November 23, 2012

DC on pace for fewer than 100 homicides in 2012

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.

Eric Tucker / The Associated Press

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Police Chief Cathy Lanier: "It strikes me quite often how different things are now."

AP

"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 certain 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 8,568 in 1992 to 2,949 last year. The toll taken by 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.

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