Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Crime


Let's Choose DC posts candidate answers on crime

This week, Let's Choose DCa partnership of Greater Greater Washington, DCist, and PoPvilleasked candidates for the April 23 at-large special election about crime.

Photo by fengschwing on Flickr.

We asked the candidates:

Chief Lanier and Mayor Gray have made a lot of the drop in homicides, but other crimesassaults, robberiesremain stubbornly high. How should DC police deal with those challenges, and do you have an opinion on how many officers MPD needs?
Read and vote on candidate responses here. Let's Choose DC gives you one candidate response at a time, selected randomly. Your vote will count toward the results once you vote on 5 responses.

We posed the question on January 8 to all of the candidates who had taken out petitions by that point. Nine candidates replied: Diallo Brooks, AJ Cooper, Matt Frumin, Jon Gann, Patrick Mara, Pedro Rubio, John Settles, Elissa Silverman, and Paul Zukerberg.

Voting on the first question, about candidates' vision for the future, has ended; we will tally the results and post them later this week.

Public Safety

Can we get more proportionality in criminal justice?

I was heartbroken to read that Aaron Swartz, a 26-year-old Internet freedom activist, author of RSS, and Reddit cofounder, killed himself on Friday. I'd met Aaron a few times; on April 6, 2009, he emailed me to ask about books he should read on city policy issues.

Photo by okfn on Flickr.

Aaron clearly suffered from depression, but his family, law professor Lawrence Lessig, and many others are also criticizing prosecutors in the Boston US Attorney's office who hounded Aaron with multiple felony charges after he downloaded large numbers of academic articles at MIT, but never distributed them.

Aaron, and many others, find a major injustice in the the way academic journals pay authors nothing for articles but then charge large amounts of money for online access to the journals. That doesn't justify lawbreaking, but his also wasn't a transgression that merits multiple felony counts and jail time.

In a post entitled "Prosecutor as bully," Lessig wrote:

If what the government alleged was true ... then what [Aaron] did was wrong. ... But all this shows is that if the government proved its case, some punishment was appropriate. So what was that appropriate punishment? ... Our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed. ...

From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way. ... I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don't get both, you don't deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.

For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White Houseand where even those brought to "justice" never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled "felons."

Our local criminal justice system also has plenty of examples of proportionality failures.

Drivers who behave recklessly and kill pedestrians and cyclists usually face little punishment unless they are drunk or flee. When a driver was caught on tape assaulting a cyclist, authorities didn't press charges. After police worked hard to investigate a driver who was allegedly on his cell phone when he hit and killed a senior crossing the street, prosecutors brought charges, but a grand jury refused to indict.

Meanwhile, our punishments for some transgressions often go far beyond what's appropriate or what is necessary to stop crime, like suspending students for taking their prescription medication without proper paperwork or a 6-year-old for making a gun shape with a hand.

Even for violent crimes, which we absolutely must vehemently combat, prison terms often far exceed what's necessary or effective. In his most recent column, David Brooks wrote:

If you want to deter crime, it seems that you'd want to lengthen prison sentences so that criminals would face steeper costs for breaking the law. In fact, a mountain of research shows that increases in prison terms have done nothing to deter crime. Criminals, like the rest of us, aren't much influenced by things they might have to experience far in the future.
Instead, it's more effective to fight lawbreaking by adding actual enforcement, so that more perpetrators get caught and punished. In the lingo of the field, you want to increase certainty rather than severity.

Based on this logic, our local government just passed a bill to relieve punitive burdens on drivers who speed. It made sense not to charge punitively high fees on speeders, since the primary objective must be safety rather than revenue. (Unfortunately, Phil Mendelson, who never participated in the task force that pored over research and debated options, then rewrote or deleted most of the key provisions in the bill that would increase certainty, and added new sections that will reduce safety in other ways.)

Now we've applied the certainty-over-severity analysis, or at least the less-severity half, to an area of crime that has a politically powerful constituencydriversbehind it. Will the council now do the same for other areas of our criminal justice?

Unlike speeding, injustices in the way we prosecute drug laws or the "school to prison pipeline" disproportionately affect poorer and minority communities that have less political clout. The families who suffer from over-incarceration are less likely to be the ones having lunch with a councilmember than the business leader who might complain about some speeding tickets.

Will Wells try to fix laws that over-punish some people to little end, and under-punish others who today don't face any consequences for serious transgressions? Will the rest of the council agree to such measures?

