At a community meeting about crime Tuesday night that drew hundreds of Capitol Hill residents, the first person to talk asked why there wasn’t more police presence. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said visibility can deter crime to a point but it’s not a long-term fix. Residents then wanted to know why suspects in crimes like muggings weren’t being caught and prosecuted strongly. A victim, Lanier explained, often isn’t able to identify the suspect police catch, which means prosecutors can’t charge the suspect.
“Then how do we address prevention?” a resident yelled out.
The meeting had quickly come full circle.
It was the theme of the night: Residents filled an auditorium at Friendship Chamberlain Elementary near the Potomac Avenue Metro station—the site of a shooting last week—but left without any immediate solutions. The First District—which includes Capitol Hill, Navy Yard, Southwest, and parts of downtown—has experienced a 35 percent rise in violent crimes in the previous 30 days compared to last year, according to Metropolitan Police Department data. Last week a string of robberies led to a police pursuit into Maryland and the arrest of five people.
Many residents said they feel uneasy walking around their neighborhoods. Robberies with guns are 65 percent higher in the last month compared to 2014. There was loud applause when some residents complained suspects weren’t being charged heavily enough. Douglas Klein, First District prosecutor from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said assaults where a victim suffers an injury may feel severe, but many times can’t be prosecuted as a felony assault if the injuries don’t meet the legal definition.
But that just frustrated many in attendance who said some suspects get out without heavier penalties. Take Elijah Smith, who pleaded guilty to punching a 69-year-old man earlier this year on an escalator at the Eastern Market Metro station. Smith’s charge was reduced from a felony assault to a misdemeanor charge of simple assault because the injuries the victim suffered weren’t severe enough, Klein said. While in a release program, Smith was arrested again Tuesday for allegedly punching a Metro Transit police officer six times in the face, the Washington Post reported.
“We can talk all night… that is not going to end the story,” said Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who hosted the meeting and called for long-term solutions.
Lanier said MPD is feeling the effects of a retirement spike—she expects roughly 50 officers to retire this month—as the department is hiring 300 cops a year to fill the force. Lanier also said that it’s been difficult to get suspects to cough up information that can lead to further arrests in crimes. What’s led to the uptick in crime citywide, she said, is also different than before: not as many neighborhood beefs, more people acting alone. Police are focusing on catching individuals rather than packing areas with squad cars.
“Our most effective tactic is targeting the offenders and not the neighborhood,” said Lanier, pointing to a recent arrest where officers caught three separate groups of suspects in multiple robberies across the city.
Leaders at the event urged residents to join listservs and attend citizen association and police community meetings. A planned online database may make it easier for residents to track suspects from an arrest to court sentencing. Currently, residents have to navigate through multiple local and federal agencies to find updates on suspects after an arrest is made, which Lanier admitted is frustrating. She said Mayor Muriel Bowser has a proposal to streamline the search process, but it’s unclear how soon that might happen.
“Get it done,” said Denise Krepp, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in 6B, “and let us help you… My folks wants to know what happens from start to finish.”
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Douglas Klein’s name and to clarify comments made by him.
Map via MPD