Ward 6 Public Safety Update: 7-18-21

The last 24 hours have been both heartbreaking and alarming for all of us. DC has experienced two shootings that highlight in different ways the traumatic and cruel nature of gun violence. I'm reaching out today to share the latest information I have for both, and to share the bigger picture of what the Council and the Mayor have been working toward on both responding to and working to prevent gun violence. 

This is going to be a long update specific to violence prevention. I've heard from enough neighbors in the past few days who want more information that I wanted to share something more broadly. Look for a regular newsletter update this week as well as I share some major changes coming to the city's public health response and next year's budget.

The Latest

On Friday night around 11 pm, someone opened fire from a car at a group of people in the Congress Heights neighborhood and killed six-year-old Nyiah Courtney and injured five others -- a mass shooting by any definition. An MPD cruiser was parked within a block with its lights on as a deterrent, yet the shooters felt bold enough to proceed anyway. I've been in touch with the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice several times since then. Any loss of life is horrific, but the murder of a child is even more devastating. MPD needs the community’s help in its investigation so that these individuals are held accountable. The business where the shooting took place has been temporarily shut down.

Then last night, there was a separate shooting just outside of Nationals Park that wounded several people. This took place during the Nationals game, and as you've no doubt seen, the shots were loud and close enough that fans and players feared an active shooter was inside the stadium. I was on the phone with MPD Commander for that area within minutes of it occurring; officers were on scene on the block when the shooting happened - allowing them to quickly recover one of the vehicles and render aid to an individual that was injured. It was a very scary situation as fans sought shelter, and children looked to their parents for protection. I want to thank everyone for checking on each other and reaching out to my office for updates. Like many of you, I had friends at the game (or maybe you were there yourself). I was texting with a friend who quickly worked to comfort scared children in her section, and other friends that navigated the panic with children and neighbors. Tens of thousands of people experienced this trauma together. Gun violence doesn’t just happen in one part of the District; it impacts us all, and we all have a role to play in ending it. Last night painfully drove this home for many. We tried to work quickly to get word into the ballpark that there was no "active shooter" as some believed. This morning MPD has released photos seeking a car involved in the shooting and we need help to ensure these shooters are held accountable.

Both of these shootings are unacceptable. With MPD on the scene so quickly, I hope we will see accountability for these brazen and reckless people soon. But in both instances, the trauma has already spread into the community - among neighbors nearby in Congress Heights as well as neighbors in Southwest and Navy Yard and for the thousands at the ballpark who feared they were caught in a mass shooting. 

Of course, we all want to stop the violence. Every parent shudders at the thought of losing their child to gun violence. How do we prevent someone from getting to the point they're willing to pull the trigger indiscriminately and recklessly? How do we stop the murder of our children and create community spaces where we can all feel safe and enjoy together? It's going to take a lot of hard work, with partnership between the government and the community. So let me share some of the action already underway.

Action to Reduce, and Stop, Shootings

Gun violence infects communities and spreads just like a disease. It has very specific causes: trauma, hopelessness, despair, poor conflict resolution skills, scarcity of community and economic resources, racism, and availability of firearms from other jurisdictions with weak gun laws, among others. Accountability must happen when someone pulls a trigger and does harm to our community. And to make lasting change, it’s also important to identify the causes to reduce – and importantly, *prevent* – the relatively small group of people who commit serious gun crimes from pulling the trigger. And that small group isn't limited to a fixed number of people - it’s a systemic challenge that requires systemic and strategic responses to address it. That means government, community, and family-based solutions that require legislation, government investments, and community organizing.

This begins at the top. Last year, I created the position of Gun Violence Prevention Director, based in the City Administrator's office. The point of this position is to place the onus on preventing gun violence above any one specific agency, and ensure a whole of government response. In this year's budget, I've funded the creation of a citywide strategic gun violence plan, incorporating every agency and tool within government.

Too often, we let government work in silos and everyone points to one agency (often MPD) for anything public safety-related. MPD certainly has a major role to play, but they can't do it alone. And in many cases, they are there to respond after violence has already taken place.

We need a whole government response because this should be everyone's responsibility. That new effort began a few months ago - it's called Building Blocks DC, and while it's still new, it's targeting its efforts on the blocks and with the people where we see most shootings taking place. For my neighbors in Southwest, we've been working together for years to curb ongoing violence near the ballpark in neighborhoods that have long needed greater investment. Building Blocks DC, when it is fully up and running, can be part of that investment.

On Tuesday, the Council will hold the first of two votes on next year's budget. There's a lot from the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety focused specifically on gun violence prevention, much of which was recommended by the Mayor in partnership in her budget proposal. That includes a 172 percent increase in the amount of funding to the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, one of DC's main violence intervention and prevention agencies. It is incredibly urgent to get more support for the city's limited violence prevention efforts.

