The District’s 2008 homicide total is on pace to equal last year’s while other jurisdictions are experiencing fewer slayings, suggesting that city leaders are struggling to maintain significant declines in the homicide rate in recent years.
“It’s perplexing why the number of homicides is not going down in the District when it is going down elsewhere,” said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary. “When we talk about homicides, we’re talking about the most serious of all violent crime.”
Metropolitan Police Department statistics show that 175 homicides were reported in the District as of Tuesday morning, equal to the number on the same date last year. This is the second year of police Chief Cathy L. Lanier’s tenure, and the number is approaching last year’s total of 181 homicides during all of 2007.
By comparison, police officials said, Baltimore’s homicide rate has dropped from 270 last year to 221 to date, and Richmond’s homicides stood at 33 compared with 50 in 2007.
In Philadelphia - where former D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey took the helm of the police department in January - homicides have dropped from 375 to 313 throughTuesday morning. In Prince George’s County, 125 homicides have been reported to date compared with 133 at the same time last year.
“These are jurisdictions right next door to us and all of them consistently have dropped homicides over the last year,” said Officer Kristopher Baumann, who heads the Fraternal Order of Police’s labor committee, which represents police officers. “Something’s wrong.”
In 2006 - the last year of Chief Ramsey’s tenure - the District reported 169 homicides for its lowest total in at least 20 years.
Chief Lanier, who was hand-picked by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to replace Chief Ramsey, has spurned her predecessor’s strategy of calling a crime emergency to combat spikes in violence.
She instead has opted to implement notable initiatives such as All Hands on Deck - which puts all available sworn personnel in the department on patrol - and the controversial checkpoints program in Trinidad, which aimed to stem a tide of shootings in the Northeast neighborhood.
During an online chat with The Washington Times on Tuesday, Chief Lanier noted that the District is on track for a homicide rate below 200 for the fifth straight year and that last year’s rate was the second-lowest in more than 20 years.
She said violent crime in the city is down 5 percent, assaults with guns are down 14 percent and robberies with guns are down 12 percent.
The chief also said the District’s homicide closure rate this year is on course to be well above the national average.
Metropolitan Police Department spokeswoman Traci Hughes said the closure rate is 69 percent this year. By comparison, the average homicide and non-negligible manslaughter clearance rate for similar-sized cities last year was 54.6 percent.
“I think our strategies are strong and we will continue to do everything we can to drive our numbers lower,” Chief Lanier said.
But council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat and a critic of the Trinidad checkpoints, likened some of the department’s policing strategies to “publicity stunts” that are “not really effective in cutting down the rate.”
“It seems to me the strategy should not be, as I said, these little devices that might look good and make good stories but really don’t actually work,” said Mrs. Cheh, who sits on the council’s public safety committee.
Mr. Fenty, a Democrat, credited Chief Lanier with linking the department to the community and said her tactics are working.
“She and her command staff keep a careful eye on crime trends and make every effort to prevent crime before it occurs …,” he said. “Violent crime is down in our city. She’s doing a fine job.”
Mr. Mendelson said he also supports Chief Lanier as leader of the city’s police department and that the District’s high homicide closure rate will have “long-term benefits.”
He said Chief Lanier is continually rethinking her policing strategies but that the recent arrests of suspects in the fatal shooting in Trinidad of 13-year-old Alonzo Johnson validate criticism of the checkpoints.
Chief Lanier instituted the checkpoints in June and July. Officials last week announced the arrests of Antonio McAllister, 18, and Joshua Benton, 19, on murder charges related to a series of shootings in July that led to Alonzo’s death.
“They caught the perpetrators,” Mr. Mendelson said. “The checkpoints had nothing to do with that.”
Officer Baumann laid some of the blame for the city’s homicide troubles at the council’s feet, saying members need to pass tougher laws related to things like mandatory minimum sentences.
He also said the department needs to do a better job of recruiting and retaining police officers.
Miss Hughes said the department met its recent goal of having 4,050 officers this year, but resignations have since dropped its strength to 4,021. The department’s goal is to reach 4,200 officers next year.
“If we don’t have the fundamental core policing functions out there, crime gets out of control either throughout the city or in pockets of the city,” Officer Baumann said.
Mrs Cheh, however, disagreed that more officers will mean less crime.
“I don’t think we need more police,” she said. “I think we need better policing.”
To read the full transcript from the WashingtonTimes.com online chat with Chief Lanier click here.