Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White Credit: Darrow Montgomery/file

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Emotions ran high in a room full of people who gathered last December to talk about the spike in homicides in D.C.

The District ended 2018 with 160 murders, a 38 percent increase from 2017, though violent crime overall fell by 7 percent, according to Metropolitan Police Department statistics. The steady pop of gunfire and fallen bodies have continued into 2019 with 18 homicides this year. Four people were fatally shot just last weekend.

The December meeting at the R.I.S.E. Demonstration Center in Southeast was an opportunity for residents to learn what city leaders are doing to address the issue. It was also an opportunity to vent.

One mother talked about recently losing her son to a gun homicide, those in attendance tell LL. Another woman talked about losing multiple family members to gun violence. They were there because their loved ones could not be.

“It was heart wrenching,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.

Darrell Gaston, a recently re-elected Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in Ward 8, came with the death of his godson, Gerald Watson, fresh on his mind. The 15-year-old Anacostia High School student was shot 17 times in an apartment building stairwell in Southeast in mid-December. Police have arrested at least one suspect, and are still searching for at least one more.

Gaston fired questions at the officials in the room. He wanted to know what “deliverables” the community could expect from a pilot program aimed at reducing violence that started in the Office of the Attorney General, and what the money for the program went to.

Soon, Gaston found himself in an escalated exchange with Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White. As Gaston tells it, White suggested that if Gaston wanted to keep running his mouth, then “we can go outside.” “So I said ‘OK, we’ll go outside,’” Gaston says now. He got up and walked outside. White did not follow, Gaston says.

White denies Gaston’s version of events, and in a text message to LL, he says it was Gaston who suggested they step outside. (The councilmember has also lost loved ones to gun violence.) 

“Video from that night that showed Gaston provoked the situation by asking me to come outside,” White writes in the text. “It’s funny that he says the opposite. He wants to run for Ward 8 Council for the 3rd time so you will hear a lot of lies and altered truths to fit his narrative because I’m in the way of his dream that will never happen.” (White did not agree to an interview to discuss his ideas for violence prevention, but in a text asked why all of LL’s articles about him are negative: “You never call or email about my legislation or when I gave to 700 kids in the cold,” he writes.)

McDuffie, who was sitting next to White during the meeting, notes that White ultimately apologized, and given the difficult topic of conversation, the meeting was productive.

“In the context of the topic of gun violence that clearly was something some of the residents were experiencing very recently, I think it was an unfortunate interaction,” McDuffie says. “But I also think it progressed beyond the initial interaction with Councilmember White apologizing to everyone.”

The irony of two community leaders inviting a potentially violent confrontation, and then jumping at that invitation, was not lost on others in the room that night. White’s critics say the situation is an example of his tendency to go on the defensive when people question him. Those sharp elbows are more befitting an activist than a councilmember, they say. Gaston’s critics point to his minor criminal record (both charges were dismissed after he completed community service), and they say he actually walked outside.

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The pilot violence prevention program that Gaston and others discussed that night is known in D.C. as Cure the Streets. It’s modeled after the Cure Violence program, which takes a public health approach to violent crime, treating it as an infectious disease.

The model has shown success in reducing violent crime in cities across the country including Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York.

D.C.’s pilot program was born out of a conversation between White, McDuffie, and Attorney General Karl Racine after last year’s tragic Memorial Day weekend in which 10 people were shot, four fatally. Three of the deaths were in Ward 8.

White’s 17-year-old cousin was among three additional people shot in Southeast the day after Memorial Day, the Washington Post reported at the time, and White called an emergency meeting.

The Council then dedicated $360,000 to establish the AG’s pilot program and fund it through September. That money was spent almost entirely on salaries for the staff, the AG’s office says. Racine later found more funding in his own budget to keep the program alive through January.

Racine says the program in D.C. focuses on two areas that are among the most violent neighborhoods in the city, according to crime stats. The first includes Trinidad in Ward 5; the second includes Congress Heights and Washington Highlands in Ward 8.

One key component of the program is the work of “violence interrupters,” who are actively on the ground looking for potential conflicts and squashing them before they escalate. Their job, generally, is to keep the peace. They organize block parties, service days, and “safe passage walks” to schools, but they also hold formal mediations between groups with active beefs, Racine says. Many interrupters have served time in prison, sold drugs, or grew up surrounded by violence.

The AG gathered with the mayor and the Council to discuss violence prevention strategies earlier this week during their monthly breakfast. Racine gave updates on his pilot program and threw out very early numbers showing a handful of shootings and zero homicides in the neighborhoods where his program is focused. Those numbers are encouraging, he says.

McDuffie urged the AG’s office and the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which also deploys violence interrupters on a city-wide basis, to coordinate.

“The work that you all are doing and that Attorney General Racine is doing, it’s essentially the same thing,” McDuffie says. “It’s based on the Cure Violence model.”

In a conversation with LL, the AG pushes back on the notion that his program is in competition with the mayor’s office. He says a strength of his program is the intense focus on small areas.

During the breakfast discussion, White praised the work done by violence interrupters in general and strongly suggested the city should hire more people to do that work.

“There’s been several nights when I hear gunshots, and it sounds like we’re in a third world country like Baghdad, 30, 40, 50 rounds back to back,” White says. “In fact I heard it last weekend. One of the young guys, Travis, died as a result of that.”

Racine is now anxiously waiting to hear about another potential $2 million from a private donor, which would fund his program until July 2020.

“Certainly in these meetings and other meetings it’s quite natural for us to be critical sometimes of each other about what we can do more of,” Racine says during the breakfast meeting. “But there’s no doubt that the momentum is in the direction of a purely holistic and thorough approach.”