.
In 2019, 48-year-old Vaughn Alexander Koshfatally shot 38-year-old Alayna Dawnielle Howard in her Northeast apartment because he says she was the source of his problems. Kosh had gotten into several disputes with Howard and her boyfriend over a few years, and he accused the couple of breaking into his apartment and destroying property. Kosh admitted to shooting Howard, but says he’s remorseful, and that he was just pushed too far by Howard and her boyfriend.
Another came from 2017, when 33-year-old Leonard Smithallegedly stabbed his friend, 26-year-old Leonte Butler, more than 45 times in Congress Heights for mocking his stutter. The two men started the night drinking and using drugs and ended it in a physical altercation that turned fatal, according to one eye witness. To complicate matters, Smith and Butler initially bonded because they both struggled with speech impediments. The case ended in a mistrial in 2019.
“Gun crime is unique. It is stubborn,” says Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and JusticeKevin Donahue. A gun was the weapon used in the majority of D.C.’s 2019 homicides. “It generally involves individuals who have easy access to guns, who have a history of using them and carrying them, in which the assailants and victims are known to each other. Now, there are also individuals who, when it comes from the standpoint of need and opportunity, are some of the hardest to reach and the most in need. Individuals who have had a lot of trauma in their life, who feel a disconnect from the economic vibrancy we have in the city.”
While not all of those who lack economic opportunity to survive and thrive in this booming city commit violence, nearly every government official and community leader raised it as a factor contributing to the murders. Unequal access to opportunity derives from inadequate education, health care, and housing. Frustration that comes from a lack of opportunity only intensifies when D.C. is rapidly changing and some are disconnected or excluded.
“We understand the consequences of social exclusion,” says the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement Director Delbert McFadden, who works with men with criminal records and helps them overcome myriad obstacles to employment through D.C.’s Pathways Program. “And a lot of these guys want to be part of the larger society. They want to have a voice. They want to be able to thrive, just like anyone else.”
Anacostia High School teacher Ronald Edmonds sees his students suffer from exposure to violence, and this can lead to social marginalization. Of the more than 160 homicides last year, nearly 70 victims were under 26 years old, and a dozen of those were between the ages of 11 and 18. A minor was murdered in every quadrant of this city, but a few schools lost multiple students, current and former, within a year. Teachers, like Edmonds, unavoidably bear witness to the violence and lingering trauma.
Since working at Anacostia High School in 2011, Edmonds has lost several students to bullets. In 2019, 15-year-old Thomas Johnson was killed near Nationals Park, and in 2018, 15-year-old Gerald Watson was fatally shot 17 times in his apartment complex. And Edmonds also recently lost a former student, 21-year-old Travis Deyvon Ruth, to gun violence in January 2019. Edmonds had come to know the young man well when he decided to attend his church.
“They don’t value life itself,” Edmonds says of some of his students. “They don’t value the fact that you are able to wake up in the morning. Sometimes, many of our young people are so much in a depression that life does not matter.”
That’s why efforts like Anacostia High School’s redesign can be seen as possible solutions to the rising homicide rate, says Edmonds. This redesign augments school programming by connecting students with career opportunities outside the classroom. While never packaged that way, education investments like these help young people see themselves differently.
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“We are watching D.C. change right before our eyes, the infrastructure… that’s why redesign is so important,” says Edmonds. “Gentrification is real, it is happening. Instead of isolating them, [prepare them] with proper education [and say] ‘You can be a part of it.’”
Several people City Paper interviewed brought up gentrification when discussing the murder count.
D.C. is the most gentrified city in the United States, according to a study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition released in 2019. This is to say, about 40 percent of the city’s low-income neighborhoods experienced gentrification between 2000 and 2013. The study defines gentrification as “an influx of investment and changes to the built environment lead[ing] to rising home values, family incomes and educational levels of residents.”
Gentrification itself isn’t the problem. The issue is that long-time residents are pushed out when development and other economic opportunities move in. That same study says more than 20,000 African American residents were displaced from their neighborhoods by more affluent, white outsiders during that time period.
“That gentrification thing is—it makes the city look good from the outside. But within the core of it is still rotten. I say ‘rotten to the core’—it means it looks good. It looks good from the outside. But it still has a lot of problems within,” says former D.C. homicide detective of more than two decades Mitch Credle, who now works in behavioral support at a charter school and has a film production company. “It looks like the city is throwing away the old and bringing in the new, that’s what it looks like.”