Our violence interruption efforts, which take a targeted approach working in areas with ongoing violence, have shown promise in reducing that violence in the neighborhoods where violence interrupters are working and building relationships. In the budget we're about to vote upon, I've included funding that takes their work even further by helping them meet the needs of people most at-risk of committing a violent act or being the victim of one before it's too late. This includes housing, access to counseling and job training, and more. This Post article from a few years ago gives you an idea what the work is like on the ground, though it has expanded since then.

We know most gun violence is committed by a small number of individuals from a small number of blocks, and it’s very often targeted. That calls for incredibly specific interventions. Our Pathways Program is a wrap-around program that focuses on very vulnerable individuals who are at high risk of becoming victims of gun violence or committing it, and works with them intensively. If you want to get a better sense of that program, this video lays out the work and the people behind it. That program is doubling in the budget the Council will approve Tuesday.

Similarly, we've stood up a hospital-based violence interruption program across the city that works to break the cycle of violence, beginning in the emergency room when someone arrives with a gun or knife wound consistent with violence (such as the two people that walked into an ER with gunshot wounds last night). This kind of intervention, at the person-to-person level, at the moment of crisis, can have huge benefits. A lot of our violent crime is driven by cycles of violence as people choose to retaliate and find justice on their own rather than through the courts. Restoring faith that the criminal justice system can deliver justice is an important part of undermining the cycle of violence.

The budget for MPD remains far and away the largest in our public safety cluster and this budget funds the new Chief's priorities. Violence interruption work is not meant to replace or replicate policing. It is meant to prevent someone from pulling the trigger so that police never have to get involved. I know some people have a natural reaction to call for more police in the aftermath of violence -- but please bear in mind that officers were very near both locations when the shootings happened, and yet the shooters felt bold enough to go ahead and open fire. That's why this cannot be a solution that rests solely on MPD and needs the whole of government to own this challenge and work toward the solutions we all need.

Our laws are incredibly strong around guns and violent crimes. Yes, there will always need to be accountability. But if we are serious about reducing violent crime in our community for good, we have to recognize that the threat of serious jail time and the certainty of punishment aren't always enough. Given the historic inequities within both our city and our nation, it's no surprise. Generations of people have lived in underinvested communities where the same doors to opportunity were not open to them as to others. As we wrestle with how to come out of a pandemic that has truly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, destabilized thousands of our neighbors, we really need to understand the limits that come with policing and punishment alone, and the extremely harmful effects of mass incarceration.

As we, as a community, wrestle with the right amount of focus on both prevention and accountability, don't forget this is not an "either/or" conversation, it must be "both/and."

The National Picture

Finally, because DC is not an island, I want to expand out on a few points to put what we are experiencing within a national context. 
First, most US cities are experiencing an increase in violent crime. As this piece from the Post noted in February, DC has seen less of an increase than many other places. I'm not sure there's been a clear consensus yet on what is driving this national increase, but there's no doubt in my mind the uneven way the pandemic has upended people's lives and the ongoing trauma of so much personal and economic loss have a lot to do with it.

The increase in the homicide spike we’ve been experiencing in our city is just starting to slow, and we're slightly behind where we were last year at this time as I write this. But we – and cities across the country -- are still well above where we have been in the past decade. The Council and Executive branch are working with our counterparts to understand the scope of the challenge and the most effective ways to turn the tide. And I'll add that it's important to note that one section of our criminal justice system is outside of our local government and control. Unlike other parts of the country, most prosecutions of our gun laws as well as the Courts where cases are held are operated federally, not by the local government. This means we need a full partnership, but as we saw last week learning about decisions to reduce Court supervision due to federal budget constraints, DC officials weren't treated like the full partners we need to be.

Second, there are simply too many guns that are too easy to obtain illegally. DC's laws are quite strong on gun ownership and possession. Federal reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms find year after year that the majority of guns used in a crime can be traced back to other eastern seaboard states with looser gun laws. I agree with my colleague, Councilmember Christina Henderson, that we need federal leadership here and greater regional coordination. A few years ago, I helped create the District's Red Flag Law as a way to get guns out of the hands of people dangerous to themselves or others, and I've since worked with the Mayor to ban ghost guns and increase criminal penalties for items like extended magazines on guns. But we have very little power to stop guns at the source, and it's a real problem in our efforts.

How to Get Involved

I'll close with this: I know first-hand the frustrating pain that settles in after a traumatic and horrible shooting. I understand you don't want to just go about your day and you may want to find a way to channel that frustration into action. I'd like to suggest a few community organizations that could use your voice and support, and will offer you ways to get better informed on what's happening: 

I want to thank you for taking the time to read this. I know it is frustrating, and traumatizing to see these horrible acts. I hope you can join me in moving forward, and improving as we go, a plan that sees accountability for those that do harm in our city, and also gets at the underlying causes of gun violence to stop the cycle from going round and round.

Charles Allen


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