Homicides rise 36 percent in D.C.

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Homicides rise 36 percent in D.C.
Associated Press

WASHINGTON – The homicide rate in Washington surged 36 percent this year, but local officials insist it doesn’t harken a return to the days when the city was known as the nation’s “murder capital.”

Police blame a proliferation of drugs, gangs and prostitution, and officers are being redeployed to better target crime areas and the places that have seen the greatest jumps in violence.

So far this year, 148 homicides have been reported, compared with 109 at this time last year. Aggravated assaults also are up, but only slightly.

At town hall meetings and campaign appearances, Mayor Anthony A. Williams and other city officials urge residents to patrol their neighborhoods and work with police. “When this city comes together and we stand together, we can turn things around,” he said.

After years of declines, many major cities are seeing increases in homicides. Boston had a 67 percent jump last year, while smaller double-digit percentage spikes occurred in Houston, Atlanta, St. Louis and Phoenix. Homicides in Los Angeles are up 27 percent this year and Oakland, Calif., is on track to record its most murders in seven years.

Washington had a 3.7 percent decrease last year.

Most of Washington’s homicide victims are young black and Latino males, and according to police, 30 percent of the deaths are either drug- or gang-related.

“We’re now trying to understand the culture of the gangs here in the city,” said Carolyn Graham, the deputy mayor responsible for most of the city’s human services programs.

In addition to $6 million spent this summer on teen violence and pregnancy prevention programs, the city is restructuring the juvenile justice system to provide additional services for younger offenders to prevent them from becoming involved in subsequent criminal activities.

Washington officials note the sharp increase in homicides comes a year after the city’s murder rate reached a 30-year low of 233. And the city’s overall crime rate is down 3 percent this year.

Still, Police Chief Charles Ramsey said he’s concerned by the effect this year’s violence is having on residents.

“There’s a great deal of fear and intimidation in the neighborhoods. We need witnesses in order to proceed to arrest and prosecute,” Ramsey said.

Councilman Adrian Fenty is 31 and grew into adulthood during the period when Washington earned the moniker of the nation’s “murder capital.” The city’s murder record of 482 was set in 1991.

Things are vastly improved since then, Fenty said, but residents still want a greater police presence and more youth activities in their neighborhoods.

“An inhuman amount of people are being killed, and they’re mostly young men who should be in college or doing something else,” Fenty said. “What does it say about the District of Columbia if 20-year-olds are being gunned down?”

Williams said the economic downturn and easy access to guns are factors that have contributed to the rise in homicides in Washington and other cities. He said a collection of programs dubbed “safe city efforts” will help stem the tide.

Williams has moved city agencies out of downtown and into long-vacant neighborhood commercial districts to serve as “engines of economic development.” His administration also has demolished more than 1,200 abandoned row houses and apartments and helped build or rehabilitate nearly 9,000 housing units.

Ramsey has abolished the Metropolitan Police Department homicide unit and other specialized investigative squads which operated out of police headquarters. Detectives now are deployed in each of the department’s seven police districts, where they work closely with patrol officers assigned to the city’s 83 police service areas.

The city has budgeted money to add 200 officers to the existing force of 3,600. Police officials are hoping the increase will help offset the drain prompted by stepped-up patrols around the White House, Capitol and other federal facilities since last September’s terrorist attacks.

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