Valdosta Daily Times

Top News

November 24, 2012

D.C. on pace for fewer than 100 homicides in 2012

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The crack epidemic that began in the 1980s ushered in a wave of bloodletting in the nation’s capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily. Dead bodies, sometimes several a night, had homicide detectives hustling between crime scenes and earned Washington unwelcome monikers such as the nation’s “murder capital.” At the time, some feared the murder rate might ascend to more frightening heights.

But after approaching nearly 500 slayings a year in the early 1990s, the annual rate has gradually declined to the point that the city is now on the verge of a once-unthinkable milestone. The number of 2012 killings in the District of Columbia stands at 78 and is on pace to finish lower than 100 for the first time since 1963, police records show.

“It strikes me probably daily as I ride around the city, or sometimes when I’m sitting at home at night, and it’s 10 o’clock and my phone’s not ringing. Or I get up in the morning, and I go, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve slept five hours,” said Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who joined the department amid violent 1991 street riots. “It strikes me quite often how different things are now.”

The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. Though killings have risen in Chicago, New York City officials say homicides dropped to 515 last year from more than 2,200 in 1990. Houston totaled reported 198 homicides last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles police reported fewer than 300 last year after ending 1992 with about 1,100. Across the country, violent crime reported by police to the FBI fell by 3.8 percent last year from 2010.

Though D.C. is hardly crime-free today, and crime in some categories is even up, the homicide decline is especially notable in a place where grisly acts of violence — sometimes not far from the U.S. Capitol — embodied the worst of the crack scourge.

The number of homicides in this city of about 600,000 residents averaged about 457 between 1989 and 1993, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention. “A war zone? No, Washington, D.C.,” was the sub-headline of a 1992 People magazine story that described Washington as a “city under siege.” The Economist in 1995 called it “the violence capital of America.” Tony Patterson, a longtime homicide detective, recalled one eight-hour shift when every detective on his squad landed a homicide investigation. Drive-by shootings with multiple victims were common, as were witnesses who’d see something — but say nothing.

The 1990 arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for smoking crack cocaine fed a perception that the city where the nation’s laws were made was, itself, lawless.

“If you asked people what would happen first, there’ll be a thousand murders in D.C. in a year or there’ll be less than a hundred, I think virtually everybody would have said there would be 1,000,” said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute.

Everyone agrees there’s no single cause for the trend.

One overarching factor is the city’s continued gentrification — the 2011 median household income of $63,124 is higher than all but four states, census figures show.  Whole city blocks have been refashioned, drug dens razed, a Major League Baseball stadium built in place of urban blight, high-rise public housing replaced by less-dense garden style apartments. Though the poverty rate has risen, the growing wealth has pushed impoverished communities farther away from the city center. Some crime has also migrated to neighboring Prince George’s County, Md., though homicides are down there too.

“There are just more physical places in Washington, D.C., that are affluent and safe than there used to be,” Roman said.

Law enforcement techniques and medical care have advanced at the same time. Improved technology helps officers pinpoint gunfire, even before a 911 call, and share information faster. A police unit dedicated to seizing illegal firearms was re-established and prosecutors, benefiting from the city’s strict gun laws, routinely ask that defendants arrested on weapons charges be held without bond — in part, to head off possible retaliation. Stronger community relationships mean detectives have developed better sources on the street and witness cooperation, police say.

And better medical care, honed through lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, means patients who were once stabilized at the scene are more likely to be taken directly to the hospital, where they have access to improved blood transfusion processes.

“The advances in the way we practice nowadays, I think, probably helps today’s trauma patient more so than 20 years ago,” said Anthony Shiflett, an acute care trauma surgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Still, homicides are but one gauge of a city’s safety and an imperfect one too.

Crime in some other categories has risen this year from the previous year, including robberies and, as of mid-September, assaults with a dangerous weapon. There have been headline-making violent crimes in 2012, including the beating and robbery of a man returning home from a Washington Nationals game, the slaying of a taxi driver whose body was found inside his burning cab and, most recently, the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old inside a subway station after a robbery.

