Loved ones and supporters light candles at the vigil for Christopher Brown in 2020.
Homicides in D.C. hit a 15-year high last year, and 2021 has brought more death. Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White recently called for the District to declare a state of emergency after three teenagers were fatally shot in the span of two weeks.
"What is going on right now with the gun violence is traumatizing every single resident of the District of Columbia," says Linda Harllee Harper, the city's new Director of Gun Violence Prevention. "Whether you have been an actual victim of a crime or reading the stories and hearing about the stories every day, it traumatizes all of us and impacts all of us."
Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Harllee Harper to her cabinet in January after violence prevention advocates, including the D.C. chapter of Moms Demand Action, pushed the D.C. Council to create the job.
Harllee Harper has worked in and around D.C.'s criminal justice system and juvenile justice system for decades, most recently as the Senior Deputy Director of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, the city's juvenile justice agency. She also serves on the District Task Force for Jails and Justice, an independent advisory body that has been putting together suggested reforms to the D.C. Jail and the city's criminal legal system.
And though she has worked in nonprofits during her career, Harllee Harper says she realized she prefers to work within government.
"I was born and raised here," says Harllee Harper, who lives in Takoma, D.C. with her husband and son. "My mother lives here...I am deeply committed to the residents of the District of Columbia. And I love to be a public servant and to help the residents of the District."
Courtesy of Linda Harllee Harper/
Linda Harllee Harper, D.C.'s new director of gun violence prevention, co-hosts a radio show on WPFW with Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Director Clinton Lacey.
Courtesy of Linda Harllee Harper/
Harllee Harper's job "spans the entire government," meaning she will work with various agencies and law enforcement. She's also inviting the public to send her ideas, and says her office is working to structure more formal opportunities to hear from residents. This fits her approach to violence prevention, which is to not focus exclusively on arrests, or on incarceration, but instead to get people the resources they need to make different choices.
"I've always been a part of working with young people and transforming their lives from the very beginning and working with them to become productive citizens and working with them to be good decision makers," Harllee Harper says.
Harllee Harper spoke with DCist about her plans, how she will define success, and how she will work with existing violence interruption programs and police. The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
It seems like the city is a bit of a crossroads as to how it's going to approach the problems of guns and gun violence. How are you going to navigate the tension between people who say that cracking down on gun possession is an immediate answer here and people who say that those carceral solutions are not going to fix the problem and might make it worse?
Strategic law enforcement has to be a part of the approach. As much as we know that persons who find themselves in this system have also been victimized, we also know that just because you've been hurt doesn't make it OK to hurt other people. I also think that the flow of guns into our city is where we really need to look. But I'm excited about offering services and supports and opportunities to some of the most high risk individuals in our communities and offering an opportunity for different decisions to be made. We're going to work with the communities in order to provide that, and so I'm very optimistic about that approach because that's really exactly what I believe in.
How many staff will you have and what kind of budget are you going to have over the next year to meet your goals?
It's still being determined at this time, however, the mayor has authorized for the best and brightest of the D.C. government to be able to be assigned to this effort. We're going to have folks who are assigned to the emergency operations center and we're going to work together to flatten the curve of gun violence.
What kind of relationship do you want to have with the police department in this role? What role do you think police have to play in combating gun violence, and do you think that the police department needs to make any adjustments to be successful?
Well, first, let me say that I'm very encouraged by Chief Contee's appointment. I have a wonderful working relationship with him, as I've been in the work for many years. And I know that we both agree that we can't arrest our way out of this issue. We can't incarcerate our way out of this issue. And so Chief Contee is in full support of this effort. He's a partner in this effort and he is encouraged that we're going to be offering services and supports and opportunities before calling on the police. I do think that police across the country have a responsibility and a tough job right now to gain back the confidence from the communities of fair and equitable treatment. I think that that is going to be Chief Contee's job, and I believe that he's the right person to do that.
I wonder if there are any times where you think it will be useful to make clear the separation between what you're doing and what the police are doing in order to build community trust in your work?
Absolutely. MPD is a partner and they are not a major player in it. There is a firewall between the two. We have a law enforcement liaison who's going to be working with us. There's information that we don't share with law enforcement and there's legal reasons why. And there's also information that they don't always share with us, with pending investigations. But I believe that we'll be able to find the common ground to help to curb the flow of gun violence in our city.
Gun violence is a really complicated issue, but it's extremely clear in some ways when you really zoom out. If the city adequately invested in Black neighborhoods, if people had the resources and opportunities they needed, this wouldn't be an issue. Because in communities that do have those things, gun violence is not as large of an issue. That takes investments in human services, mental health services, jobs, education. Will you have a seat at the table when it comes to this budget season in terms of making recommendations on investments in various departments that aren't necessarily yours but are completely connected to your work?
