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

Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson
Rajaee Mitchell leans on a bullet-pocked vehicle on Sept. 2 near the scene of a shooting the prior evening in the 1300 block of Seventh Street NW in which at least two people were killed.

WASHINGTON – 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.

The circumstances of those additional killings were not immediately clear.

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.

“We acknowledge the fact that residents are concerned about the homicides,” Smith said. “We are doing everything we can to drive down those numbers.”

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.

The victims in 2023 have ranged in age from 10-year-old Arianna Davis, struck in the head by a stray bullet in a barrage of indiscriminate gunfire on Mother’s Day evening, to 71-year-old Eddie Curtis, found shot to death Aug. 14 on a Northeast street.

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.

By contrast, Ward 3 in Northwest, which includes the affluent enclaves of Chevy Chase, Cleveland Park and Foxhall, had recorded no homicides as of Sept. 15.

“We’re in a state of emergency,” said D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who called on the District government to invest more funding in rental assistance programs as well as substance abuse and mental health treatment for young people.

“Just like we take the covid-19 pandemic seriously, we’ve got to take this pandemic of violence in D.C. seriously,” White said. “Until we get there, more blood will be spilled on the streets.”

Tougher approach to crime

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.

That mayhem sparked community outcries and led to a tense meeting between the city’s new acting police chief and her command staff over strategies to fight crime.

Smith, who was appointed in July, said the pace of violence has slowed in the past 30 days, although the department this week did not immediately respond to a request for supporting data. While crime typically ebbs after the summer, she attributed the downturn to operational changes in her department – which include shifting more resources to especially violent areas.

Meanwhile, several 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.

Cornelia Turner said she found her 15-year-old son, Zyion Turner, fatally shot Sept. 2 in a bedroom of their apartment in the 4200 block of Fourth Street SE. She said she still does not know why it happened. Police have said little publicly about the circumstances of Zyion’s killing, which was ruled a homicide. By late September, they had not made an arrest.

“It was my biggest fear because I see it every day on the news,” the mother said. As of Sept. 22, within 500 feet of her apartment, police since the start of the year had recorded seven assaults with dangerous weapons, two robberies and two homicides, including the death of her son.

“A 15-year-old shot,” she said. “A 15-year-old killed.”

D.C. has long struggled with violence and shootings involving neighborhood groups made up mostly of young men, commonly called “crews.” But this year, Smith said, the increase in homicides has been driven by “relationship-based” disputes, some of them absurdly trivial. For instance, police said, on Aug. 27, a 16-year-old girl fatally stabbed another girl the same age with a 7 1/2-inch folding knife outside a McDonald’s near 14th and U streets NW, in one of the District’s busiest nightlife corridors.

The motive for the killing? Police said it stemmed from an argument over sweet-and-sour sauce.

Many U.S. cities experienced homicide surges during the pandemic, which criminal justice experts attributed partly to disruptions that slowed court systems, forced jails to drastically reduce inmate populations and ruptured social safety nets. But the pace of killings in those cities has since generally lessened.

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. The Washington Post’s database tracking crime statistics from about 90 police departments in major metropolitan areas shows that the collective homicide rate was down about 15 percent from January through August compared with the same period in 2022.

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. Parts of that bill were watered-down versions of even stronger proposals by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), including a provision that would have allowed judges to detain children and teenagers for their own protection.

“We hear you,” council member Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), chairwoman of the public safety and judiciary committee, said when the tougher proposals were under review. “And we know we need to do more to keep you safe.”

This month, Pinto proposed legislation that would allow police to randomly search people charged with violent offenses who are on pretrial release – a tactic that judges warned could be illegal. Smith, the acting chief, declined to comment on the issue, saying her staff had not yet briefed her on the provision.

‘Our kids are dying’

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.

Graves, in an interview with The Post, attributed the spike in “declinations” partly to problems with the city’s crime lab, which lost its accreditation; to appellate court rulings that have changed the kind of evidence needed to prosecute firearms offenses; and to efforts by lawyers in his office to identify flawed cases before they are prosecuted – instead of after.

“What we’re seeing in charging decisions is a function of the laws we are operating under and how the system is currently functioning,” Graves said in a statement. He said the prosecution rate from the last four months was the highest in years because of improvements in evidence testing in the District and better training and communication with D.C. police regarding compliance with court opinions. His office has not publicly shared that prosecution data.

After the council passed the emergency legislation this summer, Graves has said, he instructed prosecutors to “strongly consider” charging 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when legally allowed in certain cases. And the result was swift: A 16-year-old suspect in a spate of armed carjackings and robberies in August, for example, was charged as an adult with multiple felonies in two of the incidents.

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. The deeply impoverished and mismanaged District, ravaged by crack, was labeled “America’s murder capital.” Although the bloodshed of that era has not returned – and generations of newer Washingtonians have no memory of it – there are echoes of the long-ago carnage in the most recent numbers and the tragedies behind them.

On the Catholic University campus in Northeast, a Kentucky social studies teacher visiting for a conference was fatally shot in July, apparently while struggling with a robber, police said. Also that month, a former U.S. military interpreter who escaped the Taliban in his native Afghanistan was shot to death on Capitol Hill while working as a Lyft driver.

On Sept. 11, in the Brentwood area of Northeast, Antonio Cunningham, a month past his 17th birthday, was headed to work at a Jersey Mike’s Subs, where he had been earning the first real paychecks of his young life. Three masked assailants accosted him, a gunshot sounded, and Antonio collapsed, mortally wounded.

“He was doing what he was supposed to be doing, and someone took his life,” Kenya Darby, 33, who is engaged to Cunningham’s father and lives with the family, said at the time. “Our kids are dying.”

And what’s left is fear.

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.

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
Police erect a tent over a victim’s body at the scene of a shooting in Northeast D.C. in April.