crime scene tape
Ian Britton/Flickr

The crack epidemic that held the city in its terrifying grip for more than a decade back in the 1980s and 1990s is part of history now. So is the District’s infamous designation as the “murder capital of the world.”

The city, mirroring the country as a whole, is enjoying a period of relative peace. Experts can’t agree on what is driving the trend. But it is a positive development that has gained attention in the mayor’s race.

“We are in a relative period of calm in our country,” observed DC City Council member and Democratic primary contender Jack Evans during a recent candidates’ forum that focused on crime.

“Crimes are way down in DC and elsewhere… Just remember,” Evans added, “there was a time when our city wasn’t safe.”

Many say the leadership of Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy Lanier has helped turn the tide. Lanier, who became chief in 2007, has spent her entire 24-year law enforcement career with the MPD. She is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s Drug Unit Commanders Academy. She holds two master’s degrees; one in management from Johns Hopkins University and another in national security studies from the Naval Postgraduate School.

She has brought a focus on the use of new technology to local police work and has targeted gangs and guns in her efforts to reduce violent crime. In addition, the trusting relationships she has managed to build in the community have improved the ability of police to gather information and address criminal activity, MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump said in an e-mail response to a reporter’s written questions.

The relatively low crime rate the city enjoyed even during the recent economic downturn, actually runs against the expected trend. Often economic decline is linked to more crime, not less, according to Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, located in the District.

She credits MPD’s use of innovations including social media and computerized crime mapping as well as its multi-disciplinary approach to crime fighting as having helped to make a difference.

Still, she said in a telephone interview, more work is needed to reduce crime and more funding is necessary to help victims recover.

“Just because crime has gone down doesn’t mean we don’t have a lot of victims of crime,” she said.

At a February public oversight hearing for MPD, chaired by another candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary, DC Council member Tommy Wells, witnesses including Lanier herself observed that the low crime rate has help transform perceptions of the city.

A thousand new residents move to the District each month, she said, contributing to a boom in neighborhood and commercial development. While such growth contributes to prosperity, it has also a greater demand on police services, she noted. The MPD saw a four percent increase in the number of service calls in 2013; this while crime and minor crimes have decreased, as well as the MPD’s response time to calls for service, Lanier said.

Homicides rose to 104 in 2013 from a 50-year low of 88 in 2012, Lanier reported. Last year’s figure included 12 lives lost in the tragic Navy Yard shooting. Robbery-related homicides decreased an impressive 22 percent, proof positive, Lanier told the hearing, that the MPD’s focus on reducing robberies is having a significant public safety impact across the city.

She noted with pride that the city’s sixth and seventh districts, historically the places where the greatest number of homicides occur, experienced a four percent drop in 2013, as well as a 36 percent reduction over the past three years. She added that the numbers of juveniles involved in homicides has declined over the past four years by 25 percent, and juvenile victims decreased 63 percent.

The chief noted that she has beefed up police presence on the city’s growing nightlife scene. She directed her staff in 2012 to analyze development patterns and their impact on crime and calls for service, launching a new Nightlife Unit last year. That effort put nearly 90 officers on high-visibility foot, bicycle and Segways in nightlife areas. Lanier noted that only one of the homicides that occurred happened in such a focus area after the launch, while four of the earlier homicides from nightlife activity have been closed with arrests. The MPD boasts a high 80 percent homicide closure rate, well above the national average, she said.

Most cities of comparable size, according to the most recent FBI data, had a 51 closure rate
in 2012. Lanier noted that it sends an important deterrence message to would-be murderers.

Lanier commented particularly on high community participation, which has included a very active text tip line, as well as high volunteer support. That text tip line has increased 10-fold since its launch five years ago. The social media presence has grown; MPD’s YouTube page got more than 515,000 views last year, while the Twitter account expanded to 36,000 followers.

Citizens in the community volunteered more than 65,000 hours, she noted, a 15 percent increase
from 2012, contributing $2 million in labor hours. Enforcement officers have worked to cultivate their images as recognizable friends in the community, too, holding 130 events and activities throughout the city last summer.

At the crime forum for mayoral candidates held in February at McKinley Technology High School, contenders agreed that whoever wins the election needs to build on the positive trend. They agreed that jobs and affordable housing could be valuable tools in the effort and spoke in favor of a bill to de-criminalize marijuana now being considered by the city council.

“We can’t stop individuals from putting anything in their bodies, so legalize it,” said candidate Carlos Allen.