D.C. is experiencing a violent summer: Not a week has gone by without an incident of someone getting shot, stabbed, or robbed at gunpoint. The situation is so serious that major-city police chiefs met Monday for a “National Summit on Violence” at D.C.’s Newseum. There, police Chief Cathy Lanier said, “We have not seen what we’re seeing right now in decades.”
But is the District seeing a true crime wave? Is this year actually an inflection point in violence?
A new analysis released today by the Urban Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, shows that in the past 20 years, violent crime in the District has significantly decreased. No longer the “murder capital” of the U.S.—as the city was known in the early 1990s—D.C. has undergone a “dramatic renaissance in public safety,” explains Sam Bieler, a research associate at the Urban Institute. Bieler was the lead author of the institute’s latest chapter of “Our Changing City,” a data-driven project about demographics, housing, and other topics in D.C. that debuted in 2013.
“D.C. has done impressively well on the national stage [with respect to reducing crime],” Bieler contends. “Still, the improvements in public safety haven’t been enjoyed equally across the city.”
The analysis was based on a three main data sources: FBI crime reports, Metropolitan Police Department violent-crime statistics, and U.S. Census Bureau population numbers. From 2000 to 2013, homicides in D.C. dropped nearly 60 percent, while aggravated assaults and robberies—other common forms of violent crime—saw roughly 27.5 and 6.5 percent declines, respectively. (One word of caution about the dramatic graphs above: District population has increased substantially, even in the last four years, and will affect any statistic measured per 100,000 people.)
Bieler says many factors—among them, more community-oriented policing, economic growth, and new technology like gunfire-detection sensors—contributed to this progress. Certain areas of the city, however, have not improved as much as others: for example, while the Near Southeast-Navy Yard neighborhood cluster had the largest reduction in aggravated assaults between 2000 and 2013, clusters east of the Anacostia River had more-modest declines:
Meanwhile, homicides in the District have plateaued around 100 a year since their record low of 88 in 2012; they peaked at 482 in 1991. According to MPD data, homicides are up 26 percent as compared with this point last year. Bieler says it’s too early to tell if violent crime is trending up.
“A 26 percent increase in homicides sounds incredibly scary until you realize it’s only 69 to 87 [homicides in absolute numbers],” Bieler explains. “Of course, every homicide is horrible. But I think we have to be very careful about calling an end to a 15-year trend based on eight months.”
Bieler adds that one possible explanation for D.C.’s recent uptick in violent crime—roughly 20 percent in total—is the season: Summer tends to see more violence than the rest of the year because more people are out on the streets, which creates more opportunities for interpersonal disputes and bystander-harm. There have also been a growing number of homicides related to domestic violence in recent years; they increased from 9 in 2012 to 17 in 2014, a nearly 90 percent jump.
Police chiefs from major cities across the U.S. could not point to a single reason behind the spike in violent crime this year at their national summit on Monday. The rise of synthetic drugs, which can make users violent, could be an explanation, but none of the chiefs said the drugs were “the primary problem,” Lanier said at a press conference after the summit.
Geographically speaking, the Urban Institute analysis shows that the violent-crime rate increased slightly in Ward 7 neighborhood-clusters—Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth, Deanwood-Lincoln Heights, Mayfair-Hillbrook, and River Terrace-Benning—from 2000 to 2014. As for the first half of 2015, an analysis published Wednesday by the District’s Office of Revenue Analysis indicates that 22 of the 39 neighborhood-clusters in D.C. have seen an increase in gun-crimes: Petworth, Brightwood Park, NoMA, H Street, and Capitol Hill had some of the largest upticks.
Although public officials and experts will have to wait until the end of 2015 to fully take stock of violent crime, Bieler says they shouldn’t wait to act: There are several short-term solutions that can help bend the crime-curve downward. One is to focus police efforts on repeat offenders, who commit a disproportionate amount of violent crimes; others may lie in expanding access to social services, job programs, and educational opportunities, as well as empowering local communities.
“You really need to activate the moral authority of the community to be successful,” Bieler says. “When you convey the message that violence isn’t acceptable, that can have a powerful effect.”
Images courtesy of the Urban Institute