Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

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It’s no secret that something ugly has been going on in Petworth lately. Over the last few weeks, the neighborhood’s southern end has seen two brazen daylight shootings and a handful of other bursts of gunfire, clustered near New Hampshire Avenue and Shepherd Street NW, a few blocks from the Metro. Early Tuesday morning, a man was shot to death at Georgia Avenue and Varnum Street.

The violence, police say, may come from warring street-level crews in the area. Authorities say they know those groups responsible, what their turf is, and what other crimes they’re involved in. But don’t ask the names of the crews battling it out in Petworth. That, as far as Metropolitan Police Department officials are concerned, is a secret.

Two weeks ago, Petworth residents filed into St. Gabriel’s Church at 5th and Webster streets NW to learn from MPD Chief Cathy Lanier why their community seems to have turned into a combat zone. The neighborhood had seen six homicides this year. The question on the minds of most of the people there, says ANC 4C09 commissioner Joe Martin, was how worried they should be. After all, besides the recent gunfire, Catholic University student Neil Godleski was shot and killed in August, in what authorities say was a late-night robbery gone awry at Sherman Circle. Was that the nature of the recent shootings, the crowd wanted to know? Robberies turned deadly?

Lanier’s answer, complete with a PowerPoint presentation of crime stats, came as a relief: The shootings were most likely related to crew violence. ANC 4D06 commissioner Bill Quirk remembers sighing: “It’s somewhat reassuring that the shootings aren’t random.”

But before Lanier got to the news that might allow her audience to sleep a little easier, she made an unusual request. “It’s not helpful if you post the names of the crews,” the chief told the crowd. Police mentioned the names of the crews, but Martin and Quirk both remember Lanier asking those in attendance not to refer to the names on community message boards or blogs. Authorities made the same request to media outlets covering the meeting, which was open to anyone who wanted to attend.

Trying to head off the number of Google search hits a corner crew gets might seem like an odd law enforcement tactic, and people at the meeting say MPD didn’t specify exactly why Lanier made it. (Neither Martin, a frequent poster to Petworth e-mail lists, nor Quirk took issue with Lanier’s request.) The FBI, for instance, says it routinely names gangs it investigates.

The real mystery, though, is why the media complied with Lanier’s blackout. Washington City Paper wasn’t in attendance. But sources say two of the crews MPD is concerned about in the recent Petworth shootings are called CRT and Taylor Street.

A TV news crew from Fox5, though, did attend. And reporter John Henrehan filed this report from the St. Gabriel’s meeting: “[The chief asked reporters who were present to refrain from writing about specifics involving the gangs, and Fox Five agreed to that request.] We can tell you that D.C. police know the gangs, know their territories, and know which crimes gang members are involved in.”

Fox may not have been the only outlet to comply with that MPD request, but the station does seem to have been the most enthusiastic. The underlying tone of the station’s coverage of the meeting must have made Lanier happy: The police have things well in hand, no need to bother with details. Or, for that matter, to worry too much about it. (Henrehan didn’t reply to a request for comment; a Fox 5 spokeswoman had no comment by press time.)

Knowing the names of the crews shooting up the neighborhood might not help Petworth residents stay safe; after all, a stray bullet can hit a bystander no matter which crew the shooter might belong to. But keeping the situation quiet definitely has ancillary benefits for the police: It makes it harder to talk about the problem.

Fraternal Order of Police head Kris Baumann, a frequent critic of Lanier’s, sees the request for silence as harmful: “It’s been a problem for us that we won’t admit we have a gang problem.” In his view, Lanier keeping gangs and crews nameless isn’t about shorting them of fame. It’s a manipulation aimed at helping to prevent the gang problem from surfacing as an issue. “It’s politically disadvantageous, but we need to inform the public,” Baumann says.

These crew wars can have serious consequences, after all; the violence and retaliations that culminated in the shooting of Jamal Coates on U Street NW last month are believed to have sprung from a battle between crews in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

The police tactic of keeping the whole thing quiet isn’t new. One former staffer familiar with the inner workings of MPD’s press machine says that throughout Lanier’s tenure, most District media sources have complied with the chief’s redaction of crew and gang names, despite there being no “journalistic or ethical reason” to do so. That’s because MPD can cut off the flow of information to anyone who doesn’t follow its rules. “They went along with it so they could play nice in the sandbox,” the former insider says.

Meanwhile, despite the official silence, the District’s gang problem seems to be both scary and growing. In March 2009, the Thriving Communities Collaborative Council issued a 60-page report, “Responding to Gang Crew and Youth Violence in the District of Columbia.” The report, funded by an MPD grant, found that gang and crew activities in D.C. were on the rise. Gangs and crews, the report said, were responsible for most youth violence in the city, with as many as 130 groups involving about 2,500 kids.

That’s a lot of affiliations for the press to ignore.

For reporters, cooperating with a police request to withhold information isn’t completely unheard of. A media outlet might delay publication if a story could damage a case in progress. A reporter wouldn’t want to blow a drug sting, for instance, or tip off a corrupt politician under investigation.

But when asked why City Paper, or any other news outlet in town, shouldn’t print the names of gangs and crews, Lanier doesn’t give a rock solid reason. She doesn’t mention stings or allude to ongoing investigations. Instead, she makes what seems like an emotional argument: “Publishing the names of gangs and crews in the media legitimizes those who are responsible for crimes and violent activity and gives them bragging rights that they do not deserve.”

In other words, publishing the name of a crew involved in an altercation might make the bad guys feel good.

Whether there’s anything to that is an open question among police sources. One high-ranking cop scoffs at the idea of street soldiers scanning the newspaper for a mention: “What are they, running for Congress?” But a mid-level cop who’s worked gangs extensively, and says he’s no fan of Lanier’s, disagrees. Among D.C. crews, name recognition is important. “If a crew doesn’t get a shout-out, they get angry,” he says. Some crews thrive off media attention, he says; like anyone else, thugs like to see their name in print. “Contrary to popular belief, gangs aren’t dummies.”

One 1st District detective, who often deals with crew and gang violence in turf ranging between M Street SE and Florida Avenue NE, says that doesn’t matter. Sure, crews thrive on attention—but the detective prefers the media publish their names anyway. Why? “I like to expose the people I’m targeting.” Though criminal groups might get a momentary kick out of hearing their names on TV or reading them in the paper, he says the coverage benefits cops more. A public outcry means police get the resources they need to go after them: “Let’s blast them.”

Just don’t talk too much about it in the process.