Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said Tuesday that she believes Washington can finish the year with fewer than 100 killings — a figure that if achieved would be the lowest homicide total in the nation’s capital since the Kennedy administration.

The bold claim from the police chief of a city once routinely called the “murder capital” of the United States was made at a time when police have recorded 88 homicides. That figure is down 25 percent from last year at this time but leaves the city on pace for 140 killings.

“Fewer than 100 homicides is reasonable,” Chief Lanier told The Washington Times. “We’re targeting for under 100, and I think we can do it if we give everything we’ve got.”

Last year, the city marked 100 homicides before the end of July, but police in the District and several other major U.S. cities are seeing declining or steady homicide totals this year.

Los Angeles has recorded a 14 percent decrease in homicides from 234 last year to 201 this year. New York is at 281 killings, a 14 percent decline from 326 last year. Chicago has an 11 percent reduction at 258 homicides, down from last year’s 290. Philadelphia’s homicide total has declined by 10 percent, from 204 to 189. Baltimore is at 140 homicides - the same as this time last year.

But the decline of 25.4 percent in the District - which approached 500 killings in 1991 at the height of the crack-cocaine epidemic that spawned gunbattles between rival gangs of drug dealers - is larger than the reductions in those cities.

Still, the decline would have to accelerate significantly to a reduction of at least 47 percent from last year’s total of 186 homicides to meet Chief Lanier’s ambitious goal. The last year the District recorded fewer than 100 homicides was 1963, when 95 were reported.

The police chief said the target is achievable, thanks to technology that has improved the speed and efficiency with which police can react to and intervene in disputes before they lead to deadly violence and to a series of proactive policy initiatives that were aimed at building ties between officers and the neighborhoods they patrol.

“Communities are fighting along with us; we’re building trust,” she said. “People now know an officer by name that they can call and pass information to. In the past, we were this anonymous police force, and we’re not anymore. We are people. We have names. You may not be reporting to ‘the police,’ rather Officer Brown. We’re not asking the community to trust an anonymous police force.”

Chief Lanier has implemented programs like All Hands on Deck, her often maligned signature initiative, which puts all D.C. officers visibly on patrol for a limited period of time.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, which has oversight of the police department, said he does not think the initiative has helped reduce the homicide total.

“I don’t see All Hands on Deck as being a measurable factor in homicide rate, I just don’t,” he said. “It’s not targeted at gang violence or domestic violence or homicide activity. It’s a much more general law enforcement strategy.”

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, also said he has seen nothing to indicate why homicides are trending downward in the District or across the country.

“It’s never clear why we see these trends even nationally,” he said. “It’s appalling the lack of statistical evidence on the causes and effects of crime. So it makes it more difficult to understand what strategies are most effective.”

Mr. Mendelson noted, however, that police have better strategies in place to deal with the most hardened, violent criminals.

“We have some better strategies for dealing with gangs, and coordinating with other law enforcement agencies has made a real difference,” he said. “But there will always be a level of violence you will never get rid of.”

Just Saturday, as many as seven people were wounded after a spate of violence marred a community event in Northeast Washington. Police said six teenagers were among those injured in the gunfire, which erupted at about 5:30 p.m. near Minnesota Avenue and Grant Street. None of the injuries was thought to be life-threatening.

Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the labor committee that represents Metropolitan Police officers, said the department needs to exercise caution when taking credit for declining crime rates.

“The communities out there that have historically had crime problems are still having them,” Officer Baumann said. “Homicide rates in those areas are still the same. What is it about folks in Ward 8 that don’t deserve the same strategies as other wards? I think the police department needs to be careful. It’s tough to understand what we’re taking credit for.”

While homicides have decreased in Ward 8, the change is small - from 30 last year to 28 so far this year. Preliminary police statistics show that homicides either declined or remained unchanged in every ward except for Ward 1, which has seen an increase from nine killings at this time last year to 11 so far this year.

All seven of the city’s police districts have recorded declines compared with last year’s homicide totals. Although the homicide total is the most dramatic reduction, other categories of violent crime like assaults and sex abuse cases also have declined. The only category of violent crime to increase compared with this time last year has been robbery, which increased just under 4 percent, according to the preliminary figures.

Cooler outdoor temperatures also could play a contributing factor in changes in crime statistics, Officer Baumann added.

“You’ll have people argue that crime always upticks in summer. And we’ve had a super mild summer,” he said. “I wish it was as easy as controlling the weather or keeping people comfortable. The tough thing with crime is there’s thousands of factors. It could be combination of anything. You don’t know which one is a controlling factor.”

Chief Lanier said petty arguments and drug disputes are the prime causes of homicide this year, and that theft, street gambling and illegal handgun use are aggravating factors. But she added that the department has a 74 percent case-closure rate for homicide cases - about the same as last year.

Chief Lanier said police also have seen a significant increase in homicides resulting from domestic violence, which has accounted for 20 percent of killings this year. She blames the nation’s recent economic downturn.

“The economy has impacted our domestic violence cases,” Chief Lanier said. “People are already under economic pressures, and it has had an impact on violence. Those are the things we worry about.”

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