December 5, 2018
For several years, it seemed that the murder rate in Washington, D.C. was decreasing, or was at least being managed. There were spikes here and there, but overall violent crime and the murder rate, in particular, had decreased. This was, in large part, thanks to one woman: Cathy Lanier, the police chief of Washington, D.C., who served from 2007 to 2016.
Where is Cathy Lanier when you need her? The murder rate in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area has spiked by 46% from 2017 to 2018. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the national murder rate for 2018 is projected to decrease by as much as 7.6%, thanks in large part to declines in San Francisco, Chicago, and Baltimore as of early November 2018. Conversely, in Washington, D.C., there were 88 murders in the first seven months of 2018 alone. What accounts for this rapid spike in the murder rate, and how can Washington, D.C. leadership get ahead of this troubling trend?
In 2007, Lanier was unanimously confirmed as the chief of police by the Council of the District of Columbia, becoming the first woman to hold that rank in the department’s history. A single mother with a ready smile and a “can do” attitude, Lanier served during one of the more stable times in the District’s policing history. During her time as chief of police, Lanier stressed the importance of community outreach and fostering a trusting and functional relationship between the community and those charged with keeping the community safe.
During her outgoing interview, Lanier told the Washington Post that policing needed “to be much more service-oriented and much more collaborative than it is now.” She was not afraid of criticism from her own ranks and showed a willingness to work with the community, tactics not frequently seen in major metropolitan police precincts. According to the Washington Post, Lanier disbanded vice units made up of plain clothes officers who targeted drug corners in low-income neighborhoods. The move was criticized inside the department, but Lanier pointed out that most drug-related activity was happening online, lessening the need for such squads.
Lanier served as chief of police for 10 years before leaving in 2016 to take a job with the NFL. She was replaced by Chief Peter Newsham, a long-time veteran of the department. After Lanier’s departure, the murder rate dipped in 2017, before rapidly spiking in 2018, and according to some, tensions between the Washington, D.C. community and the police department have risen.
Earlier this year, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she was deploying extra resources to the embattled community, admitting that it is “experiencing spikes in violent crime.” There seems to be little progress since her announcement and the murder rate has only continued to rise.
According to the latest available statistics, Ward 8 has repeatedly been hit the hardest by a sudden spike in murder, experiencing over 40 murders in 2018 alone. Ward 8 includes Washington Highlands through Anacostia and up to Fairlawn, which encompasses some of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. Ward 8’s victims of violence have ranged from a young entrepreneur, to an aspiring chef, to a young boy walking home from school. In July, a 10-year-old girl was shot in front of her home. It seems no one is safe from the violence plaguing the streets of Washington, D.C.
On the administrative level, there seems to be little consensus as to the cause of the rising murder rate. Communications Director Olivia Walton Dedner from Mayor Bowser’s office declined to provide a statement from the mayor and forwarded all questions on the cause of the murder rate spike to the Washington, D.C. police department. The police department itself attributes the rise in the murder rate to the availability of illegal firearms in the District, oftentimes purchased from neighboring states, where laws regulating firearms are more lax. So far in 2018, 152 people have been killed in the District compared to 106 killed in 2017. That is an over 45% increase and the year is not over yet.
Officer Dustin Sternbeck, who was authorized to speak on behalf of the police department, concluded in his statement that “the rise in the murder rate, in my view, is first due to the number of and the access to illegal firearms in Washington, D.C.” He further stated that “we are deploying assets into our communities and removing these illegal firearms at an unprecedented rate, and that’s a net positive.” Officer Sternbeck then paused, sighed, and added, “The second thing that I think we attribute this rise in violence too is petty neighborhood disputes that escalate to the point where a firearm is introduced into that situation.”
When asked how he feels Chief Newsham’s approach to policing differs from former Chief Lanier’s approach, Sternbeck went on the defensive remarking, “I don’t know what you’re trying to imply or who you’ve talked to, but Chief Newsham is doing a great job. We always want to build trust in the community. That’s what we try to do every shift,” he said. “The police chief has made building trust with the community a huge priority. He is an advocate of fair policing. Chief Newsham started a liaison program to reach out to our disenfranchised communities. He has created special liaisons to our LGBT, Latino, hearing impaired and African American communities. We also brought back the Officer Friendly Program and have officers going out to our schools, trying to educate young people and build trust with our young people.”
When members of the Washington, D.C. Council were questioned about the actions being taken to manage or control the increasing murder rate in the District, they refused to reply or offer a statement. When asked if Officer Sternbeck’s characterization of the police department’s efforts to build trust and stem the rise in the crime rate were accurate, representatives from the offices of Councilman Kenyan McDuffie, Councilmember Anita Bonds, Councilman Robert C. White, Jr., and Councilman Vincent Gray declined to comment. Councilman Trayon White’s office delayed providing a comment, and as of press time, had not provided a comment on this story.