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Bullets Flying Everywhere and No Place to Hide in DC

THERE was Ward 4 DC Council member Janeese Lewis George, during last week’s public roundtable on gun violence and Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Building Blocks initiative, reiterating a statement made by former DC Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham. He said in 2019 that 5th and Kennedy streets NW was “the most dangerous intersection in MPD’s 4th District.”

If she hadn’t repeated that declaration multiple times during the roundtable, I probably would have pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t inside some miasmic political dream.

After all, in October 2019, Lewis George, a democratic socialist facing then-incumbent Brandon Todd, had asserted that “I will absolutely divest from MPD.” That posture was partly responsible for her win in the June 2020 primary.

Lewis George’s alternative reality seemed solely populated by violence interrupters, whose potency in DC was as unproven and unevaluated then as it is now. A former prosecutor, she also advocated during her council campaign for decriminalization of all drugs and sex work.

Look, I’m just a columnist. I can’t be held responsible for what goes on inside the minds of politicians. Maybe she was having a Rudy (Giuliani) moment, seemingly operating in a different universe where those extreme positions make sense.

Now, six months on the job and facing a rise in homicides throughout the city, including several neighborhoods in Ward 4, Lewis George is quoting as expert the department she sought to defund and the chief, who, toward the end of his tenure, became the police whipping boy for many in the legislature and among certain local advocates.

Admittedly, she and others have not fully redirected their affection away from violence interrupters like those associated with Cure the Streets in the Office of the Attorney General or with the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (ONSE). Nevertheless, this week, council members approved an additional $5 million in MPD’s budget during the final vote on the local portion of DC’s Fiscal Year 2022 Budget and Financial Plan of nearly $18 billion.

Legislators also approved an additional $6 million for excluded workers, many of them undocumented. That brought the total assistance for those individuals to $41 million in FY 2022.

Further, they unanimously approved an amendment introduced by Lewis George to reallocate $3.25 million within the DC Public Schools budget to ensure every facility has a full-time librarian. They also passed a proposal by at-large Council member Elissa Silverman to provide $5 million for workers who were disadvantaged by delays in processing their unemployment benefits; that could mean a one-time lump sum payment of $500 per worker.

And the council authorized $50 million that would be used by the mayor to provide relief to District homeowners affected by the pandemic. I wrote about this issue a couple of weeks ago, noting that middle-class residents and homeowners were being left out. The funds will come from the federal government as part of the American Rescue Plan Act.

The additional spending authority for MPD will translate into an increase — not a decrease — in the number of police officers authorized in the budget. After a cluster of homicides and shootings in neighborhoods that in recent years typically haven’t experienced serious violence, Bowser sent a supplemental budget request totaling $11 million.

To me, that seemed a strategic move. Her administration’s publicly announced ask, amid an outcry by many citizens for more police, focused the spotlight on the council. If it flatly rejected the mayor’s request, it could have been perceived as part of the problem. Unsurprisingly, legislators voted for a compromise, notwithstanding opposition to any MPD increase from groups on the far left.

“I really believe this is a ‘both-and’ style of approach that is complimentary,” said Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. He noted that the additional spending would result in a total of 255 new hires for MPD, when including the high school-age cadets already factored into the approved budget.

“Police are critical in the public safety ecosystem,” he continued — adding, however, that he refused to “write a blank check” to the department and believes that prevention programs are still the best long-term response to the violence.

Interestingly, Lewis George asserted that the mayor’s recent request was nothing more than a response to a “political crisis,” noting that Bowser’s original MPD budget mark had come to the council amid already rising gun violence. That’s the pot making a kettle argument. Multiple shootings in Ward 4 left Lewis George without the luxury of turning away from the compromise crafted by Allen and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

Bowser should mark the council’s action as a win — albeit a partial one.

Underscoring its violence prevention approach, the council chose to add slightly more than $6 million for Cure the Streets and ONSE. In the past, I have raised questions about the absence of data on the local initiatives; others, including the crime-focused nonprofit website D.C. Witness, also have challenged decisions to repeatedly increase funding for violence interruption programs without proof of their efficiency or efficacy.

While embracing the dual approach of police and violence interrupters, Ward 3’s Mary Cheh and Silverman made a call for evaluating the latter programs. “We ought to get a handle on whether these things are working,” added Cheh, offering a sentiment that could apply to much of the DC government.

The challenge of how to resolve community violence, particularly that associated with illegal guns, isn’t new to anyone who has been around DC for more than 10 minutes. It is an admixture of fragile families; limited employment or opportunities for significant economic advancement, creating a reliance among some on the illegal black market to satiate their desired financial growth; and unresolved generational trauma.

Seeking, perhaps, to contextualize the problem, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart noted during his testimony at last week’s roundtable that overall violent crime is down in DC; homicides are up. That is a difference without distinction for residents caught in the crossfire like those on Kennedy Street, or in the neighborhoods of Petworth, Anacostia, Congress Heights, Columbia Heights, Logan Circle and Shaw. All they know is that blood — including that of a 6-year-old Nyiah Courtney — has been flooding the streets of the nation’s capital.

As of July 25, there were a total of 361 incidents with gunshot wound victims — up from 297 at this time in 2019, but down from 376 in 2020 — according to Geldart. Between Jan. 1 and July 25 of this year, we’ve had 112 homicides — up from 108 at this time in 2020.

If DC’s issues with gun violence and homicide aren’t new, you can be certain that proposals by elected officials aren’t either. Each summer, for at least 30 years, officials have sought to tamp it down by attempting to buy off the troublemakers with summer jobs and other financial offerings. They have tried to rechannel criminal intent or machinations of former prisoners, by offering a panoply of benefits — grants, housing vouchers and jobs, including those as violence interrupters. Violence interrupters in some respects duplicate the work of Roving Leaders, who are attached to the Department of Parks and Recreation rather than ONSE.

In 2003, believing MPD wasn’t responding sufficiently, then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams proposed changing police zones to connect them more closely with neighborhoods. Further, in partnership with the Brookings Institution, his administration created a neighborhood action plan for revitalizing communities and families. The latter is similar to Bowser’s new Building Blocks initiative, which is designed to address the needs of 151 blocks in the city that the administration described as key to violence prevention. It sounds ambitious, except that thus far only 41 blocks are being served. Perhaps to resist any external evaluation, the mayor has declined to identify those blocks.

These various efforts give the impression of a comprehensive approach. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however.

In 2019, I wrote a series of articles about trauma in the city and how it has affected a wide variety of areas, including education and violence. DC Attorney General Karl Racine called for implementation of a Marshall Plan, which suggested he understood the need for a comprehensive, long-term strategy with sufficient funding to address the twin evils facing the city — individuals engaged in violent criminal activity to make a fast buck and using guns in hopes of ensuring their success; and individuals engaged in violence to proactively protect themselves against the potential of being retraumatized.

That kind of complex challenge requires a bold, rigorous and sustained response — something much more than the same decades-old prescription being provided by elected officials and senior government managers. It definitely demands more than handing out public money, as the mayor and the council have, to favored agencies, nonprofit organizations, political allies or well-oiled advocacy groups.

That’s all mostly politics. It may get someone reelected but it will do very little to create safer communities or save lives.

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