D.C. Homicide Crisis: & Crime: Real Problems


Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., March 22, 2021. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Two recent shootings made news. But the problem is worse than, and different from, what many residents regularly experience.

Homicides are up in the nation’s capital. 2020 saw the most murders in 16 years. 2021 is on pace to eclipse that number.

Despite that, the problem is often unremarked. Democrats have claimed that focusing on the uptick in murders is a misguided scare tactic. Media outlets have run with the idea, framing it as a cynical election ploy by Republicans to gin up concern when none is warranted.

Two recent local shootings, however, did make headlines: One near Le Diplomate, a trendy restaurant, and another at Nationals Ballpark, both in the parts of the city well-trafficked by the types of people who make and consume news. The details of the stories were jarring — 20–30 shots while the sun was out in one, videos of people running for cover in both — but the stories made headlines because something that usually happens over there has instead happened over here. Implied is that street violence is one thing, so long as it doesn’t happen at trendy brunch spots, and that the people diving for cover aren’t supposed to look like the overwhelming majority of Hill staffers and journalists who dot the nation’s capital.

These incidents, while tragic, aren’t emblematic of violence in D.C. The vast majority of murders in the district happen in just a few neighborhoods. Recent reporting from the Washington Post evaluated bullet-shell casings across the city and found that about 40 percent of all shootings in the District take place within 151 blocks, only 2 percent of the city. For the residents of these blocks, shootings and murders have become a reality of everyday life, even if such tragedies go unremarked.

The drivers of crime are complex, but one avoidable problem that ails D.C. is a confusion of over-criminalization and over-policing.

From the war on drugs to homelessness, the United States has a longstanding over-criminalization problem, creating avoidable interactions between people (disproportionately people of color) and the justice system. Given the countless lives destroyed as a result, this issue has rightly (and finally) risen to the attention of Americans across the political spectrum.

But rather than attempting to fix this specific problem — by changing local laws, revisiting cases, etc. — D.C.’s government has instead pretended that it has an over-policing problem. In the wake of demonstrations focused on racial justice, D.C. embarked on the twin goals of reducing and reimagining the role of the police. The budget for the D.C. police has been slashed by millions of dollars, and the city has embarked on ambitious policing and judicial reforms.

While a response should also focus on addressing the root causes of violent crime, these changes are clearly making people less safe. D.C.’s police chief was unequivocal in a recent post-shooting press conference, blaming a justice system that rushed violent offenders back onto the street and coddled criminals.

Other cities who had also scaled back policing are reversing course following comparable (or even more severe) upticks in murder and violent crime.

In response to an uptick in violent crime, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio recently requested an increase in funding for the police after the city had moved or eliminated $1 billion (17 percent of total allocations) from their budget. New Yorkers just chose former NYPD officer Eric Adams as the Democratic nominee for mayor, who promised a tough-on-crime approach and lambasted the defund effort as being led by “young white affluent people.”

Minneapolis, ground zero for the defund-the-police movement, saw the city exceed its 2019 murder total in just eight months in 2020. This year, the city is on pace to exceed its record number of homicides set in 1995. After the city council had originally pledged to “end policing as we know it” and voted to defund and dismantle the police department, the mayor is now pulling out all the stops to “replenish” the police force and backfill the hundreds of officers who have quit or retired.

The about-face shouldn’t be surprising. Polling data consistently show that those most affected by violence want more, not fewer, police. A recent survey of residents in Detroit found that, by a 9–1 ratio, residents said they would feel safer with more, not fewer, police. Defunding efforts may cloak themselves in the language of Black Lives Matter, but over 80 percent of black Americans support maintaining or even increasing police in their area.

While Democrats may think that defunding the police is an expression of compassion, what it actually represents is detached callousness. It advances the interests of outspoken activists and guilt-ridden white liberals at the expense of those forced to suffer the consequences.

Like cities across the country, the nation’s capital faces a choice: provide safety and security, or hide behind hashtagable slogans as the city’s residents suffer. Washington, D.C., needs to dispense with fluffy rhetoric and address the homicide crisis in its midst.

Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C., and a former Republican congressional staff member.





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