All of D.C. is impacted by the murders, with the effects of the violence rippling throughout the city. But the Metropolitan Police Department reports a majority of the homicides occurred in Wards 7 and 8. Of the 2019 murders MPD mapped, Ward 7 had 42 homicides and Ward 8 had 63. As with any ward, Wards 7 and 8 aren’t a monolith. Violence is being perpetrated by a small number of people in these areas, and concentrated in certain blocks. The numbers out of Wards 7 and 8 starkly contrast those of more affluent wards like Ward 2, where MPD mapped zero homicides; Ward 3, where there were three; and Ward 4, where there were five.
“A lot of people who are being displaced from gentrification, a lot of them are going over to those particular neighborhoods,” says Credle. “If you take people who move into a new neighborhood, their walls are up, so now you have a lot of just natural tension that may exist … a lot of it’s just about natural survival.”
Brown, the Ward 7 community activist, makes a similar argument.
“You’re shutting down a lot of the older communities in the area and moving people together who have had traditional disagreements—no disagreement that they could really articulate,” says Brown. “Now you got unfamiliar faces, unfamiliar cultures—people who are operating out of fear when they have a disagreement. They have a lack of coping skills. They resort to the only way that they know how to eliminate that threat.”
Rob Butler, too, cited displacement that comes from gentrification. He is a recent graduate of the Pathways Program who has a full time job, is raising his daughter, and running his own business on the side.
“I know with gentrification a lot of people are being pushed into places that they’re not comfortable with, or it’s not familiar to them,” Butler tells City Paper. “So what I’ve been learning about trauma is the way we respond to certain situations is not even in our control all the time. So if I get into a situation where I’m in constant flight or fight mode because I’m in this environment [where] I don’t know anybody, I’m not familiar with it, I wasn’t properly brought into this community—you know, just like, “Hey, you can’t stay here. Go here.” And you don’t know what this community is like, how it’s going to affect me and my family. And you get there and you [are] walking around in constant flight or fight mode.”
Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray hears these kinds of ideas often, and understands them, but is hesitant to say whether displacement is contributing to the homicide count.
“I know there is a strong sentiment that displacement is playing an important role—resentment about displacement, the threat of displacement—is leading a lot of people to believe that it’s contributing to the increase of violence and increase in murders,” he says. “I hear it all the time from people—that people are losing control of their own city, losing control of their own neighborhoods because people are being pushed out … There’s certainly a strong sentiment about that, but whether it’s borne out by data or not, I really don’t know.”
Speak to those living in the communities where people are being murdered at an alarming rate, and they’ll point to systemic failings: People don’t have access to support and services they need, particularly in areas that have been left behind by development. Sometimes it’s because the safety net doesn’t exist, and sometimes it’s because the right messenger—someone from the community—isn’t being sent to deliver the message.
“We’re not living anymore. Individuals are not living because everyone’s almost living in fear. And when you are living in fear, you are just trying to survive,” says Rosenberg. “They’ve been experiencing so much trauma and asking for help for so long, but didn’t know how to get the help, and then when the resources are finally here—and we got all the resources in the world—they don’t even know how to grab onto it, enjoy it, or use it.”
Rosenberg recalls an event he attended in Kenilworth last summer. It was a community-run event and the Workforce on Wheels bus was invited to attend. The idea behind the mobile unit is for the Department of Employment Services to serve constituents in underserved communities, connecting them with information for potential job opportunities. But residents in attendance were skeptical of the bus’ offerings, says Rosenberg. It wasn’t personal. It’s that “people are not going to accept a quick little event, thinking everything is OK,” says Rosenberg.
The majority of D.C.’s homicide victims die of gunshot wounds, and the District reports that fewer shooting victims survive than did in years past. “We’ve seen an increase in the fatality rate for gun interactions,” says Donahue. “In other words, when an individual uses a gun against another human being, that interaction has been more fatal last year and this year, which explains some of the increase.”
Several District officials who spoke with City Paper focused on this: Shootings are down, yet homicides are up. And without question, limiting gun access nationwide would save lives in D.C. But nearly everyone City Paper spoke with put greater emphasis on helping individuals and neighborhoods plagued by gun violence.
“You can have an illegal gun, you still gotta pull the trigger,” says Gray.
When there were sudden spikes in homicides last year, in both the summer and fall, the mayor’s office launched its crime prevention initiative. Among the priorities for the 60-day initiative: increased police presence in areas that experienced a high density of violence. But when D.C. launched its Safer Stronger DC Fall Crime Prevention Initiative in October 2019, some immediately spoke out against it because they do not see police as part of the solution.