It's not possible to devise a perfectly fair criminal justice system. Some people will get away with serious malfeasance while others suffer excessively. What we can do, both nationally by recalibrating our response to journal article downloading versus financial fraud, or locally in our response to speeding versus shooting transgendered people, is push for more proportionality where possible. There's a lot of work to do.


Condos rise on corner once mostly known for its crime

At the intersection of 17th and Euclid Streets in Adams Morgan, adolescents making hand-to-hand drug sales and running up to cars with out-of-state license plates are long gone, as is a corner market. In its place will be 19 new condominiums, scheduled for delivery this spring.

Corner of 17th & Euclid St. NW, December 2012.

Euclid Market, March 2012.

The Washington City Paper has chronicled many incidents over the years at this rather infamous corner, tucked behind Adams Morgan's main commercial strip. A Maryland teen was recently killed at the Woodley Park Metro station after a fight ensued from an earlier robbery that took place in this immediate area.

Corner of 17th & Euclid St. NW, December 2011.

More than 5 years ago, the Metropolitan Police Department installed a closed-circuit TV camera here. Whether that is responsible for scattering activity elsewhere, or just changes in the neighborhood, the corner is now quiet. The Euclid market has been demolished, and the shell of the coming condos is yet another subtle sign of change and transition in the neighborhood.


Transit fights crime

A lot of suburban areas around the nation once (and, in some places, still) opposed building transit lines because they feared it would bring crime. We know that's bogus, but got another piece of evidence today.

Photo by alesacm on Twitter.

DCist reports that a man robbed a Wells Fargo bank on K Street this morning, then tried to get away by Red Line train. MPD asked Metro to hold the trains, and the agency promptly robbed the man of his choice of getaway vehicle.

This is an example of what was already obvious to most thinking people: transit is a less appealing mode of transit for robberies, not an invitation to commit them. Generally, the people who used (or still use) this argument against transit were (or are) white suburbs afraid of they darker-skinned people they associated (or still associate) with transit.

They warned that a rail line to a wealthy town would lead people from the scary inner city to take the train up, rob people, then speed away by train. This ignores the obvious fact that any criminal who tries to escape by transit is putting himself in a perfect container for police to close off and capture him.



Lights out on the MBT? You're on your own, DC cyclists

The Metropolitan Branch Trail is a terrific bike facility, but without better lighting, it's too attractive for crime. Sadly, it takes repeated emergencies like robberies to get our government to pay attention.

Photo by Eric Gilliland on Flickr.

On Tuesday night at 9 pm, I rode the off-street part of the trail from Franklin Street NE, south to M Street NE, and counted 19 overhead lights (as well as 5 lights on the ramp to street level) that were burned out, missing, or flashing like a strobe.

I stopped a police officer on the trail to ask if the police would have any more success advocating for working lighting on the trail than regular citizens would. Sadly, the officer said I should just email the city or call 311, as he had no more pull on this issue than I did.

Just over an hour later, MPD reported a robbery by 8-9 masked youth, armed with a gun, on the "1400 block" of the trail.

One would assume that's between where O and P Streets would intersect the trail, based on address ranges elsewhere. That is the location of the New York Avenue bridge over the trail, which has been bathed in utter darkness since the trail opened.

There have been constant problems with the overhead lights. The light just south of the Franklin Street overpass has been flashing like a strobe since October 2011 (over a year), and nothing has been done about it. DDOT employee Heather Deutch wrote on the MBT's Facebook page:

These are solar/LED lights. There is a 5 year warranty, with most components expected to last 10 years (i.e. batteries and lamps). This was a pilot project for us and the company is out of Florida. We have been having problems with the lights and with repairs being performed quickly. That being said, all the lights were repaired and working as of January 2012. There are, again, more lights out and we have submitted this information to the company. If you would like to contact them directly, the company is Sol
DDOT's bicycle program has few resources, but it's still unacceptable that they aren't able to keep the lights working. If there's a warranty, there should be an employee who deals with contracts who can get the necessary work done.

In addition, it's been clear that the stretch of the trail under the New York Avenue overpass would be a particularly dark place since that segment of the trail opened in May, 2010. The excuse for not placing lighting under the bridge was that it would soon be under construction (construction began in early 2011). That construction has been ongoing for nearly 2 years, and is not expected to be complete until September 2013.

New York Avenue bridge over the trail. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

There's simply no rationale for not putting temporary lighting under the bridge. In addition to the all-too-real threat of crime, there's the current threat of severe injury because construction equipment takes up some of the space. David Poms noted on Twitter that he almost crashed into the construction material in the darkness.

The city needs to light the underpass now and until construction is complete with a long-term temporary solution, and then with a high-quality permanent solution after that point. Riders need to be able to see construction material or gangs of criminals waiting for them in the darkness.

