Credit: Darrow Montgomery

These are the four people who died from gunfire in D.C. over Memorial Day weekend, according to police: Alexander MosbyJaquon Helm, Venius Badgett, Anthony Jerome Clark

Their deaths came amid nearly a dozen reported shootings over the holiday weekend, and during a year in which D.C. has seen a homicide spike of nearly 50 percent compared to this point in 2017. This week, District leaders have publicly tackled the spate of violence, floating strategies that range from greater police presence in the affected communities to tapping new development to assist longtime residents and their families.

On Monday, several elected officials condemned the violence at an “emergency meeting” in Ward 8, where about half of the homicides recorded this year took place. On Tuesday, during a legislative session, members of the D.C. Council also made remarks calling for peace. Later that day, Mayor Muriel Bowser held a press conference in Southeast where she asked for the public’s help in solving the killings.

Flanked by Police Chief Peter Newsham and other bigwigs in her administration, Bowser said the District had deployed “additional resources” to prevent crime in neighborhoods located east of the Anacostia River. Those include 25 percent more officers in two police districts, more helicopter patrols, and staffers from District agencies who could connect residents to government services.

Bowser largely blamed “illegal guns” for “fueling a cycle of violence and retaliation” in communities. She also said that “policing alone” would not stop gunfire. Newsham said that because overall violent crime has declined over the past few years, residents have less tolerance for it when it happens. He noted that petty disputes have become deadly.

The violent weekend fell less than a month before the June 19 primary elections in which many of the District’s Democratic incumbents are running for new terms in non-competitive races. Some elected officials seized on the recent crime to rally communities into action and to get their names out to voters. Others spent time highlighting what they regard as their accomplishments.

Bowser’s campaign Twitter account on Monday touted her administration’s record on crime. “In our 1st term, we’ve reduced total crime in DC by 14%, including reducing violent crime by 28%,” the account posted. “We all deserve to feel safe in our communities—in my 2nd term, we’ll build on that progress, starting with identifying crime patterns & getting more illegal guns off of our streets.”

At the press conference on Tuesday, Bowser deferred to Newsham to address a question from a FOX 5 reporter about the uptick in homicides and her campaign’s statements about public safety. “You can look at the crime statistics that we post on a daily basis and you can see that violent crime is down in our city,” Newsham said. “I am not going to try to dismiss the fact that we have an increase in homicides because that is significant.”

But at the community meeting in Southeast, other elected officials appeared to cast doubt on the Bowser administration’s line about crime. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, former Peaceoholics co-founder Ron Moten, and others organized this gathering.

Speaking to a crowd of dozens of people who attended the event, Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie implored residents to “be part of the solution.” He is running to keep his Council seat and faces no viable opponents.

“We are the ones who can make a difference in our own neighborhoods,” McDuffie said, referring to a “culture of violence” in the city. “If there is a homicide in the District of Columbia, it should not matter where you’re from, everybody should be outraged. … If somebody tells you that crime is down in the District of Columbia, tell them that people are dying in our streets—tell them that people are still using guns to solve their problems.”

In a statement, McDuffie says he “was not directing [his] remarks at any single person,” but wanted to underscore his belief that there should be a “heightened sense of urgency” about shootings. “The statistics do not matter to the families and communities that have experienced deaths due to gun violence,” he says. “Whether violent crime is down is irrelevant to how a city should respond to homicides.”

When Attorney General Karl Racine, who is also running for re-election without serious challengers, got up to the mic, he described the current situation as “a crisis” in which “crime is exploding.” “Some people, some places say crime’s not up,” Racine said. In response, an audience member shouted “that’s a lie!” while Racine held up a cell phone, seemingly to consult recent crime data.

“That is a lie!” the attorney general replied in agreement. “You’re right, you gotta tell them that’s a lie.”

“When somebody says, or anyone says, crime is not up, what do you tell them?” he asked the crowd after noting the increase in killings in 2018. Various attendees answered “you lie!” and “that’s a lie!” “That’s exactly right,” said Racine.

As of Wednesday, per the Metropolitan Police Department, total crime is down 9 percent over last year. And while homicides are up 47 percent, overall violent crime is down 8 percent—a figure that includes reductions of 14 percent for sex abuse, 12 percent for assault with a dangerous weapon, and 6 percent for robbery.

Racine mentioned several staffers in his office who are returning citizens and the concept of “restorative justice,” which holds that offenders should have the opportunity to redeem themselves. He said trauma and mental health issues like depression need to be addressed to stem neighborhood violence.

The attorney general concluded his remarks by criticizing the District’s deal with Monumental Sports and Entertainment to bankroll the construction of a $69 million practice facility for the Washington Wizards. The facility is currently being built on the St. Elizabeths East Campus in Ward 8 and will also host community events and concerts.

Racine said many of the taxpayer dollars that are financing the facility could instead be used for anti-crime programs. He called the arrangement a “bad deal” because the District is paying for the vast majority of the development costs, including cost overruns.

MSE, owned by sports mogul Ted Leonsis, is on the hook for $5 million under the deal, while the District is funding the remainder of the project through its economic development arm and its sports authority, Events DC. The Wizards-, Mystics-, and Capitals-controlling company has agreed to provide a seperate $10 million in community investments. 

“Now look, I work as a lawyer,” Racine said. “That doesn’t mean all lawyers are any good. All lawyers aren’t good. But a good lawyer would tell you that’s a bad deal. ‘Hey, that’s a bad deal! Who the hell’s negotiating for you!'”

“You think Ted Leonsis went home, do you think he went home and said, ‘You know what, they got the better of me?'” Racine continued, drawing laughter from the crowd. “So I guess we could claw some of that back and use it for programs like this. Or we could say, you know what, until things really, really, really change—you know what I’m talking about—and people stop lying about no crime going up, we gotta do it ourselves.”

A spokesman for Racine says the attorney general’s comments about crime speak for themselves. As for Racine’s remarks about Leonsis and the Wizards facility, the spokesman says Racine believes that the District can do a better job of creating supports like job-training programs targeted at specific neighborhoods through development deals.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for MSE says the facility will benefit the area with jobs and economic growth. “We are proud to partner with the city and Events DC on this project and we challenge other businesses around Washington to join us in bringing their resources to Ward 8,” the spokeswoman says. “Our hope is that by bringing our teams to the facility at St. Es we can work with partners in the community to play our part in creating opportunity.”

At a D.C. Council hearing in February, Events DC CEO Greg O’Dell said the arena “is well positioned to attracted diverse events while also serving the immediate community” with jobs and entertainment. He said “additional enhancements” that led to the $69 million price tag—which is millions of dollars higher than the original budget for the project—would allow the District “to put our best foot forward, particularly in Ward 8.”

Trayon White, At-Large Councilmembers Anita Bonds and Robert White, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson also spoke at the meeting on Monday. During the Council’s legislative session on Tuesday, councilmembers approved more than $350,000 in funding that will allow Racine’s office to hire “violence interruptors” in neighborhoods at risk of violence, following a public-health model. These on-the-ground residents work to prevent conflicts and can connect would-be offenders with government services.

“We are in a state of emergency when it comes to this crime in the community,” said White, the Ward 8 councilmember. “People are dying not next year, not two years from now, but right now, because I’m visiting their funerals and visiting these homes.”