Posted on September 28, 2023

D.C. Surpasses 200 Homicides for the Year at Earliest Point Since 1997

Emily Davies, Washington Post, September 26, 2023

For the first time in a quarter-century, the year’s homicide toll in Washington has surpassed 200 before October — a mark of surging violence that has angered and distressed local leaders, drawn scrutiny from Congress and made some residents question whether they can safely live in the nation’s capital.

On Tuesday, a teenage student was shot near Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington. Then a man was caught in a crossfire of gunshots in Southeast.

And with three months to go in 2023, the annual body count could be among the worst since the late 1990s, when the nearly bankrupt District began its resurrection from economic atrophy, municipal mismanagement, widespread social dysfunction and rampant crack-fueled street killings that overwhelmed D.C. police in the last part of the 20th century.

At the scene of the youth’s fatal shooting, acting D.C. police chief Pamela A. Smith brought uncertainty to the total number of killings in the city by announcing that a recent review of all homicides found eight cases that had not been included in the department’s count, meaning the year-to-date total could be as high as 209.


As in the past, a majority of homicides this year have been targeted attacks, with the tragic burden falling acutely on Black residents in the District’s most underserved neighborhoods. Yet almost every ward in D.C. has experienced at least one killing, and almost as many children and teenagers have been slain so far this year as in all of 2022.


The last time D.C. logged its 200th homicide before October was Aug. 12, 1997, in a year that ended with 303 people slain, according to police data. After that, annual totals generally trended downward, staying below 200 from 2004 to 2020, with a low of 88 in 2012. But the killing pace has picked up again, reaching 226 in 2021.

Last year, when the District recorded 203 homicides, the toll on Sept. 26 stood at 155.


Ward 8 in Southeast, a precinct crushed by decades of intractable poverty and underinvestment, recorded at least 75 homicides by mid-September, more than double that of the next-deadliest political subdivision, Ward 7, which had at least 37 killings. In Ward 8′s Bellevue neighborhood, an area of less than three square miles bordering Prince George’s County, Md., at least 23 people had been slain as of Sept. 19, up from at least 17 at same time last year.


The pace of lethal violence in Washington this year spiked during the summer, with particularly deadly weeks in July and August. Ten people were killed in the first five days of July; in the first six days of August, two triple homicides and a spate of other shootings claimed 16 lives.


Meanwhile, many killings remain unsolved. As of mid-September, police said they had closed 44 percent of homicide cases, most of them by arrests. (Some cases are classified as closed without arrests, as when, for example, the prime suspect is deceased or imprisoned in another jurisdiction.) The 44 percent closure rate, as of Sept. 19, is the lowest in at least 16 years.


The District, like many other jurisdictions, also saw its police force shrink dramatically in recent years. Department data shows, as of earlier this month, it currently has 3,328 officers, the smallest roster in half a century.

With homicides in the District up 28 percent as of Sept. 26 compared with last year, the 200 threshold was eclipsed as other major cities across the country reported post-pandemic decreases in killings. {snip}

Residents and members of Congress have called on D.C. officials to explain why the city is an outlier and come up with solutions. The result has been a push for tougher measures from the District’s top leaders — a significant departure from the progressive ideals that dominated the thinking of local policymakers only a few years ago.

This summer, the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation making it easier for judges to impose pretrial detention for some adults and some juveniles charged with violent offenses. {snip}


Much of the political back-and-forth over crime this year has centered on the courts. On Capitol Hill in March and again in May, Republicans on the House Oversight Committee grilled D.C. officials and the U.S. attorney for the District, Matthew Graves, about public safety. Their sharpest questions were aimed at Graves, whose office prosecutes both federal and local crimes in the city.

Echoing critiques made by Bowser, GOP committee members lambasted Graves for data that showed his office last year had opted not to prosecute 67 percent of people arrested in cases that would have been handled in D.C. Superior Court — up from 35 percent in 2015.


Racial justice advocates in Washington see the tougher measures as a backlash to the wave of more-progressive policies enacted after the 2020 murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis and the summer of global protests it spawned over police misconduct against people of color.

“The approach that they’re taking is really sending us back decades,” said Frankie Seabron, a lead organizer with the group Harriet’s Wildest Dreams, which describes itself as “a Black-led abolitionist community” safeguarding “all Black lives most at risk for state-sanctioned violence in the Greater Washington area.”

From the late 1980s until well into the 1990s, before the city’s economic rebirth, annual homicide totals regularly topped 400 and peaked at close to 500 in 1991. {snip}


Not long ago, staffers in the U.S. House attended a briefing on how to stay safe while walking between work and home. In a meeting room, Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wis.) stood before an audience of about 50 employees.

“How many people at some point in the past year felt unsafe, for their personal safety, in D.C.?” he asked.

More than half of his listeners raised a hand.