Communities cannot flourish without feeling safe. People cannot thrive when violent crime is commonplace. Children cannot grow and develop without feeling secure.
Families in Wards 7 and 8 can attest to this reality. As a native Washingtonian and mother of two living East of the River, my personal experience bears it out as well.
I would have never imagined I would have to tell my two young sons that their 15-year-old half-brother had been gunned down and shot over 16 times. As a mother, nothing can take away memories of the screams and cries of pain from the children that night.
I am not alone in my experience. Crime is up significantly in both East of the River wards this year over last year. Citywide, crime is up 30% overall, violent crime is up 39%, homicides are up 26% and property crimes are up 28%. There is now a citywide public conversation about crime, how to prevent it and the role of police.
Police Are Only Part of the Solution
Our communities in Wards 7 and 8 have long faced these challenges and the complicated role that the police play. A badge and a gun has not always meant safety for the Black and Brown residents of our neighborhoods. At the same time, we want to be safe and have the chance to thrive, just as in other parts of DC. We need police, but we need policing that is responsive to community needs, does not criminalize Black and Brown life and respects our rights.
As important as they are, the police are just one response in what needs to be a constellation of efforts to turn back the tide of crime. To address the root causes of violence we need other resources.
To address the generational poverty at the heart of so many of our challenges, we need sustained investment in neighborhood economies and public schools. That means connecting more residents with stable, well-paying jobs and at the same time offering their children meaningful pathways into the same through a high-quality education.
Our schools present an opportunity to reach students with key resources, supporting their growth as individuals, members of the community and contributors to societal wellbeing. That requires financial investments in schools but also the wraparound services that enable children and their families to thrive.
To be sure, the pandemic has inflicted an enduring toll on the mental health of our residents. Substance-abuse disorder, loneliness, hopelessness, depression and desperation are all trending realities for our families, our friends and our neighbors.
Police cannot and should not be our primary way of dealing with incidents driven by these challenges on our streets or in our schools. They cannot be expected to be therapist, substance abuse counselor or crisis interventionist.
We need more evidence-based approaches that do not involve the police or do not primarily depend on the police. These can include community-based violence prevention programs that build community connection, such as the DC Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets effort, which I supported as a community engagement staffer, and Mayor Bowser’s violence interrupters. We should be using the data from these programs to improve them and to find methods that better address the causes of crime.
Our approach should also include expanding access to mental health services and establishing more robust crisis intervention programs. Substance abuse and challenges with unmet mental health needs are often linked with criminal behavior.
Research shows that effective substance-abuse treatment and more robust and accessible mental healthcare can reduce involvement with the criminal justice system. Responding to a person in crisis with a badge and a gun may actually worsen and not calm the crisis. Because of our community’s complicated history with the police, we should explore how to connect people with mental-health care and expertise in real time, in their moment of acute need.
Crime is up and so are our shared anxieties. We won’t police our way out of the problem, but we can’t ignore the role of the police in helping us respond. We need thoughtful solutions that address the immediate challenges and the long-term causes at the same time.
If we do that, we’ll all feel stronger and safer in the neighborhoods where our children play and that we call home.
Veda Rasheed is a Ward 7 resident, a former ANC Commissioner of SMD 7E01, a mother and a Leaders of Color fellow. She can be contacted at email@example.com.