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For several years, I have written in late December about our city having once again reached a new and dreadful homicide mark. This time, it’s different. On Monday, the city recorded its 200th homicide in 2021 — an annual death toll not seen since 2003. And we have five more weeks to go.
Without question, 2021 is another grisly year of mayhem and murder in our nation’s capital, as Post veteran crime reporter Peter Hermann wrote with mind-gripping details this week.
That horrible milestone was noted with familiar bromides.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D): “I was saddened to learn that our city reached a devastating statistic: 200 deaths by homicide. One death is too many.”
D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III: “Very troubling . . . lives that matter in our city were unnecessarily taken away too soon.”
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety: “Today, the District experienced the very painful marker of 200 homicides.”
Already, that marker has been surpassed. On Tuesday afternoon, a 23-year-old resident was fatally shot in the parking lot of a store in Southeast Washington. And on Thanksgiving eve, an 18-month-old boy died after being shot inside an apartment, also in Southeast.
Even before the death toll hit 200, Bowser’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, Christopher Geldart, told a community meeting, “We have a violent crime crisis, quite frankly a gun crisis, in the city.”
But our crisis encompasses more than that.
The city has strong gun laws. The police have struggled to get illegal guns off the streets. The mayor is even offering large sums of money for anonymous gun tips that result in firearms recovery and arrests.
That still hasn’t stopped residents from reaching for guns — not to sell, but to use to threaten, rob or kill one another.
Attempts at halting violence have not stopped critics such as Patrick Mara, chairman of the D.C. Republican Committee, from unloading on Bowser and the council with this kind of attack: “In 2020, D.C. politicians let themselves be influenced by far left-wing activists seeking chaos. Our elected officials pay more attention to social media than they do common sense. Now we have a reduced police force and a murder rate not seen in decades. Lives are being lost and families destroyed, but still the D.C. Council and Mayor Bowser are afraid to act.”
D.C. police union chairman Greggory Pemberton has also weighed in, charging that the council’s decision in mid-2020 to reduce the size and funding of the police department has killed morale. He said more than half of the 417 members who left since then resigned before being eligible for retirement. “This means over 225 police officers turned in their badge and walked away,” Pemberton said.
But Mara and Pemberton don’t deserve to have the final word.
Efforts are afoot by the council and Bowser to increase the police force. Under Contee’s stewardship, police are being deployed on foot, bikes and patrols to known hot spots.
You may argue about the effectiveness, but it can’t be said that the city isn’t trying, with various programs aimed at deploying more violence interrupters and activities to engage and redirect youths both individually and in gangs.
This week, a family errand took me to Broad Branch Road, in Upper Chevy Chase, a Northwest D.C. neighborhood that demographically resembles Chevy Chase, Md., and Arlington, Va., more than it does the communities east of the Anacostia River in Southeast D.C.
Bodies aren’t falling in Upper Chevy Chase.
Violence-wise, Upper Chevy Chase’s hottest spots would be igloos compared with the crime-plagued Kennedy Street corridor near my Brightwood home.
Standing in front of the Broad Branch Market and looking at children playing across the street at Lafayette Elementary School, I wondered: What do they know about guns and violence?
When will they first see a gun? When will they first hear gunfire and police sirens racing through their streets? Have they ever seen their brother, father, a classmate laid out in a coffin, and know it was a gun that put them there?
When will they decide they had better get their own hands on one because . . . because . . . ?
Same city, different worlds.
The rifle, pistol, machete are not mind-controlling devices that make people do what they ought not to do. Guns, knives, tire irons are means. The urge, the willingness to use them to kill or hurt another person stems from elsewhere.
Many years ago, my enrollment in ROTC to become an Army officer included attendance at a summer training course using firearms with live ammunition. After military service, I did a stint in the U.S. State Department that involved training and carrying a .38 Special and later a .357 Magnum as duty weapons in a couple of protective assignments.
Those weapons never made me want to kill anyone.
What does create that urge?
Think rage. Think greed, revenge, jealousy, fright, being looked down upon, mental brokenness — pick one, add others.
Our crisis — the urge to kill — is the curve that needs flattening. Otherwise, the annual homicide threshold will keep rising even as mothers, grandmas and other loved ones weep, and bodies continue to fall.
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