Even before the Times Square ball dropped to mark the New Year, Washington, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier reported that her city’s yearly homicide tally had fallen for the third straight year. In 2011 the death toll was 109, down from 132 the previous year, and the lowest total since 1963. Washington homicide numbers have fallen rapidly since the height of the crack epidemic; in 1991, the city set its all-time record of 479 killings.
There are many reasons for the decline. There is now much less crack cocaine on the streets, especially compared to the days when DC drug kingpin Rayful Edmond ruled the town in the late 1980s. Increased surveillance, better policing, and higher incarceration rates have thwarted homicide attempts and kept killers off the streets. Major advances in medical technology have saved lives in ambulances and emergency rooms. Some observers point to the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller Supreme Court decision, which let DC residents own guns and keep them in their homes.
But there is a racial elephant in the room. DC’s black population has been declining for more than three decades. In 1970, DC was 71.1 percent black, an all-time high. By 1990, a year before the murder peak, it was 65.8 percent black, and there were 474 homicides. A decade later, DC was down to 60 percent black, and the homicide count dropped in half to 242. DC lost more than 56,000 black residents during the 1990s, more than in any other decade.
Washington’s black percentage dropped to 50.7 percent by 2010, as 38,162 more blacks left the city, despite overall population growth of 29,664 from 2000 to 2010. During the 2000s, homicides declined from 242 to 132. There is a racial element to DC’s declining homicide rate, but don’t expect to read about it in any newspapers.
Where are blacks going? Most have crossed to Maryland and settled in Prince George’s County (PGC), alongside an increasing number of Hispanic residents. The result is that PGC is more dangerous. In 2000, PGC was 27 percent white, 62.7 percent black, and 7.1 percent Hispanic and there were 71 homicides. By 2010, the population was 19.2 percent white, 64.5 percent black, and 14.9 percent Hispanic and there were 90 homicides. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of homicides in PGC increased by 26.8 percent, while its overall population increased by only 7.7 percent. Last year, there were 99 homicides in PGC.
Despite the decline in murders, the District remains dangerous. With its 2010 rate of 21.94 murders per 100,000 residents, DC ranked 13th worst among all U.S. cities with at least 100,000 residents. To put DC’s figures in perspective, when the District hit a 38-year low for homicides with 109, Arlington County, Virginia, just across the river and with more than one-third the population of DC, had no homicides. Arlington is 8.23 percent black.
As is true with many cities, homicides in DC are clustered in the low-income black areas. In fact, of the 109 DC homicides in 2011, 96 were in census tracts that are majority black (and four were in majority-Hispanic tracts). Of the city’s 109 homicides, 80 took place in the two eastern quadrants, which tend to be heavily black. The census tracts around Capitol Hill, which saw only one of those 80 homicides, are the only white-majority neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city.
The two main areas of DC where blacks have been displaced are Capitol Hill and the Logan Circle/U Street neighborhoods. Capitol Hill, once considered DC’s deadliest neighborhood, is now well over 70 percent white, and has seen only six homicides in the last seven years. Logan Circle, where two decades ago one could drive by and easily pick up a prostitute, has seen only two homicides within a three-block radius of the circle in the last seven years. Massive drop offs in homicides in these two neighborhoods account for a large part of DC’s lower tallies.
The progress that Washington, DC has made in reducing murders is commendable. If advances in science and policing techniques continue as expected, and the city’s economy and racial demographics stay roughly the same, we should expect another decrease for 2012. And should the phenomenon of “black flight” from DC continue, homicide numbers will drop accordingly, as they would in any city where this happens. At the same time, if blacks continue to resettle next door in Prince George’s County, the murder rate there will rise.