Violent crime is rising in the nation's capital. DC seeks solutions as Congress keeps close watch
July 30, 2023
WASHINGTON (AP) — Pamela Smith's voice soared and quivered like a preacher in midsermon as she recalled her troubled childhood and how it helped prepare her for the challenges she faces as the new police chief in the nation's capital.
"I stand before you as a child who had no hopes, who had no dreams — they were far beyond my reach. But I believe that all things are possible," she said at her introductory news conference in Washington, in cadences honed by years as an ordained Baptist minister. "I believe I bring a fresh perspective, a different kind of energy, a different level of passion to what I'm going to do."
Smith takes on the job at a precarious time.
Violent crime is rising sharply, fueled by more homicides and carjackings. The District of Columbia's mayor, Muriel Bowser, and the D.C. Council have, at times, been at odds about crime legislation. On Capitol Hill, the Republican-led House has begun citing the city's crime statistics while aggressively reviewing local public safety laws.
On July 24, the Mexican Consulate posted a tweet urging its nationals to "take precautions" in the city due to "a significant increase in crime in areas previously considered safe."
Smith, 55, now becomes one of the public faces of this long-term fight even before the Council votes on her nomination as chief. She brings an inspirational story to her new role leading the Metropolitan Police Department. Raised in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, by a single mother who battled substance abuse, Smith and her siblings were at one point removed from their home and spent time in foster care. Smith emerged as a track star and went on to a 24-year career in the U.S. Park Police, where she served as the agency's first Black female chief before retiring in 2022 to take up a senior leadership position at the MPD.
Law enforcement and government officials repeatedly point out that overall crime numbers in Washington have stayed relatively stable. But the crimes that have increased the most — murders and carjackings — are the ones most likely to damage public confidence.
"The scariest crimes are going up and regardless of what's happening with other crimes, that's what's going to fuel the overall perception," U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves told The Associated Press.
Graves' office prosecutes most felonies in Washington, in a unique arrangement due to the district's status as a nonstate. The city's attorney general's office prosecutes misdemeanors and juvenile crime, which is also on the rise.
This intricate dynamic among two separate sets of prosecutors, the city's police force, Bowser's administration and the Council has been publicly tested as the crime numbers have stayed high — all with Congress taking an increasing interest in the district's affairs. Public safety was a primary topic of debate last year when Bowser, 50, successfully ran for a third term in office. She has spent this term sparring with both the Council and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee over how best to address crime.
July has been a particular bloody month, with 22 homicides as of Friday, including murders on the campuses of both Howard and Catholic universities. The victims include an Afghan man who survived years of working as a translator for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan only to be murdered in America while driving for Lyft. Nine people, including two children, were shot at a July Fourth party, when an assailant in an SUV opened fire on the crowd. A 12-year old girl remains hospitalized after being shot in the back Tuesday night by a bullet that penetrated the walls of her home.
Although the local murder rate is well below the levels in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Washington regularly led the nation in murders per capita, it has climbed steadily in recent years. In 2022, there was a roughly 10% drop in homicides, but now, homicides are up 15 percent compared with this time a year ago and the city is on pace to surpass 200 for the third year in a row. Police also reported 140 carjacking incidents in the month of June — the highest monthly total in more than five years.
Crime in Washington is now a national headline issue in Congress. In the spring, Bowser and Council members were summoned before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee for a heated session on local crime rates.
Congress voted to completely overturn the Council's comprehensive rewrite of the district's criminal code. Bowser was caught in the middle of the dispute. She had vetoed the overhaul, saying the reduction of maximum penalties for certain violent crimes "sent the wrong message," but was overridden by the Council.
The mayor opposes congressional intervention in local affairs as part of Washington's long push for statehood, but her initial veto was frequently cited by Republican lawmakers as proof that the rewrite was soft on crime. In an embarrassment for the heavily Democratic city, the move to cancel the criminal code revision drew support from dozens of congressional Democratic and was signed into law by President Joe Biden.
Earlier this month, the Council, with Bowser's support, passed emergency public safety legislation meant to serve as a temporary fix. The bill makes it a felony to fire a gun in public and makes it easier for judges, in cases where people are charged with a violent crime, to detain them before trial. As an emergency bill, the changes will only last 90 days and will not be subject to congressional review; plans to make the changes permanent in the fall will face scrutiny by lawmakers.
"It is no secret … to the public that we are in a state of emergency right now," said Brooke Pinto, the D.C. Council member who was the bill's architect. "Like in any emergency, we have to act like it and we have to act urgently to address the problem we're seeing."
But some pushing for a criminal justice overhaul said city lawmakers were reverting to mass incarceration policies that had long ago been discredited.
"We're way beyond thinking that we can just incarcerate more people," said Patrice Sulton, executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab, who helped draft the now-canceled criminal code revision. "I think everybody who voted for it knows that it will not have an impact."
The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on Twitter that the new bill "essentially flips due process on its head — treating people as guilty and detaining them."
All sides point to one primary factor fueling the violence: a flood to firearms entering Washington.
Graves, the district's federal prosecutor, said the number of guns being used in crimes has skyrocketed, turning petty disputes into deadly battles. This includes a new wave of "ghost guns" — firearms that can be ordered in kits and assembled at home. Other kits can easily turn a semiautomatic weapon into an automatic, enabling a rapid-fire and generally less accurate spray of dozens of bullets. In 2018, authorities recovered three such guns; in 2022, the number was 461.
Graves compared the illegal guns to "a virus" in the neighborhood.
"The more virus there is in the community, the more people are going to get sick," he said. "The more illegal firearms are in the community, the more likelihood those illegal firearms are going to be used."