Yes, I think that that is part of why the position that I have been placed in is in the Office of the City Administrator, which spans the entire government. I will say that all of the directors we have been meeting about this effort and about money are very, very committed to helping this cause. Everybody knows that this is important. Everybody cares about it. It impacts each and every agency in some way or another, and each and every agency plays a role. And so I definitely believe that in this upcoming budget season, there will be conversations that include gun violence prevention.
Both the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement and Cure the Streets in the Office of the Attorney General have teams of violence interrupters, who work to build relationships with people who are involved in gun violence or who are at risk of becoming involved in violence. Do you think that organization with two different offices leading violence interruption work in various neighborhoods across the city is working? Are there changes that you would like to make about how those teams are organized?
There's also the [Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services], who has Credible Messengers. So there's three groups that are providing similar groundwork foundation services, meeting communities, meeting persons where they are actually in their home communities. I think the biggest challenge that they all face is the fact that when they identify a need with a particular family or person, that sometimes it's difficult to navigate the District government. And so it's our intention to make that as easy as possible and as streamlined as possible in that effort. Whether or not it needs to be under one umbrella? I don't know the answer to that, but what I will say is having a more coordinated effort is what I would like to see happen.
I also wanted to ask about the violence interrupters and community outreach workers who are on the ground, who come from these communities and who are deeply affected by the trauma of gun violence. What can you do in your capacity to support the people who are doing that work and provide them with opportunities and resources they need for self-care and also professional development?
It is very tough work, and I think that one of the benefits of us really pooling and collaborating with different entities who have the ground folks working is that we're able to share what we know that works across the board. And so, for example, at DYRS, the Credible Messengers have weekly support groups that are offered to them just to allow them to share and express what they're going through and to be able to have an outlet that is a safe space to allow them to share information or something that they witnessed or what they're going through. The job is very emotional, and I think we're very fortunate to have such wonderful, committed persons who do this work. But at the same time, we also have a responsibility to make sure that they are well and healthy in order to do the work. I used the support group as an example—I think that to be able to share that across the board, to expand that is something that we can do.
There's a lot to do and you just started this job. So what are you prioritizing first?
One of the first things that we've done is to develop a theory of change around the effort and how are we going to implement a solution? And so what we have decided is to have focus people and focus places and an infrastructure that creates seamless service delivery to those persons and places. I'm oversimplifying it for sure, and we're still adding the details. However, that is definitely going to be the approach.
Can you just say more to describe what you mean by the delivery of services? What would that look like in practice?
Making sure that there is streamlined access for the persons who are in need of those services. An easy example would be substance abuse treatment or job readiness training or employment. Or in the neighborhoods, perhaps there's a need for removal of abandoned cars. Those are the kinds of things that we are absolutely looking at, how to streamline and make sure that every agency of the government is completely on board with this effort, with one coordinated approach.
Would I be correct in saying that this could solve a problem like: People want mental health resources, need mental health resources, but it can be difficult to navigate how to get that appointment, how to set it up?
Absolutely, and this is where the credible contacts come in to, for example, help you make an appointment, but also help to transport you to the appointment and support you with the registration at the first appointment. That's just an example of what I'm referring to, but I think there's multiple reasons why people do not access services. And so we want to just remove as many barriers as we can.
What would success look like to you one year from now?
I think for the short term success I would like to see increased trust building and warm handoff to services that I just described. And for long term success, I would like to see, I think, as everyone would, all residents of the District, a demonstrable, sustained reduction in violence, particularly in areas that have been plagued historically, but across the city for sure.
How do you personally manage the high stakes of this work every day?
I certainly have lost young people that I have worked with closely, that I had deep relationships with: professional relationships, but also compassion and empathy and, you know, emotional investment in those individuals. Some of them were on the right path and doing the right thing and interested in turning their lives around, and some of them were not quite ready to change yet, but they all deserve to be here. I believe that everybody deserves to have the same opportunities provided to them. And we know that that's not the way that it happens, right? We know that generations and decades of structural racism have impacted all of our communities, but particularly communities of people of color.
I think that the way that I keep hope alive is because I definitely have seen the success stories. I've seen how having opportunities available can create hope in others. I know that, even though I do have stories that I witness that have very sad and tragic endings, I also witness persons who change their lives around. I witness returning citizens coming back to the District and totally contributing to their communities in a positive way. And I think that that's how I keep hope, because I know that people can change and I believe that they can. And I think that when given the fair shot and the equal opportunity, that we can see persons turn their lives around and not continue to label people for an entire lifetime for wrong decisions that they made along the way.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.