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Capitol Hill Grappling With D.C. Crime Spike

(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When Capitol Hill’s police advisory council usually convenes to discuss crime and policing issues, a handful of residents show up. On Sept. 1, it was standing room only.

Capitol Hill residents and others living in the Metropolitan Police Department’s 1st District gathered at the police station in Southwest D.C. to voice concerns about the recent spike in violent crime rocking the nation’s capital. In the front row sat 13 year-old Taije Chambliss, who walked into the station with help from a walker. Chambliss was recovering from being shot in a drive-by shooting on Aug. 30, just a few blocks from the police station.

“It’s getting old,” one clearly frustrated resident told 1st District Commander Jeff Brown. “It’s getting increasingly more dangerous.”

Representatives from the D.C. and federal governments, along with a patrol lieutenant from the U.S. Capitol Police, joined Brown at the meeting. Capitol Police Lt. Michael Byrd told the group the department assists the MPD in an area surrounding the Capitol and also focuses on educating staff and the public to be aware of their surroundings.

“Keep your personals, your cellphones, things like that. It’s a good idea to put those items away, draw less attention to yourself while riding the subway, walking the platforms, things of that nature,” Byrd advised, also noting residents should try to travel in groups.

Members of Congress, congressional staff and scores of new interns will likely be encouraged to heed that advice as they return to Capitol Hill this week. In both the House and Senate, individual offices are responsible for educating their staff, and particularly interns who may be new to the District, on how to stay safe around the Capitol.

“Each House office has a designated Emergency Coordinator, and it is each office’s responsibility to discuss campus safety and security with their interns,” said a spokesperson for the House Administration Committee. “Additionally, the Sergeant at Arms and the Capitol Police always make themselves available if offices are looking for guidance.”

Though the Capitol Police are focused on protecting the Capitol complex, USCP officers patrol neighborhoods surrounding the Capitol in an area bound by H Street to the north, Potomac Avenue to the South, Third Street to the West and Seventh Street to the East.

At the Sept. 1 community meeting, one resident asked Byrd about the possibility of expanding USCP jurisdiction even further.

“I feel safe on Capitol Hill.” said the female resident. “Where I don’t feel safe now is South Capitol, M Street, Trinidad. So since these two agencies work together, is there any money in the overtime budget to have you guys extend to those neighborhoods?”

Byrd said that decision would have to be made by department brass. “There are opportunities that we do work hand-in-hand outside of the Capitol complex. It depends on the nature,” Byrd said, adding, “That’s a great idea. We would love to expand.”

Brown told CQ Roll Call after the meeting his department coordinates with Capitol Police, and he had not seen an increase in USCP presence in response to the spike in crime, likely because officers are focused on the Capitol grounds. But he did voice support for expanding the department’s jurisdiction.

“I do know [expanding USCP jurisdiction] is a little more complicated; you have to have hearings and things of that nature,” Brown said. “But we would more than welcome the additional coverage that they can do.”

But the Capitol Police department is facing a budget shortfall and low staffing levels. The MPD is grappling with a similar problem with an impending “retirement bubble.” Chief Cathy L. Lanier said in a recent interview with WAMU 88.5 that the D.C. force has just more than 3,800 officers. The USCP is roughly half the size of the MPD’s force, with 1,775 sworn officers.

Frustration within the rank and file rankles both departments, with Capitol Police officers discontented with a focus on combating terrorism instead of policing. On the weekend of Aug. 28, roughly 1,100 MPD officers voted in an anonymous union survey that they have “no confidence” in Lanier’s leadership.

Aside from budget and personnel issues, expanding USCP jurisdiction would also take an act of Congress, which hasn’t expanded the department’s bounds since 1992. At the time, violence rocked the District, rendering it the “murder capital” of the country.

Though homicides are up nearly 45 percent this summer compared to 2014, D.C. leaders say it is part of a nationwide spike in crime, and the District has not reached the same level of violence that plagued the area 20 years ago.

“I can tell you firsthand we are nowhere near the bad old days of the ’90s,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in an Aug. 27 address, “and we’re not going back there, either.”

At that address, Bowser unveiled her proposal to combat violent crime, particularly the spike in homicides. D.C. leaders are grappling with explaining the crime spike, noting some causes include illegal guns in the hands of prior offenders and a rise in the use of synthetic drugs.

Bowser sparred with Black Lives Matter activists who shouted during her speech, voicing concerns that her plan could violate civil liberties and would lead to more arrests of young black men. Though the Bowser administration contends such allegations are false, D.C. council members will be looking closely at her plan.

“A lot of it sounds like it is some good ideas but [there are] also some places where there are some important questions to ask about protecting civil liberties,” Laura Marks, chief of staff for Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who represents Capitol Hill, said in a phone interview.

Marks said Allen has been attending a number of meetings with constituents and is in regular contact with the MPD commanders in charge of the three police districts in Ward 6.

The 1st District, which encompasses Capitol Hill, has seen the lowest number of homicides of the seven police districts. Police data released on Aug. 26 showed the district has experienced five homicides in 2015. The 7th District, which encompasses much of southeast D.C., has experienced more than five times that number of homicides.

Still, the crime spike has hit home for members of the Capitol Hill community, and for congressional staff. This summer, two former congressional interns, both American University graduates, were killed. Kevin Sutherland, 24, was brutally stabbed on a Metro train on July 4, and Matt Shlonsky, 23, was shot near a Metro stop in August.

In addition to the mayor’s legislative proposals, which include increasing penalties for violent crimes committed on public transit, MPD Commander Brown is also looking to make changes on the street, such as moving officers out of their vehicles and onto mountain bikes so they are more visible.

MPD increased officers on the street during an “all hands on deck” in the last weekend in August. In a statement, MPD said the initiative was effective and violent crime was down nearly 40 percent compared to the same weekend in 2014. But Brown noted officers still have work to do to bring a sense of security back to the neighborhoods.

“We just had a very successful all-hands-on-deck this past weekend,” Brown said on Sept. 1. “But if people don’t feel safe in their own neighborhoods, it means absolutely nothing.”

Hannah Hess contributed to this report.


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