BY RACHEL PAGE, WRITTEN CONTENT EDITOR
Number 48 was Tamara Gliss, shot in the head during a Memorial Day barbecue in Northwest DC. She was a mother, a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter. She attended church regularly and once organized a community cookout for a local firefighter. Number 99 was Loretta Carswell, a retired bus driver shot outside her home in Northeast. Kassahun Edo, number 103, died at a hospital after being assaulted near Howard University. A financial analyst from Texas, he had lived in suburban Maryland for a few years after college; police were unsure why he had returned to DC on what would be the last day of his life.
As of this week, there have been 115 reported homicides in DC in 2015 alone, compared to a total of 105 in all of 2014. Twenty-five years after DC shook off its title of “murder capital” of the United States, the city is seeing a resurgence in crime.
The Wilson community has not escaped this spike in violence. Davon Wade, a security guard who worked nights at Wilson, was killed on September 6 in a shooting in Northeast. Two friends were with him; both were admitted into the hospital with serious injuries.
Police Chief Cathy Lanier has pointed to a rise in the use of synthetic drugs as one of the possible causes of the increased homicide rate. At least two of this year’s homicides have been linked to the drugs, with effects ranging from hysterical happiness to violence.
Most officials, however, agree that there are many factors that have contributed to DC crime, including unemployment and lack of public services. “Our priority should be finding solutions,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie.
Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled a comprehensive plan for addressing this rise in violence at a highly-charged press conference on August 27. Her proposal would increase the number of police on the streets and give law enforcement more power when dealing with violent ex-offenders, including the ability to search residences.
However, the proposal has been criticized heavily by the DC activist community. Black Lives Matter protesters interrupted Bowser’s press conference in Congress Heights, chanting “Ward 8 matters” and “No justice, no peace.” McDuffie, who met with leaders of the movement, says that they objected to the plan’s focus on strengthening law enforcement. “They were concerned with whether the city would move towards policies that, in effect, arrest and incarcerate,” he says.
Wilson senior and Human Rights Club founder Amara Evering agrees that increased policing is not the answer to DC’s rising crime rates, pointing to pre-existing racial disparities in arrests. She says that although 49 percent of the city’s population is black, they are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement. “Currently, in the District, eight out of 10 arrests for disorderly conduct are towards black persons, while 70 percent of traffic pull-overs are directed towards black persons,” she wrote in an email. “I’ve had friends who’ve been roughed up by the police and I can’t imagine giving police more power in the condition our local judicial system is in.”
Councilmember McDuffie is no stranger to DC crime; a Wilson graduate, he grew up in the District during a time when the annual homicide count routinely topped 300. He says that the recent upsurge in violence calls for a profound sense of urgency. “Violent crime is taking place in the same communities as it did decades ago,” he says. “This time, we need to take a different approach. We cannot arrest our way out of this problem.”
In the late 20th century, the leading approach to American law enforcement was “tough on crime.” As police forces struggled to lower urban crime rates by increasing arrests and police presence, incarceration rates swelled. Today, the U.S. makes up 4.4 percent of the world’s population but houses 22 percent of all prisoners, the majority of which are men and women of color.
McDuffie calls these “tough-on-crime” policies “outdated.” He says that DC must move instead towards a “smart-on-crime” model. This means using agencies outside of local law enforcement to address the culture of violence, including the Department of Health and the Department of Employment Services.
More specifically, McDuffie advocates for “a health approach” to violence prevention, a practice that has been implemented successfully across the country in recent years. He describes it as “treating violence as if it were some sort of health ailment.” A health approach focuses on using community resources for trust and violence intervention. Rather than increasing police presence, DC would identify potential victims and perpetrators and connect them to local government for things like medical support or employment.
McDuffie held a roundtable discussion on violent crime on September 16. He says that many of the residents who testified wanted to make sure that the government was utilizing the resources in their communities. “There are organizations and individuals that are already doing great work and are well suited to assist with violence prevention,” he says, “but they lack the support of government resources.”
Evering agrees that a community focus should be prioritized in combatting further violence. “Too often, we focus on the rise of violence and [do] not notice the rise in dropout rates, or the foul test scores in neglected areas, or the rising property values from gentrification causing a loss of community in neighborhoods,” she says. “Being an out of bounds student, in a neighborhood that is policed at all times of day and night, I see that the rise of violence connects to other substantial problems that have long been overlooked in DC.”
If there is one thing that Wilson students should take away from the DC violence epidemic, McDuffie says, it’s that we cannot afford to be complacent; there is always hope for change. “Violence isn’t inevitable. It isn’t a way of life,” he says. “Everyone in DC should be outraged when there is a homicide, irrespective of whether it was in your neighborhood or if you knew the victim. Everyone should be outraged.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF WILL HAMLIN