Gunfire broke out shortly after midnight last Sunday, close to the Hendley Elementary School in the District’s Washington Highlands neighborhood, in the hills east of the Anacostia River.
The bullets took down three men. When police arrived, two were alive and were transported to a local hospital. Delano Phillips, 20, “succumbed to his injuries,” police said.
Phillips’s death brought the number of homicides in the nation’s capital to 51 for the year, according to the Metropolitan Police Department, compared with 33 at this time last year. On Monday, police discovered the body of a man killed by “blunt force impact.” He was homicide 52, for a 58-percent rise from last year.
At this rate, DC will top 100 murders in 2014, reversing a steep decline over the past two decades. The District recorded 399 killings in 1994, when the city was reeling from the crack wars. Homicides dropped to 198 in 2004. In 2012, murders fell to 88, and last year the number was 82, without counting the 12 killed in the Navy Yard mass shooting.
Why the sudden increase?
While some parts of the city have seen murder become more rare, their declines have been more than outweighed by neighborhoods south and east of the Anacostia River, where 36 more homicides have occurred than last year at this time. Twenty-four of those have taken place in the Seventh District, south of the Metro’s Green Line along the Potomac.
The MPD’s explanation for the rise in homicides is remarkably bloodless. “The increase in homicides, while concerning, does not indicate a particular trend,” MPD spokesperson Gwendolyn Crump wrote in an e-mail.
Three deaths happened in prior years but were ruled homicides this year, Crump explains, and blames some of the rise in the murder rate on domestic homicides, which have doubled, she said, from 4 in 2013 to 8 in 2014.
Council member Tommy Wells, who chairs the public safety committee, says Mayor Vincent Gray, and the police “keep coming up with excuses and explanations.” Pinning the increased murder rate on domestic violence “doesn’t give me great comfort,” says Wells.
Well offers no reason for the rising homicide rate nor a way to turn the numbers around. Murders have doubled in the First District, which includes Capitol Hill in Wells’s Ward 6.
Delroy Burton, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, points to “a level of hopelessness” in some DC communities. “DC is fabulous if you are a young, twentysomething college graduate,” Burton tells Washingtonian, “but if you grow up in a home in parts of the city surrounded by drug addiction, no one working, and high levels of sex abuse, it doesn’t bode well for kids coming out of those environments with a decent chance for success.”
Burton says those conditions breed “super predators” who are likely to commit murder.
A homicide detective who prefers remain anonymous agrees murders are on the rise in part because of lax enforcement of drug dealing. “No one is challenging the street-level drug dealers,” he says. “They have free rein. Guys with access to guns are more at ease, too. We think that has some influence on the rise in murders.”
Crump says the MPD has redeployed police to high-homicide areas of 7D and 6D east of the Anacostia. But that might be at the expense of fighting crime in other neighborhoods.
Officer Nick DeCiutiis, who patrols the Eastern Market neighborhood on Capitol Hill, says the vice squad in his district was detailed to the Seventh District. “We have no plainclothes officers out there,” says DeCiutiis. “They are the ones that deal with the drug boys. That’s where the homicides come from.”
“Hell,” he adds, “we don’t even have an auto theft unit. Nobody’s looking out for stolen cars.”
The union and Wells can agree on one change that might bring down homicides: more cops.
“With the increase in the number of bars and residents,” says Wells, “I don’t rule that out.”
Delroy Burton wants a force of 5,000, rather than the current authorized force of 4,000 officers. Burton’s number seems wildly high, especially when officers are leaving the MPD at the rate of more than 20 per month, and the MPD can hire and train no more than 150 a year, according to Crump.
“The first thing we have to do is manage the force at 4,000,” says Wells.
The number of homicides tends to spike during the summer months, which means the rate could keep rising.
Police said no arrests have been made in the Delano Phillips murder.