D.C. saw 227 homicides in 2021, as murders increased for the fourth year in a row Domestic violence accounts for part of the surge, though Black men still make up the vast majority of homicide victims in the city.
From NPR station

WAMU 88.5

D.C. saw 227 homicides in 2021, as murders increased for the fourth year in a row

A mural of peace advocate Lorraine "Chyna" Thomas in Washington Highlands. Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist hide caption

toggle caption
Dee Dwyer/WAMU/DCist

Brittany Graham describes Lorraine Thomas, the 21-year-old Washington Highlands resident now memorialized on a mural outside Chesapeake Big Market, as her "guardian angel."

"She really made me start my organization, because I took her death really hard," says Graham, founder of Queens Against Gun Violence, a group meant to bring attention to violence against women and children. Graham is also an outreach worker with the Office of the Attorney General's Cure the Streets program, which works to prevent gun violence in Washington Highlands and other neighborhoods across the District.

Thomas was fatally shot last October. She had been key to a truce that helped the neighborhood go months without gun violence, only to become a victim of it herself when the shooting started again. Thomas wasn't a violence interrupter, but she regularly volunteered with Cure the Streets and Graham says the two of them worked regularly together to promote peace.

This year, Thomas's influence was alive and well in this small section of Washington Highlands, which violence interrupters said had experienced a lull in violence this fall even as it was near unrelenting in nearby neighborhoods.

Article continues below

The District saw an increase in homicides this year for the fourth year in a row. There have been 227 killings in D.C. in 2021, the most of any year since 2003. The spike in homicides is not unique to D.C. — the District's suburbs have seensignificant increases, and so have cities and towns across the country. The increase in killings was not accompanied by an overall increase in crime, which fell significantly during 2020 and ticked up by about 3% in 2021, according to Metropolitan Police Department data.

But communities felt the loss of each victim this year, and the city's Black neighborhoods were most affected. This year's homicide victims included 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney, remembered by her family as "a shining star with a fierce attitude;" Donnetta Dyson, a 31-year-old mother and health care worker who was taking steps to buy her first home; Garry Stanley Sr., a 44-year-old firefighter known among his colleagues for his "compassion, great laugh, and contagious smile;" and 224 other people whose families were left to grieve.

Local public officials have not pinpointed a single cause of the rise in murders. Police, residents, advocates, and lawmakers have suggested several potential causes — including access to guns and the pandemic's effects on exacerbating generational poverty and deprivation of resources in the most affected communities. The D.C. Police Union has also pointed to "misguided" police reform legislation and understaffing for the problem — though the increase in homicides has affected municipalities across the country that did not pass police reform bills like the District.

"A lot of the violence starts with people not having the essential needs and stuff at home, a lot of poverty — and also with COVID, a lot of people cannot afford the things that they were having before COVID started. A lot of people lost their jobs," said Graham.

The pandemic also coincided with a rise in domestic violence, which drives homicides both locally and nationally: In 2018, a Washington Post investigation found that nearly half of the women who were killed over the previous decade were murdered by a current or former intimate partner.

While Black men still represent the vast majority of homicide victims in the District, women have been killed at higher rates than in previous years: According to D.C. Witness, which tracks homicides in the District, 33 women in D.C. were killed in 2021, and 34 were killed in 2020 — nearly double the average of the previous five years.

Local service providers who work with survivors of domestic violence say they are being bombarded with calls and left without the resources to truly tackle the problem. And it's a problem they say has deadly consequences: While the District's Domestic Fatality Review Board has not completed its analysis of this year's numbers, it has so far determined that there had been at least 15 domestic violence-related homicides as of the end of November this year. The group found a 38% increase in domestic violence-related homicides in 2020, and service providers say their domestic violence call volume has remained just as high this year.

"This should be at the forefront of the conversation," says Natalia Otero, the Executive Director of DC SAFE, which directly supports and advocates for survivors of domestic violence. "We've gone from pre-pandemic seeing about 6,000 survivors to seeing over 10,000 every year now during the pandemic. It's dire, and we need to start paying attention or it's going to get worse and we're going to lose more people."

Otero points to cases like the recent murder of 71-year-old Sylvia Matthews. According to reporting from WUSA9, the man charged with her killing had stalked her for decades, and Matthews had called police about him four times in the two months leading up to her death.

A relative who declined to be named told NBC4 that the family was "devastated ... it's like the system failed us."

Otero says she's also concerned that if programs like hers don't get more funding from the city, they will reach their capacity. Before the pandemic, DC SAFE typically provided each survivor with up to three advocates who could help them navigate the criminal justice system and secure permanent housing from start to finish.

Now, because of the increase in calls they are getting and clients they are serving, Otero says, "it's typically just shelter, a civil protection order and as much additional support as we can give because we don't have the staff."

