This summer, a gunman opened fire at a congressional baseball game in Alexandria, Va. It is one of many events that sparked renewed interest in gun legislation and safety, in both Washington, D.C., and the nation.
In a poll conducted in 2015 by the Washington Post, D.C. residents said that “crime has become the biggest problem in Washington.”
There have been 281 mass shootings in 2017 in the United States, as of Oct. 13. This is according to the Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit formed to give public access to accurate information about gun-related violence. The archive defines a “mass shooting” as “any incident in which a gunman shoots or kills four or more people in the same general time and location.”
In the wake of a recent massive public shooting in Las Vegas, Beltway News asks – do D.C. residents feel safe? And if not, what are they doing about it?
D.C. families for rational gun safety legislation
Some citizens find they need to take action when they feel helpless. Hannah Schardt is a co-founder in an organization called D.C. Families for Rational Gun Safety Legislation. Schardt said by phone that the hyperlocal Capitol Hill neighborhood group was formed in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016.
Frustrated about the “history of nothing happening after these shootings,” Schardt and some neighbors rallied to march from Lincoln Park to the Capitol, where they met up with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Other projects include planting paper flowers on the lawn of the Capitol Building representing people who died from gun violence, and holding signs outside the Capitol with the number of gun deaths that occurred while Congress was on recess. “The number would get bigger every day and all this time that no action was being taken by Congress,” Schardt said. “Deaths were mounting.”
D.C. residents feel they need to take demonstrative action, because they don’t have representation in Congress. “It’s very frustrating not to have that representation and be able to go to someone and say, ‘This needs to change.’ We can go to Eleanor Holmes Norton and she agrees with us, and gives speeches, but she doesn’t have a vote,” Schardt said.
But despite being outraged by the gun violence and lack of legislation around it, Schardt said she and the other group members don’t feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods. “It’s not that we’re terrified for our own personal safety, but there are populations in this country that are devastated by gun violence and it’s depressing that nothing is happening.
Another community organization looking to increase safety is called Safehood D.C., a project focused on addressing public safety in Ward 1. The group feels the solution to crime is to “engage your neighbors to build a better sense of community,” according to a video on their Facebook page.
One of Safehood D.C.’s community organizers, Moises Del’Rosario, said in a Facebook video that he was tired of seeing his neighborhood be the victim of countless crimes and “decided that if the people who represent us don’t take lead on the issues that directly influence our communities, we as a community should make that difference where we live.”
Safehood D.C. promotes a sense of community with activities such as a recent backpack and school supply giveaway. According to Del’Rosario, the giveaway was a “tremendous success.” They got a lot of positive feedback, but one story really stuck out.
A young woman asked if the backpacks were being given out for free. “Her voice cracked as she talked,” Del’Rosario said via email, and she told them she lost her job the day before, and had no idea how she’d be able to get school supplies for her kids. “She said if it hadn’t been for our giveaway, she wouldn’t have been able to get her children the basic resources that they needed to start off the school year successfully.”
The group plans on gaining momentum in Ward 1, and then expanding to other neighborhoods.
“Ultimately, we want to see the crime rate decrease as the movement grows,” said Tony Donaldson, Jr., a co-founder of the group, in a Facebook video.
Community is key to public safety
The Metropolitan Police Department in D.C. is one of the 10 largest local police agencies in the United States, and is the “primary” law enforcement agency in the D.C., according to their website.
Along with the MPDC, there are US Marshals, the Metro Transit Police, the US Capitol Police, the Secret Service and even D.C. Public Library Police, to name but a few. There are also university public safety police, like those at Howard, Georgetown, Gallaudet and American universities.
Despite all of the law enforcement protection, however, citizens still play a role in keeping each other safe.
Effective community policing also means building trust with residents and visitors.
According to the MPDC’s latest public report, from 2015, the now retired Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier was looking to continually strengthen relationships with community members by “inviting people of all ages to participate in a variety of volunteer programs.” The police aim to create positive relationships with citizens by participating in events such as Coffee with a Cop, an annual event that promotes conversations about safety between officers and citizens.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser noted in the MPDC 2015 report that community is essential to safety. “Effective community policing also means building trust with residents and visitors.”
Crime by the numbers
Violent crime in D.C. is down by 25 percent in 2017 from the previous year. And crime in the area overall is lower, according Kevin Donahue, D.C.’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice.
Donahue testified at a D.C. Council hearing in October that overall crime is down 9 percent, and the department has “seen a 30 percent reduction in robberies, a 20 percent reduction in assaults with a deadly weapon and a 15 percent reduction in homicides.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham also spoke at the hearing. He said that community members helped in investigations, which resulted in less crime over the summer. Warmer months typically have higher crime rates.
“People have been overwhelmingly supportive in assisting,” Newsham said. “They’re giving us tips and we’re able to hold these people accountable for their actions.”