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Sharp increase in homicides in D.C. blamed on domestic disputes

59 homicides up from the 38 at the same point last year

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Homicides in the District are up by more than half in the first six months of the year. But unlike the days when drive-by shootings and feuds among drug gangs propelled the deadly violence, the current uptick is the result of a spike in domestic killings behind closed doors that have contributed to more female homicide victims already than in all of 2013.

Through Monday, the city recorded 59 homicides — up sharply from the 38 at the same point last year. The figure marks a drastic departure from a generally downward trend in killings in the nation's capital over the past decade and from declines in other big cities so far this year.

"Domestic violence is our biggest challenge in terms of homicides," said D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

Eleven women were killed in 2013, but this year's homicide count already includes 12 women. So far this year, women account for 20.3 percent of the city's homicide victims — a higher percentage at the midway mark than for any full year in at least the past decade.

A total of 25 people, including the majority of the female victims, were slain indoors. Although the characteristics don't necessarily mean the crimes were domestic — many of the killings are awaiting classification — the trends correspond to those associated with domestic violence.

Chief Lanier noted an unusually cold winter that had people indoors for longer stretches. Six people — among them three women — were found dead at indoor crime scenes in January alone. That month accounted for 14 killings, although the figure included the 2013 deaths of an infant and a newborn that the medical examiner's office did not classify as homicides until this year.

The District wasn't alone in experiencing an unusually violent January. New York also reported an increase in killings in the first month of the year. But the pace slowed, and that city is reporting fewer homicides this year than at the same time last year.

In fact, the spike in homicides in the District stands in stark contrast to some other big cities frequently beset by violence. Police in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore say homicides are on the decline at the midway point of 2014.

The District recorded 104 homicides last year, but 12 of those were the result of a mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. The rise was modest aside from that incident when compared with the half-century low of 88 homicides in 2012.

A string of five homicides in three days drew attention this week to the city's upwardly spiraling body count.

Three of those killed since Friday were women, all found dead inside residences across the city. The victims were Barbara Moore, 64, who died Friday from asphyxiation; Mary Anne Thomas, 53, who was found fatally shot inside her home Friday; and Eboni Domally, 31, who was fatally stabbed Sunday.

No one has been arrested or charged in any of the cases, so police have not been able to determine whether domestic violence played a role in the deaths.

Speaking about domestic violence killings involving women, the police chief emphasized that it can be difficult to prevent such homicides because the high-visibility police tactics that can curb other crimes are not effective deterrents in these cases.

"A lot of these women were in violent relationships," Chief Lanier said of the victims.

In past years, the police department's partnerships with nonprofit and community groups that specialize in domestic violence have helped combat domestic deaths, Chief Lanier said.

For instance, advocates have worked with responding police officers to conduct lethality assessments — a series of questions meant to determine the level of danger a domestic violence victim faces. Those thought to be at increased risk of violence are referred to shelters and other services.

But the programs can go only so far, Chief Lanier said.

"We've kind of tapped out the resources," she said. "We've expanded as far as we can given the resources they have."

The need for domestic violence services in the District has remained relatively steady, said Karma Cottman, executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence. For each of the past five years, the Metropolitan Police Department has fielded more than 30,000 domestic violence calls, she said.

Ms. Cottman said the most dangerous time for a person in an abusive relationship is when they decide to end that relationship.

"That's when the most homicides occur. Things escalate at the point that a person leaves," she said, emphasizing the need to have enough shelter capacity so victims have a place to stay.

"We definitely need more resources for service providers because affordable housing is pretty much nonexistent," she said. "They can't choose to leave if they don't have anywhere to go."

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