More than 300 residents packed into a charter school gymnasium in Southeast D.C. Tuesday night to hear from legislators and police about the recent spike in Capitol Hill crime.
They voiced their concerns about an uptick in city-wide crime, and particularly in the neighborhood, peppering Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Klein, and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen with questions about what is being done to address it. Lanier said the spike in armed robberies is part of a changing trend in the District of Columbia, and catching the perpetrators is more complicated than putting more police in specific neighborhoods.
"The criminal element has changed and the biggest challenge we face now is, one, street robberies and commercial robberies, criminal street gangs that organize around that criminal enterprise versus the old crack cocaine open-air drug market days," Lanier said. "Not to say there’s not drugs involved; there certainly are. But it’s a different criminal enterprise. And two, they are involved in a very high number of robberies."
Lanier said the key to stopping those robberies is going after the groups themselves, rather than targeting resources at specific neighborhoods, because the groups operate in a number of different police districts. Police have arrested suspects connected to three separate groups conducting the robberies, and Lanier said these groups can be connected to more than 20 robberies around the District.
"We are not going to let up and pull resources back,” Lanier said, noting other members of the groups are still at large.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., and representatives from Mayor Muriel Bowser's office, the D.C. Attorney General's office and other law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Capitol Police, were also on hand as residents asked about issues ranging from school safety to community policing and pending D.C. Council legislation.
Residents were also concerned what happens after police officers arrest individuals, directing their questions at Klein during the two-hour meeting. In D.C., the U.S. Attorney's office is tasked with prosecuting crimes committed by adults, while the D.C. Attorney General's office handles juvenile cases.
Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner James Loots asked Klein about misdemeanor street crimes such as purse snatches and cellphone robberies he said are "rash and continuing problems."
“There is a perception in the community, and I think it shared by the perpetrators of these crimes, that the U.S. Attorney’s office will not hold them accountable," Loots said. "And that is in fact what leads to the audacity and repetition of many of these so-called minor crimes.”
Klein responded that the majority of cases tried by his office are misdemeanors, and, he said, "Those cases are being prosecuted." Klein added that some of them may be diverted to mental health court, depending on the attorneys' analysis.
According to the U.S. Attorney's office annual report , the D.C. office convicted 38 percent of misdemeanors, compared to 72 percent of felony crimes.
ANC Commissioner K. Denise Rucker Krepp pressed Klein for a breakdown of types of crimes and convictions on Capitol Hill, but Klein said he could not provide that breakdown, given the volume of cases, and instead referred her to the annual report.
"This is the third time I’ve asked the Department of Justice for crime stats on Capitol Hill and this is the third time they’ve said 'no,'” Krepp told CQ Roll Call after the meeting. She said she has heard from several residents who say they are scared to walk to their houses at night, and said she wants to have a better understanding of the types of crimes that are occurring on Capitol Hill.
Krepp has lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood for 14 years, though she first came to D.C. in 1991, and lived through the violence of the 1990's when D.C. was known as the murder capital of the country.
"If we don’t take a stand as a community now, we’re heading back to those days," Krepp said. "And I for one am not willing to do that.”
Some residents also asked officials what community members can do to combat crime, and Allen responded with a number of options, including becoming active in the police district's Community Advisory Council.
MPD's First District Commander Jeff Brown, who oversees Capitol Hill, also encouraged residents to attend neighborhood watch training on Nov. 3 at 7 p.m. at the Friendship Chamberlain Public Charter School.
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