First in a Series
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently announced a new position in the District, Gun Violence Prevention Coordinator, after homicide rates and gun violence reached rates not seen in years.
Linda Harllee Harper, the former senior deputy director for the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, has assumed the role to develop and implement gun violence and prevention efforts.
And while Bowser describes Harper as a “visionary leader in social and criminal justice,” it remains to be seen if Harper’s insight will cull gun violence in the city.
While gun violence and homicides have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities of color in American cities, The Center for American Progress reports the toll on the District has been “devastating.”
Council member Trayon White called on Mayor Bowser to declare a “state of emergency” due to an abundance of gun violence reported in the District from 2020 to 2021.
“We have to declare an emergency when it comes to the crime and violence,” said White who represents Ward 8. “We are burying our children. Something has to be done about the record number of shootings and homicides in the District.”
According to statistics released from the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, there were 198 homicides in the city in 2020 with an additional 17 already reported in 2021. As of Feb. 1, the homicide rate had increased by six percent compared to this time last year.
Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen applauded the work of local advocates as well as the mayor for their efforts in creating this position.
“I am grateful to the violence prevention advocates and survivors, especially Moms Demand Action D.C., for pushing the District to act with strategy, urgency and vision through the creation of this position,” Allen said in a statement. “We cannot leave gun violence prevention siloed in the public safety cluster. It must be included in every decision about employment, health, housing, recreation and every other aspect of life where the District government can make a positive impact in residents’ lives.”
Studies indicate that community-based organizations focused on raising awareness and developing common-sense standards show marked results in reducing the rates of violence. With a public health approach to violence prevention, the entire city becomes involved in decreasing the use of gun violence.
One strategic move includes the establishing of venues for The Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, both in Northeast, fueled by a mission to foster community-based strategies to help prevent violence and increase public safety.
Services include the Pathways Program — a transitional employment program to decrease participants’ involvement in the criminal justice system — and the Family and Survivor Support which assists survivors and families of violent incidents when in crisis. The School Based Initiative launched in 2019 in partnership with Anacostia High School to alleviate barriers to success for high-risk students.
Similarly, Cure the Streets, a public safety pilot program based in Wards 5, 7 and 8, hires and trains neighborhood residents who are credible in their communities to work as violence interrupters. Their tasks include working to mediate brewing conflicts and resolve them peacefully before they evolve into violence. The program also recruits outreach workers who connect participants with needed services such as housing, counseling, employment assistance — developing action plans leading to more positive futures.
“We need to do more for young people in our community,” said Virginia White, a longtime Ward 8 resident. “Residents and government leaders working together will hopefully shift the focus and bring better coordination between local programs and services to bring real change.”
Harper started her career with D.C. Public Schools as a Substance Abuse Prevention Intervention Coordinator at the former Oak Hill Youth Center and has led extensive reforms in youth justice and violence prevention. Prior to the Mayor’s announcement, violence mitigation efforts have resided in two different offices: The Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, and the Office of the Attorney General’s Cure the Streets Program. The goal of these offices is to take a public health approach to gun violence by offering resources and support to young people who are involved in violence or at risk of becoming involved. Harper is now tasked with centralizing the city’s violence interruption efforts.