- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 1, 2009

Homicides in the District hit a three-year high last year, but Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier says there’s less to that number than meets the eye.

That’s because an unusually high number of the deaths are attributable to crimes that occurred before the year began.

“The actual 2008 homicides are 10 less than what’s carried on the current count, which puts us exactly where we were last year,” Chief Lanier told The Washington Times on Wednesday while assessing crime control in the District in 2008.

“Obviously, we want the number to keep going down, whether we’re carrying the current year or the previous year,” Chief Lanier said.

With fewer than 24 hours left in the year, the District’s homicides stood at 186, marking the city’s highest total since 196 in 2005.

D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, said regardless of the statistical issue, crime is still too high. Placing prior-year homicides into the current year’s total is a “phenomenon that’s true year after year,” he said.

Chief Lanier said that because the city publishes its homicide statistics in line with the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program, the numbers reflect all homicide-related deaths that occur in a given year, even if the crime that caused the death happened in a previous year.

For example, authorities in January discovered the bodies of Banita Jacks’ four daughters in a Southeast row house. Officials think Miss Jacks, who is accused in the deaths, was living with the bodies for months and committed the crimes in 2007.

Because the bodies were found last year, they were reflected in the city’s 2008 homicide total. Chief Lanier said the District’s 186 homicides included six other deaths stemming from incidents in prior years - including one victim who died from an injury inflicted in 1974 and another from a gunshot wound sustained in 1993.

Mr. Mendelson said a better way to view the city’s crime-fighting progress is to look at its total picture.

For example, Chief Lanier said violent crime overall in the District is down 5 percent, assaults with guns are down 14 percent and armed robberies with guns are down 12 percent.

“Homicides are going up, and there’s no two ways about it,” said Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat. “But if you look at homicides and [assaults with deadly weapons] there’s not much difference than last year [or it’s] slightly better. Regardless, it’s too much.”

In 2007, the chief said, four prior-year cases were included in the city’s 181 homicides. In 2006, when the District hit 169 homicides for its lowest total in at least 20 years, one death from a previous year’s attack was included.

The FBI reporting method can affect other police statistics as well.

Chief Lanier said the department Wednesday had a strong 75.2 percent homicide closure rate, but acknowledged that some of the cases officers closed in 2008 were carry-overs from previous years.

Along with the Jacks case, the District had its share of other tragic homicides last year. In July, Alonzo Robinson - a 13-year-old from Alabama visiting his ailing great-grandmother - was killed in a drive-by shooting in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast.

Michael and Virginia Spevak, a psychiatrist and a former teacher, were found dead in their Chevy Chase-area home in Northwest in November after what police said was a targeted robbery.

Carlese Hall was charged with first-degree murder after her Congress Heights home was burned and her daughter found stabbed last week.

Chief Lanier lamented the number of juveniles who died at the hands of their caregivers and said domestic violence is one crime area that could be affected by the national economic recession.

While the District’s status as the seat of the federal government can blunt the blow of tough economic times, the city still faced budget shortfalls and an unemployment rate that reached 8 percent in November.

“I do not believe the economy drives overall crime as much as some others do,” Chief Lanier said. “There are many factors that impact crime; the economy is just one of them.”

She called the situation in Trinidad - where 10 homicides occurred in 2008 and where officials ordered the establishment of police checkpoints and a network of surveillance cameras - the most troubling development last year.

“The Trinidad situation was the most disturbing … because of the nature of a total disregard for human life and that spike of crimes that we had over there,” Chief Lanier said.

Still, the chief said, the department’s community policing efforts are paying off and are reflected through the homicide closure rate.

Chief Lanier said she plans to work with the D.C. Council this year on a crime bill that “will include a lot of different things that we think will help improve our approach.”

She also stressed the importance of improving homicide prevention by focusing on suspects in the judicial system with prior arrest records.

More than 90 percent of those charged with murder in 2008 had been arrested before, she said.

“We’ve really got to take a close look at how we manage [cases] throughout the whole justice system,” Chief Lanier said.

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