Nation's Capital Cites Crime Emergency

A surge in violent crime has hit the nation's capital at the height of the tourist season. The overall murder rate is no worse than last year. But as Lisa Nurnberger of member station WAMU reports, a rash of robberies and assaults, plus 14 killings in July, prompt police to declare a crime emergency.

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The police in Washington, D.C. have declared a crime emergency. It's the height of the tourist season and over the last two weeks crime is up in places where tourists often visit. From member station WAMU, Lisa Nurnberger reports that there's been an increase in robberies and assaults in Washington, D.C. along with 14 murders since July first.

LISA NURNBERGER reporting:

Washington, D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey says what's different about this crime surge is that the perpetrators are operating outside of their own neighborhoods. They're in areas traditionally considered safe, like Georgetown and the National Mall. Early this week in Georgetown assailants stabbed and killed a young political activist from England as he escorted a woman home. Later, two women from Texas were robbed at gunpoint at 10:00 p.m. near the Washington Monument. One of them was sexually assaulted. Shortly afterward the thieves robbed a family of four from Missouri. Ramsey says those crimes reflect a new pattern.

Police Chief CHARLES RAMSEY (Chief of Police, Washington, D.C.): I've been in policing for more than 35 years and, you know, people committed crimes, believe it or not, within a mile radius of where they lived. And now we're starting to see people that are actually going in neighborhoods that they don't live in and commit crimes.

NURNBERGER: Ramsey attributes the change to the economic boom in D.C. and criminals figuring out that there's a lot of money to be had outside of their own territory. He says some of it is also because, as police increase their presence in high-crime spots, the criminals move elsewhere.

The spike in crime in places like the Mall has Washington tourism officials worried. Bill Hanbury is the president of the Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation.

Mr. BILL HANBURY (President, Washington, D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation): You don't want these kinds of events, and you clearly don't want these kinds of events compressed into a short amount of time.

NURNBERGER: He says some of the increase might be due to economic disparities.

Mr. HANBURY: We are in an extraordinarily dynamic economy right now, and there's just no question that some of the city is not reaping the bounty of this dynamo that is the economy, right now. And the divide between those two things are, I think, create crime.

NURNBERGER: From the looks of the grounds of the Washington Monument, the tourists are not too worried, at least for now. Late this week, in the very place where tourists were robbed at gunpoint, Paul Aura(ph) from Denmark was taking in the sights.

Mr. PAUL AURA (Tourist, Denmark): It's a bad thing that the crime is increasing, of course, when you hear that, but it has not affected our plans in D.C. and we think still it's safe to walk around in the city. Things happen everywhere and maybe it's just coincidence that you see so many crimes right now.

NURNBERGER: But some tourists, like Rhonda(ph) Cress(ph) from Dallas, Texas, say the crime emergency has given them second thoughts.

Ms. RHONDA CRESS (Tourist, Dallas, Texas): One of the things we wanted to do is see the monuments at night but we elected to see that via cab, instead of walking around them at night. I mean, I think that's just a little common sense right now.

NURNBERGER: Crime researchers point out that despite 14 murders in 12 days, the overall murder rate in Washington is holding steady compared to the same time last year, and is nowhere near the rate in the early 1990s. The crime emergency has led Police Chief Ramsey put more officers on the street, right away. Normally he has to give 14 days notice of a change in shifts.

Police Chief RAMSEY: We don't have 14 days in order to correct this. If I use 14 days then if you go at the pace we're going now, I'd have 14 more bodies on the street.

NURNBERGER: Ramsey says he'll reassess the crime emergency in a month. For NPR News, I'm Lisa Nurnberger in Washington.

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