In A Year Already Heavy With Death, Homicides In D.C. Hit A 15-Year High In 2020 Homicides had been on a relatively steady 25-year-decline until 2015, when a spike ushered in a new era of see-sawing — though slowly increasing — body counts on D.C. streets.
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NPR logo In A Year Already Heavy With Death, Homicides In D.C. Hit A 15-Year High In 2020

In A Year Already Heavy With Death, Homicides In D.C. Hit A 15-Year High In 2020

Loved ones and supporters light candles at the vigil for Christopher Brown. Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist

Larry Calhoun distinctly remembers August 9. What should otherwise have been just another weekend night was interrupted by word of a mass shooting at a block party in Southeast D.C.

"Man, once I started hearing the massive radio traffic with EMS and Fire, I said, 'This is something really serious,'" says Calhoun, 37, a retail manager who moonlights as an independent crime reporter, listening to police and fire department scanners and tweeting out breaking news from @RealTimeNews10. While he has been following homicides throughout the year, "that was a really unbelievable scene."

The shooting left 20 people wounded — including an off-duty D.C. police officer — and one dead, 17-year-old Christopher "Poppy" Brown. It was the city's worst mass shooting in recent history, an ignominious event in a difficult year that has seen 198 homicides, a 19% increase over 2019 — and the highest body count in D.C. in 15 years.

The pain of that milestone is only compounded by the reality that 2020 was a year already heavy with death; more than 780 D.C. residents died from the COVID-19 pandemic. And much like those, the victims of D.C.'s homicides were overwhelmingly Black men. A majority of the homicides occurred east of the Anacostia River. More than half of the victims were in their 20s and 30s. In more than 80% of cases, they were shot.

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And while they amounted to a minority of cases, children were also victims: 15-month-old Carmelo Duncan, shot while in a car with his father; Davon McNeal, 11, gunned down in front of his aunt's house after a summer cookout; Malachi Lukes, 13, killed as he walked to play basketball in March; Jaime Zelaya, 16, and Wilfredo Torres, 17, murdered in a double shooting in an apartment.

The victims left behind devastated families and friends searching for answers. In Brown's case, it wasn't only his mother and siblings, but also a one-year-old son — and another child that wasn't yet born.

"It's very difficult. I'm trying to hold my mind together," says Artecka Brown, Christopher's mother. "My 10-year-old Robert Brown... he took it so hard. And to see my son fall almost to the ground at the funeral and, you know, just thinking about him, [it] kind of ripped me."

'Crisis on top of a crisis'

Homicides had been on a relatively steady 25-year-decline until 2015, when a spike ushered in a new era of see-sawing — though slowly increasing — body counts on D.C. streets.

Residents, activists, lawmakers, and police have all laid out their own theories as to why killings are going up: an easy availability of guns, longstanding neighborhood beefs that boil over, a lack of opportunity and growing displacement as D.C. has gotten wealthier, and police pulling back because of protests and politicians.

Many of those same conditions existed throughout 2020, but were also severely exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic that swept across the country and disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities, both through infections and deaths as well as lost jobs and worsening economic insecurity.

"The concentrated poverty is more prominent now than ever before," says Lashonia Thompson-El, who co-leads the Cure the Streets violence interruption program in D.C. "People are literally hungry. People are challenged with mental health issues because everybody's stuck in the house. We've already had mental health issues and complex trauma for decades in these communities, and now it's just been made worse by COVID. We've been hit with a crisis on top of a crisis."

And the crisis isn't only in D.C.: according to a late-November report by the Council on Criminal Justice, homicides, aggravated assaults, and gun assaults in 28 U.S. cities jumped 42% during the summer and 34% in the fall compared to the same periods the year before. (The increases have been seen in Democratic and Republican cities alike.) Last week, data compiled by the FBI showed a 37% jump in murders nationwide. At the same time, overall crime is down in many cities, including in D.C., where all types of crime declined 18% from 2019. (The decrease is more pronounced in property crimes.)

"There's no doubt that COVID has contributed to it," says D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine of the spike in homicides. "Tensions are flaring, frankly."

On top of those flaring tensions, some community leaders say their usual means to defuse conflict and address despair have been hampered by the pandemic. When combined with the availability of guns, it has resulted in disagreements quickly turning into homicides.

"You're unable to be out in the streets effectively to work with people and get in front of the curve. We have been significantly reduced," says Tyrone Parker, founder of the Alliance of Concerned Men, a group founded in 1991 to prevent violence through outreach programs. "We're fighting with our hands tied. It's difficult to be able to retain peace or get them to see another perspective at a social distance."

Thompson-El adds that her team of violence interrupters have also been hit by the pandemic. She says several staff members have lost family members to COVID-19, particularly grandmothers. Many are dealing with the challenges of helping their children navigate remote learning. Others are dealing with the burden of supporting family members through the economic crisis. And to them, the violence is personal. Thompson-El says Duncan's killing of hit Cure the Streets staff particularly hard.

