More Data Needed to Reduce DC’s Crime Emergency

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With homicides in Washington, DC starting the year with a pace that has already exceeded last year’s total during the same timeframe, Councilman Trayon White is calling for a declaration of a state of emergency.  He represents Ward 8, where most of the homicides in our city happen. So, if anyone should be raising the call, it is Councilman White.

But sadly his proposed remedies will hardly solve the problem. Getting the illegal guns off the streets and placing more returning citizens into communities is appealing, but the data shows it will not change very much.

At D.C. Witness, we have tracked every homicide and the data associated with each case for the last six years. And while we believe programs for violence interrupters and getting guns off the street should be supported and expanded, the data has some hard truths.

Regarding guns, there is an unmistakable trend that shows young men involved in shootings have increasingly claimed self-defense, saying they need guns because it is so dangerous out there. The demand for guns won’t go away until the desperation that young men feel to pick up those guns is addressed. So even if police were able to take every illegal gun off the street, it would just create a new market for replacements. 

Similarly, with violence interrupters. We hail the success of these returning citizens. They do amazing work, reducing violence in their communities and providing role models to help endangered youth step away before it is too late. But, in the first rush to fund these great efforts, the data showed the number of homicides went down in their locations, but moved to other areas with an overall increase in the number of homicides across the city.  The interrupters program was, in effect, just pushing the violence elsewhere. When the programs were reduced, the homicides became concentrated in Ward 8 again.  We are not arguing that these programs don’t have merit, but they are not the panacea. 

One question not being asked is the role of COVID-19 and the efforts to reduce the DC Jail population. We have tracked the releases from jail and our data shows that a little under half of the people arrested for possessing a gun were released back into the community. During the last five months of 2020, nearly 59 percent of the city’s gun-related homicides occurred, when COVID-related bail efforts were picking up. We are in no way suggesting  mass incarceration as the answer. Rather we put a question – what role did the rapid release of detainees play? It is a question for the city to ask. 

All of this is to say that declaring an emergency will only be effective if there is an urgency to look beyond the obvious to see what is really happening and why.  Our homicide rate did not grow overnight, and it won’t be solved by an emergency order either. And, despite claims otherwise, the city just needs more data to show a way out. If there was more data, we probably wouldn’t be mourning the lives of the 15 people who have been fatally shot this year.

Krystin Roehl contributed to the data used in this response. 

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