It was a summer night in 2004, and Rep. Bryan Steil, then a Hill staffer, was on his front porch in Adams Morgan when some men approached.
As Steil and his friends barbecued, the men pulled guns and robbed all in attendance, according to memories the Wisconsin Republican shared on Monday. It’s an incident Steil said he doesn’t talk about much. But it makes crime in D.C. more than just a political issue for the House Administration Committee chairman.
“You think about your safety differently after being a victim of a crime,” Steil said following an informational security briefing, which his committee hosted, on rising violent crime in the nation’s capital.
While many security discussions on Capitol Hill in recent years have been about hardening the defenses of the campus itself in the wake of the mob attack of Jan. 6, 2021, the briefing on Monday encouraged Hill staffers and members of Congress to watch their backs while out and about in the surrounding city.
Rep. Angie Craig, a Minnesota Democrat, was assaulted in the elevator of her Washington apartment building in February and suffered mild injuries. And a staffer for Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was stabbed multiple times in March while walking along the H Street Corridor.
Those incidents sparked fear and stoked long-standing tensions between Congress and the city it calls home, which has been a favorite target of politicians over the years, with some denouncing the “swamp,” excluding it from “real” America or holding it up as an example of the need to get tough on crime. They’ve also come amid an uptick in homicides and motor vehicle thefts in the last year.
“The goal here is to prevent people from being victims of crimes, to provide them the tools that they can use knowing that there’s crime out there,” Steil said. “But also what are the policies that we need to put forward in a city like D.C. or across our nation that address this?”
Crime in the District has become a focal point not just because of alarming statistics but also as Republicans took back the House in the 118th Congress and made oversight of the liberal D.C. Council a priority. But concern over crime in D.C. has not been driven solely by the GOP.
Democrats in the House and the Senate joined their colleagues to override a D.C. bill that would have revised the city’s criminal code and reduced maximum penalties for crimes like armed carjackings. President Joe Biden supported the effort, making it the first disapproval resolution overturning local D.C. law to pass in more than 30 years. A second local measure to overhaul the city’s oversight of the police department was also rejected by both chambers but survived when Biden vetoed the disapproval resolution.
Partisan divides over crime in D.C. were apparent at a series of hearings held by the House Oversight and Accountability Committee in the spring with members of the D.C. Council and Mayor Muriel Bowser. Republicans on the committee described D.C. as a place where criminals “run rampant.” Democrats, meanwhile, focused the conversation on D.C. statehood and the ability of the city to self-govern. Some also argued the city is still far safer than it was at its most violent peak in the 1990s.
“There’s a lot of folks out there who deny it, say that crime is actually down,” D.C. Police Union Chairman Greggory Pemberton said Monday at the briefing. “[Or say] it’s not as bad as it was in the ’90s. I never understood that argument, that at some point in time it was significantly worse so we should just accept increases in crime.”
Homicides in the past three years are well below the city’s historic highs from the 1990s, when there were regularly more than 400 murders in a year. But the city has seen a 29 percent spike in homicides year-over-year, according to Metropolitan Police data. And the nation’s capital is on pace to exceed 200 homicides for the third year in a row, a milestone that, prior to 2021, hadn’t been hit since Steil’s days as a staffer in the early aughts.
Violent crime as a whole — including homicide, sex abuse, assault with a dangerous weapon and robbery — is up 38 percent year-over-year. And motor vehicle theft has risen 108 percent since 2022, according to police department data.
And, according to Steil and Pemberton, all of it points back to the D.C. Council.
“The main problem we’re dealing with now is we have a city council that’s gone a little bit rogue,” Pemberton said, citing the policing law that supporters say will strengthen training requirements, prohibit the hiring of officers with a history of misconduct and improve police accountability.
The law includes verbiage that “completely hammers police officers going about their job and creates completely onerous provisions for officers. It just makes for an environment that people do not want to work in,” Pemberton said.
The result is a 50-year low in sworn police officers and a drop of 500 officers since 2020 alone, which has coincided with the recent uptick in crime, according to Pemberton.
Monday’s event underscored the partisan history of the debate over home rule and how much Congress should flex its authority over the nation’s capital. No members of the D.C. Council were present at the briefing, and Council Chair Phil Mendelson did not respond to a request for comment. Democratic members of the House Administration Committee also were not present. A Democratic aide said minority members had not been officially invited, although Steil said anyone was free to attend.
Pemberton and other law enforcement officials offered guidance for staff present at the briefing: Always be aware of your surroundings; don’t get distracted by your cellphone or stop and talk to strangers; walk with others whenever possible.
Elise Stebick and Will Dixon, congressional staffers who shared their own experience of being robbed at gunpoint in October 2022, made a similar plea to staffers to take caution while navigating the city.
Stebick, who works for Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., and Dixon, who works for the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, had both lived in D.C. for several years without incident before the night they said they were robbed.
The pair were walking with a friend back from dinner to Stebick’s Navy Yard home just a few blocks away. Two men hopped out of an SUV, drew a gun and robbed Stebick, Dixon and their friend, the staffers said.
The staffers were shaken. Neither wanted the prospect of crime to control their lives, but Stebick said she became afraid of the dark and often opted to stay in after sundown.
“You hear the stories and you think, Wow, that’s awful,” Dixon said. “But you don’t really internalize it. It’s such a rarity that you think it’s not gonna happen to me. And then it does. It’s very jarring.”