Public Safety

Homicide Watch will survive. Can MPD also support it more?

Homicide Watch DC, a website devoted to following murders in DC through to arrests and convictions, won't have to shut down. Last night, it successfully reached its $40,000 goal on Kickstarter to continue operating and turn into a paid student reporting lab.

Homicide Branch, MPD. Photo by the author.

Development, housing, employment, education, and transportation often dominate the local news cycle, while crime, poverty, and murder are often overlooked. For the latter, Homicide Watch has emerged, in the less than two full years it has been operational, as a destination and point of connectivity for concerned residents, journalists, and friends and family members of the victim. As academics have taken notice, so have investigators, who monitor the site for the slightest hint that may lead to a break in the case.

Laura Amico, who co-founded the site with her husband, was recently awarded a journalism fellowship at Harvard. She planned to license Homicide Watch to a "local news organization that would have taken over" its operation, but at the last minute, the plan did not materialize and Homicide Watch faced the specter of shutting down.

Amico opened a Kickstarter account 3 weeks ago to fund turning the site into a lab for student journalists, who would each follow some of the homicides in exchange for compensation. As of last night, the campaign passed its $40,000 goal as more than 1,000 backers offered over $46,000 in support.

Homicide takes its toll on families

Murder affects DC neighborhoods very differently. West of Rock Creek Park, murder has occurred rarely more than once or twice a year over the past decade, yet neighbor­hoods like Barry Farm and corners like 6th and Chesapeake Streets SE in Washington Highlands, on occasion, are touched multiple times a week. More than 30 homicides this year remain unsolved, nearly 40 from last year, and close to 100 in each of 2010 and 2009. DC has close to 250 unsolved homicides in the past 4 years.

Street memorial for Sirrocco Delonte Johnson. Photo by Lloyd Wolf.
For many still-unsolved cases, the victim has an individual page on Homicide Watch lists the phone numbers of the active detectives, as with Sirrocco Delonte Johnson's cold case from April.

In an age where even prisoners behind jail walls can access social media at all hours, we should support an online resource like Homicide Watch to help solve every open murder case. For Ms. Ella Carey, mother of 19-year old Anthony Reginald Ford, Jr. who was slain on 58th Street SE in the summer of 2009, the webpage for her son's street memorial on Washington's Other Monuments not only helps her grieve but lets "those cowards [who] took my son away from me" know the law will not rest until justice is served.

"[Homicide Watch] provides thorough, accurate up-to-date information on every aspect of the issue, far better than any other media or government source," says photography artist Lloyd Wolf, who has documented nearly 500 street memorials in the Washington, DC metropolitan area over the past decade. As with Homicide Watch D.C., Wolf's site, Washington's Other Monuments, has become a virtual destination for mourners to collectively grieve and share their memories. "Most critically perhaps, Homicide Watch has created a meaningful forum for the families and friends of area homicide victims to connect, share, and remember."

"Homicide Watch is a very important resource for everyone," says Kristopher Baumann, head of the DC police union. "It benefits the public, the police, and the families of victims. The more sunlight and focus on the government and its processes the better."

Can MPD help as well?

Despite its Kickstarter success, Homicide Watch has work ahead to transform itself from a personal project by the Amicos to a student-driven news operation. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which benefits from public attention on crime and the leads that can come from the press, should consider finding ways to facilitate the important work of publicly documenting every murder in the city from crime to conviction.

For current unsolved deaths and murders, MPD maintains a webpage with PDFs of reward posters organized year by year. The oldest current case is Christina Burke, aka Christine Baynard, from 1962.

MPD could work with Homicide Watch to better organize and disseminate this information, such as by embedding Homicide Watch's better-organized pages on the MPD site or linking to it. It could also work with Homicide Watch to collect leads and information about murders and pass them on to the appropriate detectives.

MPD could do monthly or quarterly Q&As on Homicide Watch with officers in the homicide branch. They could discuss recent closed and open cases, talk about efforts to close cold cases, how to be in touch with officers, and make a push for better citizen cooperation. There could even be guest columns from members of MPD, in addition to the testimonials from mourners the site has now.

In the past, MPD has had law students help investigate cold cases. This could be integrated with Homicide Watch, with public information they find posted on Homicide Watch. And, of course, the most direct way MPD could help Homicide Watch is through funding.

If Homicide Watch survives and thrives, all of DC will be better off, from the families of victims to the police trying to close years-old cases. Fortunately, the Kickstarter campaign's success has given this valuable resource a strong hope of making it in the long run.

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