Jaffe Report: Not ‘Carnage,’ But Too Many DC Neighborhoods Unsafe


Harry Jaffe, a longtime chronicler of the people and politics of Washington, D.C., writes a column for NBC Washington's First Read DMV blog.

Fresh from inflating the crowd size at his inauguration and claiming widespread voter fraud, the new resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue aimed his bombastic rhetoric at the District of Columbia.

"In our nation's capital killings have risen by 50 percent," President Trump said via the White House web site. Problem is that's just plain wrong. According to the Metropolitan Police Department, murders actually fell 17 percent last year. Trump dredged up old numbers to support his contention that our inner cities are hellholes -- that only he can remedy.

Like many things that come out of Trump's mouth, his line on D.C. homicides was hyperbole. But in this case, he actually has a point.

No, we are not experiencing "carnage," as Trump claimed in his inaugural address. Yet too many D.C. neighborhoods are not safe. Gunplay is on the rise. Homicides may be down, but police reported that we did have 135 murders last year.

That's way too many.

So far this year, police report a major increase in gun assaults. They count 53 cases where someone used a gun in a violent crime. That's more than two a day. Homicides (seven this year to date) are up (there were six this time last year), along with theft. The number of stolen cars is down, but there were 130 cars ripped off in the first 26 days of the year. Is that good?

Some of our local politicians are competing to see who can be toughest on crime. Vince Gray was first out of the pack. The former mayor, who now represents Ward 7 on the D.C. Council, introduced emergency legislation to devote upwards of $60 million to retain cops and hire more. He wants to bring the force up to 4,200.

That's the number requested by former police chief Cathy Lanier. On her way out last year, she pointed out that the number of cops had fallen below 3,800 even as the District population reached new highs.

Gray has a decent chance of seeing his injection of cash for cops make it through the council. He starts with five votes, including himself, toward the nine he will need Feb. 9, when it comes up for consideration. Mayor Muriel Bowser has not weighed in on the matter.

It's far from certain that Charles Allen, incoming chair of the council's Judiciary Committee, will support Gray's bill. In an interview Thursday, the Ward 6 councilmember called it an "interesting idea" but he was "skeptical" and wondered: "Is this the best way to use $60 million?"

I'm skeptical, as well. More cops are not necessarily going to stop crime. The District needs more police, but they have to be strong recruits with solid training. The MPD also needs a boost in morale after police had gone six years without a pay raiseuntil 2014. Lanier was more popular with the general public than she was with her rank and file. Acting Chief Peter Newsham, who has inside track to replace her, is well-liked among the troops.

Gray's plan to boost the number of cops is not to Newsham's liking. "It's simplistic," he told me last night at the Ward 3 Democrats meeting. "We have enough officers right now."

Charles Allen's Ward 6 is in need of a strong police presence. It stretches from Nationals Park through the burgeoning neighborhoods along the Anacostia River, to Capitol Hill, into the office buildings behind Union Station and through the southern sections of Shaw. Overall crime was down last year, Allen said, but robberies are on the rise.

"It's nowhere near where it needs to be," he told me.

Allen's ward has had its horror stories. It was the setting for a notorious home invasion and brutal rape. Finally convicted last summer, Antwon Pitt was a repeat offender who fell through huge gaps in the criminal justice system. Allen has taken note of a Washington Post series that exposed gaps in the juvenile justice system that allowed young offenders to commit violent crimes and murders.

Allen had neither background nor great interest in chairing the Judiciary Committee. He's educating himself, starting with four hours in Superior Court, following the action from arraignments to trials. He promises to hold hearings and propose new laws to patch up the system. He tends toward increased mental health services.

Law and order is not his thing. He wants to be a "progressive" chairman.

"I'm not a Draconian person," he said. "But we do owe it to ourselves to have an honest conversation about our criminal justice system."

But an honest conversation and added social services might not be enough. Cathy Lanier famously said the system was "broken." Attorney General Karl Racine told me violent juveniles were creating "havoc." Allen listed "brazen" crimes just this week in his ward, including a guy who walked into a laundromat on Benning Road, plugged a guy in the chest and calmly walked down the street.

Allen is not hitting the ground with guns blazing, so to speak. He's asking why the cops have disbanded vice squads. He wants police to be able to share information about juveniles.

Frankly, the District needs more determined changes to its criminal justice system. Sentencing is too lenient. Violent criminals get arrested at night and are back on the street in the morning. It's time to make life miserable for violent offenders. There's no need to bring out water boards, but the last thing we want is a man named Trump meddling in police business in his new 'hood.

That means we have to get serious and handle it ourselves.

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