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LL crammed into a hallway with more than a dozen other media types last week to hear Muriel Bowser talk murders. The Wilson Building has a press room for this kind of thing, but the press room isn’t just steps away from the mayor’s CapStat room, where Bowser was huddled with District officials over data about her administration’s summer problem: the more than 20 percent increase in the homicide rate.
Ushering photographers into the CapStat meeting, Bowser’s staff could at least show that the mayor was doing something about homicides, even as the killings carried on.
Leaving the meeting, Bowser told reporters she was there to talk about the “unacceptable” spike in homicides. Unacceptable, maybe, but not unstoppable. Four days after that hallway press conference, Bowser had to go to another presser at Metropolitan Police Department headquarters—this time to talk about the death of American University grad Matthew Shlonsky, the unintended victim of a Saturday afternoon shootout in Shaw.
That’s the kind of summer the District is having. As the city faces multiple shootings on a single weekday, Bowser and the police are struggling to explain what’s driving the jump after years in which calmer summers meant that the city had left its “Dodge City” moniker behind.
Bowser isn’t the only District pol struggling to deal with the spike in murders. Councilmember Charles Allen, whose Ward 6 territory includes Shaw, tells LL he’s spent most of his D.C. Council recess dealing with the tide of violence. Allen says the violence this year is the worst he’s seen in nearly a decade involved in District government.
“I’m talking with many, many neighbors every week that are frustrated and frightened,” Allen says.
It’s not just murders. Robberies with guns are up by more than 20 percent from last year, while non-fatal gun attacks have increased by nearly as much.
Several of the crimes have been evocative. A brutal few months for the District kicked off with the quadruple homicide of a Woodley Park family and their housekeeper. Since then, a man in Columbia Heights has been forced into a van by a group of perpetrators and raped; an assailant in NoMa punched random people on the street, then grabbed a baby; and reporter Charnice Milton was fatally used as a human shield at a bus stop.
Just three years ago, the District celebrated its first year since the 1960s with fewer than 100 homicides. As of Wednesday, the District is now just three murders away from that number, with four months left to go.
Months of increased violence haven’t left Bowser or MPD Chief Cathy Lanier with solid answers on what’s behind the crime. First synthetic drugs were the suspected cause; a campaign against the substances intensified after police insisted that a type of the drug was tied to July’s NoMa Metro stabbing. But in a report this week, WAMU could only find one homicide this summer conclusively tied to the drugs. Lanier claimed there had been at least four synthetic drug-connected homicides.
The police have eyed other potential causes behind the increased violence. Deputy City Administrator Kevin Donahue blames a two-week beef between Trinidad and East Capitol Street crews for several murders. Other potential culprits include high-caliber guns with higher capacity magazines; the involvement of people who already have previous homicide charges; and arguments over bus fights or craps game that devolve into what District officials call “conflict resolution by gun.”
“It’s not that these things didn’t exist before,” Donahue says of the fights, “But they’re a little more prevalent and a little more violent when they’ve been happening this summer.”
The District isn’t alone in facing a summer spike in sudden violence. In Milwaukee, for example, the homicide rate has more than doubled year-to-year. Earlier this month, Lanier met with other big city police chiefs facing crime spikes, only to admit at the end of their conference that they still didn’t have much of an explanation for what’s behind the violence.
Lanier has reacted by putting more police on the street. In Shaw, police have been operating a 24-hour stand near the site of the triple shooting—the kind of police presence Donahue says will help reduce crimes like robbery. Meanwhile, city agencies have continued the Community Stabilization Protocol, a program aimed at stopping revenge murders; Donahue says the program has reached 175 people so far this year.
Still, it’s not clear how much any of this is helping. On Tuesday, Lanier went on NewsChannel 8 to urge more people to help law enforcement stem the violence. Within hours, another shooting victim lay dead on church steps on East Capitol Street, while a triple shooting left a woman dead and two teens injured.
For all the city’s anti-violence programs, government agencies are blamed for missing out on simple solutions to stop crime. After 31-year-old Tamara Gliss was fatally shot in Shaw in May, Allen says he asked for security cameras on a nearby rec center, only to have the Department of Parks and Recreation drag its feet on installing them.
Last week, that area saw a triple shooting, and now Bowser says DPR is considering installing new security cameras. Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Charlie Bengel tells LL the city had similarly been slow to light the area before the triple shooting.
“Many neighbors have never even seen this level of violence,” Allen says.
There’s at least something to take solace in: The summer is nearly over. Donahue says that police expect violence to ebb as usual in the fall, when schools will reopen and the weather gets colder. Donahue hopes that, at least, the anti-violence work done this summer will have an effect then.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery