On a recent evening patrol of 7D. Photo by the author.

The recent murder of Billy Mitchell at the corner of North Capitol and Florida Avenue reminded many of the violence that dominated the DC headlines from the mid-1980’s until just a few years ago.

East of the Anacostia River, however, residents don’t need a reminder that violent crime remains a big problem. Homicide rates have stayed high in those parts of DC, and the numbers of police east of the river have declined, not increased.

“Whad up, son? You heard what happened?” a young man shouted across the 1300 block of Alabama Avenue SE on a recent Friday evening to another young man on the other side of the street.

“Yeah, I already know, moe,” he yelled back.

“Yeah, he got shot in the head, but he’ll be alright,” the first man confirmed.

During a recent “ride along” with police from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD)‘s Seventh District (7D), I related the conversation I had overheard. The two officers knew of the victim who had recently been shot in Congress Park, a neighborhood which police say has been “jumping.”

Homicide rates east of the river have not fallen

Although homicides reached record lows in 2010, levels not seen since the 1960’s, the trend increased in 7D, which roughly corresponds to DC’s Ward 8. With a citywide homicide rate down from 143 in 2009 to 131 in 2010, homicides increased by 5% in 7D from 41 in 2009 to 43 in 2010.

Homicides remained constant in the 6th District (6D), which generally covers Ward 7, with 32 reported in 2009 and 2010. The two police districts accounted for 52% of the city’s murders last year.

A memorial to one of the 43 murders in 7D last year. Photo by the author.

“Go back ten years and you’ll see the Seventh District is consistently averaging 50 homicides a year for an area of six and a half square miles and 50,000 residents,” says Kristopher Baumann, Chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police’s Metropolitan Police Department Labor Committee. “West of the river, where all the people in the press live, nobody wants to hear about this, because they say ‘We don’t have to go over there.’”

“This has gone on for decades. People in Ward 8 put up with stuff nobody else would put up with. The continued lack of resources is inexcusable,” Baumann contended.

Total property crime in 7D was reported down 2% but burglaries were up 25% from 793 incidents in 2009 to 990 in 2010, consistent with an escalation in burglaries seen across the city. 6D reported 491 burglaries in 2009 and 644 in 2010, a 31% increase.

FOP and patrol officers not happy with Chief Lanier

An article in The Washington Times from early January with the headline “Burglary spike spurs more cops in DC’s Ward 3 area,” reported that the Metropolitan Police Chief, Cathy Lanier, “has flooded Upper Northwest neighborhood with officers in response to a string of burglaries that has alarmed residents in recent weeks.”

In response to the article, Baumann sent a letter to city officials asking, “Why should the residents living in the areas with the most crime and most problems receive the least amount of focus and resources?”

“While we always wish we had more police officers, it is not accurate to say there is a shortage of police officers in 6 & 7D,” according to Gwendolyn Crump, Director of MPD’s Office of Communications.

Without citing district by district staffing levels, only available through a Freedom of Information Act request, Crump says, “[T]here are still 115 more police officers and sergeants assigned to patrol in the Sixth and Seventh Districts than when Chief Lanier was appointed.”

In January of this year there were 331 officers and sergeants patrolling 6D. In January 2007 there were 266, according to figures provided by MPD. In January of this year there were 333 officers and sergeants patrolling 7D. This represents an increase of 50 from January 2007 when there were 283 officers and sergeants patrolling 7D, according to MPD.

Crump says an additional 60 officers and sergeants in tactical units are assigned to the Sixth and Seventh Districts. Furthermore, 25-30 members from the Patrol Support Team and 60 from the Narcotics and Special Investigations Division work in 6D and 7D according to Crump.

“They are sent everywhere, all over the city. So if you asked them about 5D manpower they would count them for 5D as well,” says Baumann.

“The Chief maintains the status quo. She’s good with the media and the politicians, but when it comes to the rank-and-file officer that patrols the streets every day, she’s out of touch,” said a patrol officer who did not want to be named. “They send her off to school to get training in the classroom when she really needs to learn from what we see.”

Riding through 7D

In the three hours I spent riding with patrol officers through the back alleys, numerous public housing complexes, and main thoroughfares that cover 7D, I got an introduction to the problems that distress certain communities east of the river.

With specific blocks and apartment complexes having a reputation for PCP, heroin, or crack cocaine, with marijuana “being everywhere,” the officers had an encyclopedic knowledge of what drugs could be found where. Some back alleys were known for dumping stolen cars and where suspects were known to bailout after a pursuit while other areas were known for runaways and prostitution. The police I rode with knew which blocks have bred their share of murderers and where you could get killed.

This neighborhood is known as “3rd World,” this is the “Duece-Duece”, this is the “Lenchmob,” and all can be heard called out on certain go-go songs, according to the officers.

At 16th & U Street SE where a large group had assembled on a Saturday evening, the officer in the driver’s seat rolled down the window and took out his cell phone, positioning it as though he was taking a photo.

Most of the more than dozen young men pulled their jackets over the heads and turned to face the wall while others walked across the street. One young man in a black jacket and kufi stretched his arms widely over his head and smiled, posing for the make believe shot.

“I never take it, but it always gets one or two moving,” said the officer who noted DC does not have an anti-loitering law that can be enforced to break up corners that are known as open-air drug markets.

MPD’s shrinking force

MPD is shrinking. The force is down to 3,800 sworn officers, according to various sources, but Crump puts the number at 3,912.

4,200 was a target first discussed by the Council in 2006, with the intent that in subsequent years the budget would grow to allow the Department to increase the number of officers,” says Crump. “[T]he plan was that MPD’s sworn staffing would be increased to 3,900 by the end of FY07, 4,050 by the end of FY08, and 4,200 by the end of FY09.”

Facing a budget deficit of more than 600 million dollars, the city has cut deeply into MPD’s budget.

“Cities across the country are cutting officers. We are not where we want to be, but it’s my hope we can avoid further cuts into MPD,” said At-Large Councilmember Phil Mendelson, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary that “oversees all of the District’s public safety agencies” and “responsible for all legislation related to criminal, civil, and administrative law” in the city.

“We are losing officers faster than we can hire them,” notes Baumann.

Although 150 officers left MPD last year, according to city officials, the most recent Academy class, funded by a grant from the Department of Justice, will graduate 46 officers this month who have been in training since last June.

“There s not a hiring freeze, but there is a scaling back,” says Mendelson.

“We are headed back to a turnover rate of 200 to 250 officers a year. Every agency, with the exception of Montgomery County, is hiring,” warns Baumann. “We have suspended hiring, and, more troubling, the application process. So if we restarted, it would take months to get going.”