“Chief Newsham keep your killer cops the FUCK off my block,” tweeted April Goggans, the core organizer of Black Lives Matter DC.
Several of those City Paper spoke with for this article had broad doubts about what an increased police presence accomplishes.
“I live in [the] Congress Heights area and the police are stationed on our streets 24 hours a day,” says Edmonds, the Anacostia High School teacher. “Very seldom do I not see them. I question, how does crime not decrease if the police are so vivid and there? It doesn’t change behavior. It makes others like myself feel protected. But still, collectively as agencies in D.C… we are not changing behavior.”
“The problem that we’re hearing on the Council and the places that do this, everybody is looking at a superficial level, surface: too many guns, so we need more cops on the streets,” says Amos Gelb of D.C. Witness. “None of that is necessarily wrong, but that’s not going to solve the problem. And so it hasn’t been solving the problem. … If you look at the whole data and you go beyond the surface, you may find that despite the MPD’s demand for more cop cars, which is the thing they always want, because that’s their job, right? More cop cars probably ain’t gonna bring down the homicide rate.”
A common criticism of the city’s approach to curbing the violence is the overemphasis on law enforcement, given past examples of police bias and brutality against black residents. There are racial disparities in policing, as demonstrated by MPD’s own stop-and-frisk data. Of the 11,600 police stops between July 22 and Aug. 18, 2019, 70 percent of people stopped were black, while 15 percent were white. For comparison, 46 percent of the D.C. population is black whereas 37 percent is white.
With more research suggesting the over-policing of black residents and more cell phone videos showing these confrontations, it’s no surprise why relationships are fraught.
“The police-community relationship is at its weakest point in our community,” says Brown. “I’m at these funerals. Somebody knew that these homicides were going to take place. Like somebody knew that John was hungry. Somebody knew that John had a gun. Somebody knew who gave John a gun. You know? And it’s not about snitching because if you love somebody, you have that person’s best interests. So why wouldn’t you say some information?”
“A lot of people don’t trust the police anymore and it’s sad,” says Credle. “It hurts me because throughout my entire life, even as a child, the police-community relationship was major.”
Credle says police-community relationships were stronger when he worked at MPD, between 1986 to 2013. With officers retiring and leaving over the years, he thinks newer officers aren’t forging strong connections with people they are policing. He knows he had a good relationship with the communities he served, in upper Ward 1 and lower Ward 4, because he got to know them and they got to know him. He did this by trying to develop relationships off-duty by, for example, coaching and mentoring youth at Raymond Recreation Center beginning in 1982 until he retired.
“I was rooted in the community. I cared about the community, I cared—I went to graduations, I went to funerals, I went to a whole bunch of things that weren’t related to my job. It was related to just being a person and that makes a difference, especially when people don’t like the police, it makes a difference,” says Credle.
Sometimes he had to build relationships with communities fast, like when MPD had him work overnights in Clay Terrace NE one summer weekend. Because he wasn’t familiar with the area, he made it a point on the first night he arrived to purchase all the neighborhood kids ice cream. Once he got some buy-in from the community for the gesture, he started to proactively make conversation with everyone he could. When it was time for Credle to leave, a few residents were actually disappointed, he said, because they connected with him, even if it was brief.
“The police department, they are doing the best they can. The government officials are doing the best they can,” says Credle. “People feel when you’re [just] doing your job. They know the difference when you’re doing your job, opposed to you really trying to help us. Sometimes when it comes to dealing with violence, you have to … go beyond that.”
Julius Terry, a recent graduate of the Pathways Program with a full time job, has had a few run-ins with police and also thinks that police officers could do a better job of connecting with community members. He served five years for possessing an illegal firearm—two years incarcerated and then three years parole. Before that, police cited him for marijuana distribution in the early ’90s. Terry understands why the city is responding to the spike in homicides with more police, ultimately calling it a “good solution.” But because a lot depends on the individual officer, he says, there needs to be better training.
“If they put them out there then there has to be more cultural and more sensitivity training,” says Terry. “You can’t keep getting cops from out of town and putting them in our neighborhoods. They have no connection, which is why they have no problem disrespecting the people that they’re dealing with.”
Butler, who was released from prison in March 2017 and is a recent Pathways Program graduate, says, “I just think they should be more sensitive when they’re dealing with certain populations because of the trauma piece. So what naturally may seem like an aggressive young man—that’s somebody who’s hurt and has been told that the police are against them.”
