By ASHRAF KHALIL
With a flood of visitors and tourists expected, officials in the nation’s capital are mobilizing additional police officers and dozens of teams of civilian peacekeepers in an attempt to keep rising violent crime rates from marring the holiday weekend.
“The safety of our residents and visitors is MPD’s number one priority,” said Ashan Benedict, interim police chief for the Metropolitan Police Department. “Unsafe and illegal behaviors will not be tolerated in the District of Columbia.”
Benedict said the MPD will be deploying a “very, very robust” contingent of officers but didn’t mention specific numbers. “We’ll have a lot of officers out there,” he said.
Events for visitors and residents include the Independence Day Parade on Constitution Avenue and the annual Capital Fourth concert on the National Mall followed by a fireworks display. A smaller local parade will take place in northwest D.C. and the local government is sponsoring a concert featuring Washington’s signature Go-Go music at Freedom Plaza near the White House.
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s government has been struggling to handle steadily rising violent crime rates in recent years. Although police and city officials point out that overall crime rates have dropped, murders and carjackings have spiked — creating an overall public perception that crime is getting worse. The issue was a primary topic of debate last year when Bowser successfully ran for a third term in office.
Although it’s still well below the levels in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Washington D.C. regularly led the nation in murders per-capita, the local murder rate has climbed steadily in recent years. In 2022, there was a roughly 10% drop in homicides after years of steady increases. But, after that one-year dip, homicides are up 14 percent compared to this time last year and the city is on pace to surpass 200 homicides for the third year in a row.
June has been a particularly bloody month, with a string of homicides, including the recent murder of a 63-year old woman. Over the Juneteenth holiday weekend, 11 people were shot and four died — three of them under age 18.
“We recognize that gun violence is a challenge,” said Lindsey Appiah, deputy mayor for public safety on Friday. “We want to make sure that we have a presence in those neighborhoods that are challenges.”
The crime issues come at an awkward time for Bowser; she is between permanent police chiefs after former MPD Chief Robert Contee abruptly retired in May after less than three years on the job to take a senior position with the FBI.
And D.C. crime has become a national headline issue as the Republican-held House of Representatives has begun aggressively using its power to vet local laws and publicly critique both Bowser and the D.C. Council. Earlier this spring, Bowser and members of the council were summoned before the House Oversight Committee for a heated session on local crime rates.
Congress eventually voted to completely overturn the D.C. Council’s comprehensive rewrite of the D.C. criminal code. In an embarrassment for heavily-Democratic Washington, the move drew support from dozens of Democratic lawmakers and was signed into law by President Joe Biden. A second House of Representatives attempt to overturn a package of police accountability and reform legislation failed.
For July 4, the mayor’s office is organizing groups of civilian violence interrupters and community leaders into so-called “Safety Go” teams that will be deployed in 28 different “hot spot neighborhoods,” around the city, Appiah said.
The teams, comprising between eight and 10 civilian members, will be tasked with “helping deescalate any conflicts or negative activities,” before police intervention becomes necessary, Appiah said.
Such teams have been deployed on previous July 4 weekend in recent years and other large public events like Labor Day and Halloween, and Appiah said they have proven effective in reducing gun violence in the past.
“It really does help to de-escalate situations that may result in violence,” she said. “That allows our officers to really focus on crime.”
Benedict also warned against recreational or celebratory gunfire that has become a regular July 4 issue.
“For some reason, people like to shoot guns on the 4th of July and New Year’s Eve,” he said. “It just boggles my mind because what goes up must come down.”