With homicides in Washington DC starting the year 2021 with a pace that has already exceeded last year’s total during the same timeframe, Councilmember Trayon White, Jr. (Ward 8-D) has called for a declaration of a state of emergency.
White represents Ward 8, where most of the homicides in our city happen. So, if anyone should be raising the call, it is Councilmember White.
But sadly his proposed remedies will hardly solve the problem. Getting illegal guns off the streets and placing more violence interrupters into communities is appealing, but the data shows that taking these two steps do not change very much.
At D.C. Witness, we have tracked every homicide and the data associated with each case for the last six years. We believe our role is not to develop or advocate for solutions but provide reliable data to empower the creation of more effective policies. And while we believe programs for violence interrupters and getting guns off the street should be supported and expanded, the data has some hard truths.
There is an unmistakable trend that shows young men involved in shootings have increasingly claimed self-defense, saying they need guns because it is so dangerous out there.
The demand for guns won’t go away until the desperation that young men feel to pick up those guns is addressed. Even if police were able to take every illegal gun off the street, it would just create a new market for replacements.
The situation is similar with violence interrupters. We hail the success of these returning citizens. They do amazing work, reducing violence in their communities and providing role models to help endangered youth step away before it is too late.
But date from the first rush to fund these great efforts showed that, while the number of homicides went down where violence interrupters were located, it simply moved to other areas. There was an overall increase in the number of homicides across the city. The interrupters program was, in effect, just pushing the violence elsewhere. When the programs were reduced, the homicides became concentrated in Ward 8 again.
We are not arguing that these programs don’t have merit, but they are not the panacea.
One question not being asked is the role of COVID-19 and the efforts to reduce the DC Jail population. We have tracked the releases from jail and our data shows that a little under half of the people arrested for possessing a gun were released back into the community. During the last five months of 2020, nearly 59 percent of the city’s gun-related homicides occurred, when COVID-related bail efforts were picking up.
We are in no way suggesting mass incarceration as the answer. Rather, we wonder whether this is a question the city should ask: what role did the rapid release of detainees play?
All of this is to say that declaring an emergency will only be effective if it creates the urgency to look beyond the obvious and at what is really happening in our neighborhoods and why. Our homicide rate did not grow overnight, and it won’t be solved by an emergency order either. And, despite claims otherwise, the city just needs more data to show a way out. More data could help with the councilmember’s comprehensive public safety strategic plan, showing how violent crime is directly related to other aspects of community health. If there was more data, we probably wouldn’t be mourning the lives of the 15 people who have been fatally shot this year.
D.C. Witness is a non-profit founded in 2015 to provide information on every homicide in the District. The organization tracks every homicide from act to a judicial resolution to inform residents and policymakers of the District of Columbia about the trail of murders that often go underreported. Learn more at dcwitness.org
Krystin Roehl contributed to the data used in this response.