U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, whose office prosecutes homicides, said that while witness cooperation has improved, retaliatory violence remains enough of a concern that he preaches against it during regular school visits.

“We always say, ‘You’re not going to remember what the argument was about five days from now, let alone five years from now. But you pick up that gun and shoot somebody, if you don’t kill them, now they’re going to be coming after you,”’ he said.

The department doesn’t track non-fatal shootings, but the number of aggravated assaults reported to the FBI — which would encompass such crimes — dropped from more than 8,500 in 1992 to 2,949 last year. The toll taken by non-fatal violence is apparent each Tuesday at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, where wheelchair-bound survivors gather for support sessions.

“I’m still frightened to a degree to come outside — day, night, it really don’t matter,” said Jordon Cook, 31, who was hit by stray gunfire at age 15. “I’m probably going to have to deal with this until the day I die.”

The homicide drop is good news for violence-weary residents such as John Harper, who said his street in the historically violent Anacostia neighborhood feels far safer than it did 10 years ago. Still, a fatal shooting last July on his block returned his thoughts to the night in 1999 when his own son was killed in an alley.

“I didn’t even want to look over there because it just takes me right back to that day,” he said, adding, “A lot of it is starting to come to an end, that behavior is starting to just leave this city — hopefully for good. I know not all of it, but a lot of it.”

Lanier, the police chief, said that in a city visited by millions of tourists annually, a continued downward trend might help alter a lingering perception of the city as a haven for violence.

“It really is about a vibrant, safe city. I want people to not only be safe but to feel safe,” she said.

1
Text Only
Top News
  • Today in History

    In 1800, Congress approved a bill establishing the Library of Congress.

    April 24, 2014

  • Michigan affirmative ban is OK, Supreme Court says

    A state’s voters are free to outlaw the use of race as a factor in college admissions, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a blow to affirmative action that also laid bare tensions among the justices about a continuing need for programs that address racial inequality in America.

    April 23, 2014

  • ‘Piles and piles’ of bodies in South Sudan slaughter

    Gunmen who targeted both children and the elderly left “piles and piles” of bodies — many of those in a mosque — in a provincial capital in South Sudan, the U.N.’s top humanitarian official in the country said Tuesday.

    April 23, 2014

  • Obama_Stew.jpg Obama views mudslide scene

    Swooping over a terrain of great sadness and death, President Barack Obama took an aerial tour Tuesday of the place where more than three dozen people perished in a mudslide last month, then mourned privately with those who lost loved ones in the destruction.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Wall Street_Stew.jpg Earnings and corporate deals lift U.S. stocks

    Corporate deals and some solid earnings reports propelled the stock market to its sixth straight gain Tuesday.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Economy College Gradu_Stew.jpg Job market for college grads better but still weak

    With college commencement ceremonies nearing, the government is offering a modest dose of good news for graduating seniors: The job market is brightening for new grads — a bit.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Supreme Court TV On t_Stew.jpg Internet TV case: Justices skeptical, concerned

    Grappling with fast-changing technology, Supreme Court justices debated Tuesday whether they can protect the copyrights of TV broadcasters to the shows they send out without strangling innovations in the use of the internet.

    April 23, 2014 1 Photo

  • Today in History

    In 1791, the 15th president of the United States, James Buchanan, was born in Franklin County, Pa.

    April 23, 2014

  • Stowaway teen forces review of airport security

    A 15-year-old boy found his way onto an airport’s tarmac and climbed into a jetliner’s wheel well, then flew for five freezing hours to Hawaii — a misadventure that forced authorities to take a hard look at the security system that protects the nation’s airline fleet.

    April 22, 2014

  • South Korea Ship Sink_Rich copy.jpg Death count in ferry sinking tops 100

    One by one, coast guard officers carried the newly arrived bodies covered in white sheets from a boat to a tent on the dock of this island, the first step in identifying a sharply rising number of corpses from a South Korean ferry that sank nearly a week ago.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

Top News
Poll

Given the amount of rain recently, what's your favorite “rain” song?

Singing in the Rain
Purple Rain
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
November Rain
Rainy Night in Georgia
Other
     View Results