"A lot of them have toddlers...and they live in these communities," Thompson-El says. "And so they've been deeply touched by these things."

In October, the killings hit particularly close to home: 21-year-old Lorraine Marie Thomas, who had worked with the Alliance of Concerned Men and Cure the Streets to negotiate a successful ceasefire in Washington Highlands, was found shot in a car. In December, the script flipped: Cotey Wynn, a longtime violence interrupter in Trinidad, was arrested and charged with a 2017 murder.

An attendee of the family's vigil holds up a photo of Carmelo Duncan. Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Tyrone Turner/WAMU/DCist

A debate over solutions

After the August shooting that killed Brown, Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference that communities across D.C. are "fed up with senseless violence and desperate for solutions." But disagreement remains over what those solutions are, though, especially in a year when issues of police violence and racial justice came to the forefront in D.C. and across the nation.

Earlier in the summer, activists called on money to be redirected away from the Metropolitan Police Department to other services they said could address root causes of violence. ("We keep us safe" was a slogan adopted by some groups.) Bowser and outgoing Police Chief Peter Newsham fought the push to defund the department; the council ultimately made a small cut to MPD's budget. It also restored some funding for violence interruption efforts taking place in various neighborhoods.

One of those efforts, Cure the Streets, is run out of Racine's office, and he says that more funding should be directed towards intervening in conflicts before they become violent. Gun violence, he adds, should be treated as a public health crisis.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this. We have to have strong policing, there's no doubt about that. But we've got to really have really good, precise government and government partnerships with not-for-profit organizations that hit all of those variables: education, health, economic opportunity, housing, poverty, and trauma," he says.

Jawanna Hardy, the co-founder of Guns Down Friday, says D.C. needs to do a better job of not just providing resources for programs and services, but making them flexible so activists and organizations can respond quickly when problems emerge on the street.

"The city needs a creative way to provide resources because the resources are there," she says. "Sometimes the issue is getting to the resource, you know, getting to therapy. Sometimes a challenge for people is getting up out [of] bed. So, you know, if we can bring those resources to the community on a consistent basis, I feel like it would be a big change."

Speaking in mid-December about the spike in violence and how best to approach it, Robert Contee, Bowser's pick to replace Newsham, said he was open to traditional policing as well as a public health approach to fighting crime.

"I do not believe it's an either-or concept. You have to have both. There are some people that are violent in our communities and need to go to jail, period. I also think there are some people in our communities, like my father, who are sick and have issues that are not violent in nature and need treatment to resolve those issues, not incarceration," he said. "This is a big city that's resource-rich and I think there's enough space to accomplish both of those things."

The D.C. Police Union, though, has actively fought police-reform measures in the council and attempts to shift funding away from the department. In recent weeks, it has placed the blame for the high homicide tally on a police-reform package the council passed in June, even though homicides were already outpacing the 2019 rate before the measure was passed. The union did not respond to a request for comment.

Bowser and Newsham long placed emphasis on taking guns off of the streets, and Brown agrees that's a critical element to ensuring that fewer people die when conflicts emerge in D.C. neighborhoods. But she says it's as much on local families and communities to drive home the point that guns are unacceptable as it is the police department's job to aggressively search them out.

"Our neighbors, our community, they need to start to say, 'Hey, this is not right. It's not in my household, you know?'" she says. "And to me, that's where I see that there could be a big help if our community will come together more on the guns that [are] inside the home."

'It will take time'

On top of the many challenges that already exist in addressing violence and preventing homicides, activists say that time can often work against them: community-based tools like violence interruption often take longer than many residents and lawmakers may have patience for, especially when killings spike.

But Thompson-El says they work — and are worth waiting for. "I know that people are not very patient with gun violence, because this is horrible and the impact is so devastating. But... it will take time," she says.

And she says that while the work community groups are doing might not be immediately reflected in the number of homicides that are taking place, they can have long-lasting impacts that might take longer to notice.

"Are we changing community norms? Do we have people coming out and publicly saying that we denounce gun violence, that gun violence is not normal in communities, in neighborhoods where it has always been normal to be violent, in households where it's always been normal to be violent? We're trying to change those norms. And for me, that's a part of the success as well: seeing people who were once a part of the problem stand up and say, 'Listen, I transformed my life and I know that it's not worth it to harm people,' " she says.

Tyrone Parker, the co-founder of the Alliance of Concerned Men, says he knows that 2020 has been a particularly difficult year. But he's been through more deadly years in his decades of doing outreach in D.C. neighborhoods, and knows that hope remains.

"We can turn this around. I have seen this turned around before. Same house, different rules," he says. "Compassion, concern, and giving people hope is a universal language."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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