- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

The District yesterday surpassed its homicide total for all of last year, in the midst of a violent month that thus far has averaged a killing per day.

With 40 days left in 2002, there were 236 killings in the city compared with 233 in all of 2001. The killings this year, 32 more than this time last year, are on a pace to reach 263 by the end of the year. That total would be the highest since Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey was sworn in as head of the Metropolitan Police Department in April 1998.

"Obviously it's disappointing," Chief Ramsey said of the escalation in violence this year. "We'd had a steady decline." He stressed, though, that overall crime in the city, including sexual assault, robbery and theft, is down 3.5 percent.

While nowhere near the number of murders in the early 1990s when the District was routinely referred to as the "murder capital of the United States," the turnaround marks the first significant escalation since the homicide rate peaked in 1991 with 482 persons killed.

Last year's 233 killings was the lowest since 1987 when 225 homicides were recorded. But an uptick in violence that began September 11 has not leveled out.

Before September 11, 2001, there had been 135 homicides for the year, or one about every 45 hours. Through the end of 2001, the pace quickened to one killing about every 27 hours. This year, there's been a killing roughly every 33 hours.

The most killings this year occurred in July, marking the bloodiest single month in Chief Ramsey's tenure, when 33 persons were killed. Most of the murders have occurred in the 5th, 6th and 7th police districts, in the Northeast and Southeast sections of the city.

The police chief said there's no single cause behind the surge, indicating the killings run the gamut from confrontations to retaliation to gang activity to domestic violence. He said the easy availability of guns contributes to the problem, since about 75 percent of the victims are killed with guns.

And he said his department continues to look into what role the release of about 5,000 prisoners incarcerated in the late '80s and early '90s over the last two years has played in the escalating homicide rate.

But the department has made little progress in closing homicide cases. The case-closure rate stands at 48.6 percent, "which is not anywhere near where it should be" the chief said. The figure is almost identical to last year's 48.5 percent and well short of the mayor's performance "scorecard" goal of 50.9 percent.

In 1997, the year before Chief Ramsey arrived, the case-closure rate was 70 percent.

Recentralizing the department's 48 homicide detectives in the violent-crimes branch has streamlined investigations, Chief Ramsey said, but he added that the department has had trouble getting community members to come forward and testify when they have knowledge of a homicide.

He acknowledged questions about the effectiveness of his investigators and said the city needs more experienced detectives rather than just more detectives.

"I don't think manpower is an issue at this point," he said. "I'd put more manpower in there if that's what they needed."

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