Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh
Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh Credit: Darrow Montgomery/FILE

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“It’s like a state of lawlessness in the community,” Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh declared Thursday in Van Ness, lamenting everything from a lack of services for people addicted to drugs to the Council’s consideration of a bill changing how young people are charged with crimes.

Cheh’s impassioned speech, delivered before a crowd of neighbors and police officers gathered in front of the neighborhood’s Days Inn hotel, drew a brief round of applause and some scattered cheers. The problem? It had very little, if anything, to do with the fatal shooting that prompted the gathering in the first place.

Nominally, the purpose of this community meeting was to discuss public safety matters in the wake of the killing of a 20-year-old woman (and wounding of four other people) in an early morning shooting at the hotel. But Cheh, who declined to comment for this article via a spokesperson, quickly veered into a list of complaints about crime more broadly, remarks that earned her a weekend’s worth of excoriation on Twitter.

That’s because very little of Cheh’s speech had much grounding in fact and, even more troublingly, relied upon a common, classist trope about the causes of violence in the community. 

Take, for instance, Cheh’s complaint that D.C.’s Department of Human Services is “putting people in buildings over here who are addicted” and then declining to follow up with them. As a result, “we are the victims…of people who are acting out because they are troubled, and they need help,” Cheh said. 

Leave aside that there is so far no evidence that the Days Inn shooting had anything to do with formerly homeless people, as Cheh’s speech might suggest. MPD has told various media outlets that the room was registered to people from Maryland and that it had “domestic overtones.” More than that, there’s no research suggesting that unhoused people who are offered homes contribute to a rise in crime in their new communities, a point that Kate Coventry of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute raised on Twitter Friday.

To offer Cheh a (perhaps overly generous) defense, she could well be referring to a recent uptick in complaints about mental health issues among new residents of some Van Ness buildings. But those complaints from the community are nothing so severe as to be connected to a killing—a point even Mayor Muriel Bowser rushed to clarify at the Thursday gathering.

“I don’t want to conflate this incident with that,” Bowser said after an attendee parroted Cheh’s framing of the issue. “Because that’s not the case.”

But Cheh’s jeremiad didn’t end with these complaints. She also warned that this “lawlessness” she sees stems from “proposals in the Council that will weaken what we do with respect to juveniles.”

“I think some of that stuff that’s coming forward is a huge mistake because if you’re charged as a juvenile, you get out when you’re 21,” Cheh said. “You might have committed a really serious violation. That’s a mistake.”

Cheh is well within her rights to oppose the Council’s recent efforts to make it more difficult for teenagers to be charged as adults (even though AG Karl Racine and other reformers make persuasive arguments that the proposal would give young people accused of these crimes a better shot at turning their lives around rather than simply throwing them into the criminal justice system). But Loose Lips wonders why Cheh is bringing matter up in the wake of this shooting, before it’s even passed into law.

Does she imagine that teens are embarking on crime sprees because they think that, someday, they might get some extra leniency from prosecutors? LL finds that a ridiculous association.

Outside of a few occasions when she has chosen to side with police and prosecutors in opposing reform measures, Cheh is not often the most outspoken lawmaker on public safety issues. Her portfolio more often includes transportation and environmental issues, befitting the committee she chairs, and her public comments generally reflect that focus.

Perhaps last week’s outburst suggests why that might be the case.