Police Chief Peter Newsham says MPD is trying to build relationships with communities, calling it “our number one priority.” To back this claim, he cites the Officer Friendly Program, where police visit schools to develop relationships with young people, and the expansion of the cadet program, meaning MPD is prioritizing candidates from within the community.
“If we haven’t been able to reach that person who suggests that it’s at an all time low, we certainly want to reach out to him so we can change his mind about who we are or what we’re doing,” says Newsham.
D.C. lawmakers are investing in police, but also alternatives. Namely, violence interrupters.
“Violence interrupters are doing the jobs that police can’t do. They are going in there, and building relationships,” says Rosenberg, a violence interrupter with Alliance of Concerned Men, who has a grant with the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets program. “You can’t have like pop-up shops [or] bring a workforce development thing to the neighborhood and expect the ones that need to come out to come out. They are not going to do that. It has to be [someone] trusting. You have to use an individual who’s already there because they have established that relationship.”
This is creating some tension. When asked to talk about the violence interruption program on the Kojo Nnamdi Show this year, Newsham’s response was, “I don’t have a lot of insight into those programs… If we are going to invest a lot of money into violence interruption programs, I think we have to have some measure of success.” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who was also on the show, read this response as a lack of coordination between government agencies.
When D.C.’s 2019 murder count surpassed 2018’s, a City Paper reader responded to the news online with: “Whatever it is we are doing, it ain’t working and something needs to change.” This sentiment resonates with many families of homicide victims and community leaders we interviewed.
“The residents and your readers should have every expectation that the city will show progress, and we have the goal of having no homicides,” says Donahue, in turn.
His comments come with some caveats. “The reality is some of the investments we’ve made over the past few years, which were rooted in evidence of programs that work elsewhere, take time to show impact they’ve shown elsewhere,” he says. He cites the Pathways Program, a byproduct of legislation passed by the Council in 2016, as a way to reduce crime through a public health approach.
Many outside of the government believe one-off programs like Pathways are not enough. Any one program can be good, but if efforts are not comprehensive, citywide, and coordinated, what impact will they have?
How will these efforts survive something as routine as an election cycle?
“There is a lack of a comprehensive plan to end murder in the city—there is a lack of a plan that is backed by sustained interest and investment from the community, that is backed by investment from the public and private sectors,” says David Bowersof NO MURDERS DC, a movement to end murder in the District.
The Council made an effort in June 2016 when it started the Comprehensive Homicide Elimination Strategy Task Force. Its members were asked to write a report that identifies the most effective strategies to eliminate homicides. Such a task force existed previously, issuing a report in 2008. The Council revived it as a means to get D.C. focused on an issue devastating the city.
But four years later, there’s no report. Why not? The task force had trouble assembling—members are volunteers and everyone involved has jobs along with other competing commitments, said co-chairs Michelle Palmer of the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and Eduardo Ferrer of Georgetown Law during a January oversight hearing with the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. The group meets once a month, usually in the evenings after work, but hadn’t managed to reach a quorum until recently.
Palmer says her members aspire to get agencies to coordinate with one another about homicides. Members also want to create meaningful oversight through performance measurements on how each agency is addressing the issue.
But once the task force releases its recommendations—if it ever does—they are just that, recommendations. The question becomes whether officials will listen to the vision, or whether committee members will make any effort to build community support for their ideas. The report could become just another PDF on the internet.
Jennifer Massey, a volunteer with the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action, asks: “How do we get multiple agencies together? Because we all have to be on the same page. There’s a lot of different organizations that are doing different things, but how do we make this a unity effort?”
Bowers and Rosenberg, and others doing the daily work outside the realm of government, see a role for literally everybody in D.C.
“We all have to work together to understand that not one resource or not one entity can do this,” says Rosenberg. “It’s going to take multiple people from aspects of life—government, nonprofit, law enforcement, everybody.”
Bowers lives in Ward 3, so he doesn’t experience the murders immediately. But he’s affected when he mentors young men with 100 Black Men of Greater Washington DC on Saturdays. “That’s an example where I’m far removed, but it’s all connected. So now I’m going to go and do something,” he says. “I’m going to call the mayor or a councilmember. Or, can my house of worship get involved? Can I call a foundation?”
“When you have a comprehensive plan, it’s not just a government problem,” says Bowers. “What is the entertainment industry doing? What is the business community doing? What is every single person doing to make sure we don’t have any more homicides?”