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Opinion: Change Strategies or Break New Crime Records


The District of Columbia had their deadliest year in two decades – 2023 – but is bound to break new records this year, irrespective of the Secure DC crime bill getting final approval from the City Council this month. The bill does little to make the city safer or more secure. And unless other measures are considered in tandem, like the ones outlined below, DC can expect more unrest not less.

In response to rising violence, the default by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration and now, the City Council, has been to throw the proverbial book at the problem, with more curfews, incarceration, helicopter surveillance, police chases and chokeholds. In the last few years, Bowser has dramatically increased the police presence in Wards 7 and 8, making DC one of the most heavily policed and incarcerated cities in the US. In cities with 250,000 or more people, DC has the highest rate of police per capita.

Given the increasing police state approach by both the Bowser administration and DC Council with the punitive Secure DC bill, it is worth questioning the efficacy of this strategy, something mainstream journalism seems unwilling to do (see Washington Post editorial team’s recent ride-along with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which largely endorses MPD’s prevailing strategies without critique). If DC’s heavy-handed police approaches are failing to stem the rising tide of violence, it is time to reflect on what’s being resourced and change tack if necessary.

There are three things that the Bowser administration could do today.

First, audit the MPD. It is easy to do, other cities audit their forces and t’s long past time for the DC Auditor’s Office to audit some of MPD’s more heavy handed strategies. It has audited specific actions like the firing of DC police officers but it is time for something more systemwide.

DC could take a lesson from how the City of Los Angeles’s Controller just audited its own police department. Recently, in response to community concern, the Los Angeles Controller published its audit of the LA Police Department’s helicopter aerial surveillance program. And what it found is concerning. The audit found that the flights “cause significant harm to the community”, are a major source of pollution, disproportionately impact communities of color and increase the likelihood of cognitive impairment, reduced metabolism, cardiovascular disease (heart attack, stroke, heart disease), increased stress and more. All this damage is financially borne by taxpayers, too: flights cost taxpayers nearly $3,000 per hour, with the city spending nearly $50 million annually on the program.

A recent FOIA request regarding the DC police department’s helicopter aerial surveillance program found that the MPD wasn’t able to point to a cessation or prevention of violent crime resulting from its daily flights. In fact, the MPD has noted that it dispatches helicopters whenever and wherever there’s a violent crime call. Regardless of necessity, it is the default approach. The FOIA data shows aggressive use of helicopter monitoring across DC wards but overwhelmingly in communities of color in Southeast DC, particularly in MPD Districts 6 and 7, causing the same kind of harm identified in LAPD’s audit above. An audit of the program would be able to further investigate how the MPD justifies a program that is ultimately creating less healthy communities throughout Southeast D.C.

Second, scale up preventative approaches and provide a clearer strategy. In recent years, the DC Office of Gun Violence Prevention and now DC’s Attorney General are offering grants, ranging from $5,000 to $50,000, for creative community-based approaches to gun violence prevention and youth violence prevention, respectively. In the latest round of DC’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention funding, there are activities like yoga, theater-based awareness raising, boxing and basketball tournaments, wellness retreats, lifeguard training, art therapy, dance classes and more.

These kinds of social investment are necessary, to be clear, as are economic ones like the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program that continues to this day since Marion Barry inaugurated it in the late 1970s. These are positive investments. They create opportunity and community. But if we want them to flourish and feed into a larger ecosystem of positive and preventive approaches, then we need DC to take this work seriously, at scale, across city departments, and with the kind of strategy and resources that’ll be sustained over time (versus one-off activities).

This is how you substantially improve quality of life for communities and at-risk residents. This is how you give someone something to live for. Right now, for many DC youth, there’s nothing to lose.

Third, adequately resource alternative responses to violence. For example, last year the nonprofit Bread for the City, represented by the ACLU, filed a lawsuit against the DC government for “sending armed D.C. police officers as default first responders to the scene of mental health crises”. This is just one example of many regarding how a default armed response by the MPD is not only ineffectual in addressing the actual root cause of the problem, but it also further erodes trust in the community. Mental health support services – to respond to trauma caused by all of this violence – continue to see funding shortfalls in the city, making it that much harder to stem the tide, and diversion programs to keep kids off the streets and in school have also long gone underfunded. These alternative responses need support more than ever.

Going forward, the more the DC government dehumanizes residents through a reliance on heavy-handed and hardline helicopter, car, and camera surveillance and response, the more the community will dehumanize those doing the surveilling. It is a vicious cycle leading to more distrust, destruction, and violence, not less. Rather than walking into 2024 with a doubling down on 2023-era business as usual, last year’s record numbers suggest a revisit on strategy since the dominant response doesn’t seem to be making us any safer.

It is time to audit the MPD’s approach, scale up and better strategize positive and preventative interventions, and fully fund responses that better address the socio-economic and mental health needs of our community. Now, before 2024 breaks last year’s record.

Shank, a resident of southeast DC, is a Visiting Scholar at the Program on Urban Peacebuilding at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution. He can be reached at mshank@gmu.edu.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the Hill Rag.

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