In response to the rise in homicides — and thanks to an influx in federal funds — the city has funneled more resources to other types of violence interruption efforts. Cure the Streets recently announced it would expand. So will separate violence prevention initiatives through the Mayor's office.

"We're obviously very concerned about the increased number of people who lost their lives senselessly," D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a press conference in November. "We're literally throwing every resource we have available at it."

There have been some criticisms of the programs. For example, the editors of D.C. Witness, which tracks all D.C. homicides as they make their way through the court system, said in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year that non-police violence prevention programs "seem more driven by politics and messaging than efficacy."

Others have argued that the issue is not the programs themselves, but rather the lack of coordination between the city's several violence prevention initiatives.

"Despite the existence of so many programs and services, it appears as if those in greatest need and of highest risk are not being served," said a landscape analysis report of services and supports in D.C. published by the Public Welfare Foundation and the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform published earlier this year. "It may have been said best during a forum hosted by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council in March 2020, when a youth organizer commented: 'DC is resource rich and coordination poor.'"

But in Washington Highlands, violence interrupters and outreach workers with Cure the Streets say they're seeing in real time how their work is changing community norms, building trust with residents, and preventing shootings.

According to the D.C. Attorney General's website, Cure the Streets employees are actively engaged with 23 people who are either involved in violence or at risk of becoming involved in violence in a several-block areaof Washington Highlands.

Jovan Davis, the program manager for the location, says his team has built trust with neighbors over the years — trust that has allowed them to bring long stretches of peace.

"We know it might not be a day, it might not be a week or a month — it might be a year before we get to some individuals, but once we start staying consistent and being seen by these individuals ... they eventually come work with us or come and talk to us," Davis says.

Davis says his team has been successful in building trust by meeting people's needs. In some cases, it might be as simple as providing program participants with groceries every week. Cure the Streets outreach workers also help families apply for rental assistance or pay for utilities. Another major barrier for many of the people that Cure the Streets works with is getting vital records. Some young people in the neighborhood don't have proof of address, and need help navigating the government bureaucracy in order to get basic identification — a prerequisite for formal employment.

"We all want change," Davis says. But, he adds, he's learned over his time doing violence prevention work that "you can't tell people how to change. You have to listen, find out what the need is, and then try to meet their needs in order for them to change."

It also helps, Davis and Graham say, that the Cure the Streets team is composed of people who grew up in the neighborhood and are already familiar with residents.

"Let me say this: when they're not on the street and I'm not open, that's when the killing begins," says Shaun Bradley, who owns the neighborhood's hair salon, The Hair Therapy Lounge and Spa, and often collaborates with violence interrupters on neighborhood events. "When they're on the street and I'm open, there's no killing. There's no shooting."

"I would love to see the city give them a helping hand," Bradley added, "because they need it, and they can't do it alone."

Lashonia Thompson-El, violence reduction co-chief at the Office of the Attorney General, says it's true that Cure the Streets alone can't be expected to solve the root causes that lead to gun violence in neighborhoods like Washington Highlands.

"This is just like the triage process," she says. "This is like the firefighters who are putting out the fire to try to bring these situations to a truce, to try to bring about immediate peace ... but we understand that there needs to be some healing and some long-term supports in place."

On December 23, after a stretch of peace, a shooting in the Cure the Streets target area in Washington Highlands killed two people and injured a third. Police identified the two people who died as 37-year-old Marcus Thomas and 28-year-old Russell Williams.

Violence interrupters for the neighborhood were not available for interviews in the immediate aftermath of the shooting. A senior member of the D.C. Attorney General's violence interruption team said that after shootings happen, violence interrupters and outreach workers mobilize quickly to respond. They reach out to family members and friends of the victims to try to prevent retaliation. They support families in organizing vigils and arranging for burial costs. And they canvas the neighborhood to make a statement, and convey that homicides are unacceptable.

When Graham spoke to DCist/WAMU in mid-December, she stood right next to Lorraine Thomas's mural, on the same block where she was gunned down last October. Violence interrupters and volunteers handed out hot chocolate and goodie bags with gloves to neighborhood kids. Graham said when Lorraine Thomas was alive, she was always by her side while she was working at events like this.

"If we have a community event, she'll be out here volunteering with me," she said.

Graham said it can be difficult doing this work in the same areas where she has suffered trauma — but she calls her violence prevention work a blessing, and "a way to say, 'I survived this.'"

"We live in trauma, you know, just growing up, seeing these killings and dealing with the deaths of our friends and family members and still coming to work," said Graham. "I think this is not only a man's work, it's a woman's work too.

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

Questions or comments about the story?

WAMU 88.5 values your feedback.

From NPR station

WAMU 88.5