As Ward 8 residents continue to fall victim to violent crime, questions about the nature of police-community relations — particularly the police’s level of involvement in curbing illegal activity — continue to weigh heavy on the minds of community leaders.
While no quick fix exists for Robbie Woodland, a Congress Heights resident and advisory neighborhood commissioner, expressed a desire for officers who quickly and effectively respond to residents’ calls and proactively crack down on illegal activity known to occur in front of business establishments and other public areas.
“You have a group of us who don’t want policing. At the same time, you don’t want the shooting. I don’t know if there’s a healthy medium,” Woodland told The Washington Informer.
Woodland, commissioner of Single Member District 8C03, which includes parts of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, Wheeler Road, and Trenton Place, mentioned a private meeting, that took place on the evening of July 18 in the community room of the Metropolitan Police Department’s 7thDistrict Police Station on Alabama Avenue.
Participants included three parents, 7thDistrict Commander Andre Wright, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, members of the Gang Task Force and Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services — all of whom Woodland said she contacted to address the recent spates of mob attacks allegedly orchestrated by youth attending local public and public charter schools.
Woodland, sworn into office at the beginning of the year, recounted seeing transit officials stand after a large group, referred to as the Swag Boys and Swag Girls, jumped a woman and her three children at Anacostia Metro Station in April. She said police officers didn’t arrive until she called for assistance.
Weeks after that incident, Woodland endeavored to identify teens filmed in other assaults of their peers on the street and visits to their apartments.
She said those videos along with a growing list of complaints from constituents, compelled her to pressure 7thDistrict and other partners for solutions that showed that they prioritized residents’ safety. She made clear that she couldn’t accept crime reduction alternatives, particularly those that placed that responsibility in the hands of people with no law enforcement experience.
“I think policing is needed to a degree. I’m not saying for them to harass people, but we as a community can’t do the policing ourselves,” Woodland said. “The violence interrupters don’t interrupt violence. They’re only in a small area of Southeast, and they have to get approval before they get into another area. They’re not licensed carriers so they’ll be running with the rest of us when there’s shooting.”
Addressing an Ongoing Problem
As of July 23, MPD reported 94 homicides citywide, including that of 11-year-old Karon Brown, allegedly murdered on July 18 by an adult male in the aftermath of a fight between adults and youngsters. Other violent crimes of prominence in the District include assault with a deadly weapon and robbery, though instances of the former decreased by four percent over the last year.
To proactively tackle crime, the Bowser administration has relied on MPD officers and violence interrupters, people with community rapport who help settle disputes.
In her Fiscal Year 2020 budget, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) allocated $2.5 million to the Office of Neighborhood Engagement and Safety for the expansion of the program, currently in its second year of operation. That infusion of funds provided seven additional full-time violence interrupters, case managers, and community activities in places with the greatest need.
At its inception, ONSE’s full-time and part-time violence interrupters lived and maintained a presence in 20 District neighborhoods.
The violence interrupters and Pathways Program, through which 50 of what’s considered the District’s most likely violent offenders gain resources for self-sustainability, came out of the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act, legislation passed in 2016 to explore community-based solutions to the underlying causes of violent crime.
In a victory for Black Lives Matter DC activists, a District Court judge ruled last month that MPD must record detailed stop-and-frisk data, including the race of the person stopped, the reason for the stop, and whether the stop resulted in the discovery of criminal activity.
This happened weeks after the off-duty MPD officer who allegedly killed D’Quan Young last year, escaped both federal and District charges in the 24-year-old’s death.
Last Saturday, after Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White (D) gave his annual address at Martha’s Table at the Commons in Southeast, Black Lives Matter DC Core Organizer April Goggans led a community dialogue intended to explore alternatives to what had been described as over-policing.
White said that officers need to respect Ward 8 residents more and show more initiative in quelling violent crime. “We need more police who value their jobs and understand the residents,” he told The Informer, acknowledging what he described as MPD’s marketing strategy pushing for more amicable community relationships.
“The behavior I have personally witnessed lately is in the spirit of apathy and disrespect,” White continued. “In one instance, it was in front of [MPD] Chief Peter Newsham. I can’t understand how people are getting shot on the same streets, and there’s no police chase, no suspect, no nothing every 2 to 3 days”
In response to an inquiry about a perception among some Ward 8 residents that police officers stationed throughout that part of the District could do more to proactively tackle violent crime, and address residents’ other concerns, an MPD spokesperson said the following:
“A core part of policing is building and maintaining strong relationships with the community, to not just be present when a crime has occurred but to be engaged and responsive all the time,” the public affairs officer wrote in an email on Monday. “Our officers actively respond to calls for service every day and are trained to have empathy and compassion for all residents.”