In the wake of an unprecedented homicide rate in the District whose numbers have already eclipsed last year’s 12-month total, a group comprised of law enforcement officials, clergy, activists and entrepreneurs have teamed up, sharing resources and experience in efforts to halt violent crime east of the Anacostia River.
The group of more than a dozen leaders recently gathered for the second time at a local business to discuss police-community relations, the need for culturally-competent curriculum and job training with subsequent employment opportunities for youth.
“There have always been folks close to the both good and bad things happening in the community who were able to interact with officers, so we could let each other know when help was needed,” said Seventh District Commander Andre Wright, Metropolitan Police Department [MPD], a participant in the ongoing discussions.
Wright, a former member of MPD’s youth division, spoke about the success of restorative justice strategies that have allowed young offenders to meet their victims and atone for their mistakes.
During the Friday meeting, he committed to facilitating sensitivity training for officers patrolling Anacostia, Naylor Gardens, Washington Highlands and other areas of Ward 8.
“The church elders knew when to involve police assistance,” Wright added. “This [type of relationship] always existed before it had a name. With each iteration and evolution of organizing and policing strategies, it will take us coming together in the new age to communicate.”
D.C.’s homicide rate increased by 42 percent in October after police officers found a man shot dead on Alabama Avenue in Southeast on the night before Halloween. The incident marked the 138th murder to occur in the District this year.
Over the summer, people of various ages, including Makiyah Wilson, 10, and Travis Barksdale, 25, lost their lives in cases that sparked public outrage. In August, Cease Fire Don’t Smoke the Brothers and Sisters, a Northwest-based grassroots organization comprised of returning citizens and violence interrupters, marked the beginning of a six-month moratorium on gun violence with its annual event at Upshur Park in Northwest.
Nearly three months later, more than 40 homicides have occurred, even as other forms of violent crime decreased. Much of the recent discussion had been around how to approach youth, particularly those who often interact with the criminal justice system.
Participants said they want to improve relations between youth, police officers and business owners, noting that youth immersed in the streets with the influence to prevent homicides often do not feel connected to the wider community.
“We can’t tell business owners to give jobs but if you give food, you can solve the problem,” said William Weaver, an outreach worker affiliated with the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, responding to an inquiry about truants who loiter in front of stores.
Weaver said he and a colleague recently mediated a conflict between police officers and youth who routinely congregate along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Congress Heights after school. He suggested that collaborative youth engagement of similar nature should be employed more often so that young people feel more comfortable listening and respecting elders.
“Kids will take their guns home and go to school,” Weaver continued as he stressed the need for more after-school activities on school grounds. “This is what we’re teaching with this approach. We’re trying to implement it and build relationships. If we don’t start bringing back some of the programs onto school grounds, we will lose any real means to communicate.”
Some people, like Pastor R. Joyce Scott of Temple of Praise in Southeast, say they have a personal stake in curbing violence in Ward 8. Scott lost one grandson to the streets and had another severely injured. Those experiences, she says, have compelled her to directly connect with her neighbors, many of whom have similar stories.
“There’s nothing like mothers who are fed up. They are a piece in that puzzle,” Scott said. “We all know each other in this community. The structure we’re making would have a trickle-down effect. You need a unified front with the churches, activists and police. It takes teamwork to make the dream work.”