A recent surge in violence in D.C. has set residents and city officials on edge. Eight people have died as a result of gun violence in the District over the past seven days. At least 11 other people have been wounded by gunshots during the same period, according to the Metropolitan Police Department. So far in 2019, there have been 96 homicides in D.C. — compared to 86 in the same period in 2018.

In a news conference on Monday, city officials blamed the recent spike in violence on the prevalence of illegal firearms in the District. Mayor Muriel Bowser took to Twitter to ask for the public’s help in finding illegal guns and getting off the streets.

What is causing the increase in violence? And what can be done to stem it? We’ll ask the team at D.C. Witness, a local non-profit dedicated to documenting homicides in the city and using the data to bring about effective public policy in the fight against crime and violence in communities.

Produced by Monna Kashfi

Guests

  • Amos Gelb Founder and Publisher, D.C. Witness; @amosgelb
  • LaTrina Antoine Editor-In-Chief, D.C. Witness; @dcwitness

Transcript

  • 12:00:02

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on the WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we'll check in on the state of the region's waterways and hear about the cleanup projects currently underway to make them healthier, and maybe even clean enough to swim in. But first nine people have died as a result of gun violence in the District over the past seven days. And according to the Metropolitan Police Department at least 11 other people have been wounded by gunshots in the past week, but have survived. In a news conference yesterday city officials blamed the recent spike in violence on access to illegal guns in the District.

  • 12:00:36

    KOJO NNAMDIMayor Bowser took to Twitter to ask for the public's help in finding illegal guns and getting them off the streets. Joining me now to discuss this recent onslaught of violence in the District is Amos Gelb. He is the Founder and Publisher of D.C. Witness, a non-profit organization that documents every homicide in the District from the time that crime is committed to its judicial resolution. He's also Director of the Washington Media Institute. Amos Gelb, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:03

    AMOS GELBThank you, Kojo, and belated congratulations and thanks for your 20 years of service.

  • 12:01:07

    NNAMDIThank you very much. Also joining us in studio is LaTrina Antoine. She is the Editor-In-Chief of D.C. Witness. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:01:15

    LATRINA ANTOINEThank you.

  • 12:01:16

    NNAMDILaTrina, how many homicides have there been in the city so far this year?

  • 12:01:19

    ANTOINEWell, so far this year there have been 98 homicides in the city. And if you compare that to a year ago at the same time there were 87. So we're seeing pretty much a 13 percent increase in homicides thus far.

  • 12:01:35

    NNAMDIThe Metropolitan Police Department has posted stats this morning. They have the number of homicides this year at 95 and 85 for the same period in 2018. Why does your count vary from theirs?

  • 12:01:46

    ANTOINESo D.C. Witness varies, because we include all homicides and we take into account vehicular homicides and suicides into our number of homicides.

  • 12:01:58

    NNAMDIWhere in the city has the violence been most prevalent, LaTrina? Have you seen a significant surge of gun violence in certain sections of the city certain wards?

  • 12:02:07

    ANTOINEWell, mostly it's in Ward 8 and Ward 7. And they have the highest number of homicides in the city. But gun violence is reaching across the city. With wards changing the amount of homicides they have from gun related deaths from month to month.

  • 12:02:25

    NNAMDIThere seems to have been a significant spike in Ward 1 in recent years or months; is that in fact correct?

  • 12:02:33

    ANTOINESo in year over year comparison there's actually a 10 percent increase in homicides in Wards 1 from 2018 to this year. But, again, this year hasn't finished. If we look at a month to month comparison, Ward 1 increases at points and then at other points it will be low.

  • 12:02:59

    NNAMDIWhat role have guns played in the homicides that have taken place in 2019 so far? Can you give us a break down on the number of fatalities caused by guns versus those caused by other weapons?

  • 12:03:11

    ANTOINESure. So what I'm going to do again is I'm going to state the number of homicides. There have been 98 homicides in Washington D.C. in 2019. Of those 98 homicides 77 have been caused from shootings gun related incidents. And so it's very significant. And the next closest ranking to that would be stabbings, but only 12 stabbings have occurred. So I mean, we're looking at a majority of our homicides coming from gun violence.

  • 12:03:46

    NNAMDIAmos Gelb, you founded D.C. Witness in 2015. What was the idea?

  • 12:03:50

    GELBWell, the idea is that there is a massive hole in the coverage and transparency. While the police do an amazing job getting that data and while the courts do everything they can to make it accessible nobody really knows what's going on. And so the idea is by gathering the data, by covering every story rather than cherry picking a case here and there, we're bringing attention to every case giving everybody in every community an equal coverage. And then we started gathering the data as sort of a side line and that's turned into actually the true vehicle, which raises questions when as right as he is when the police chief gets up and says, it's about guns. It kind of skews the conversation.

  • 12:04:40

    NNAMDIAnd that's exactly where I was going to take the conversation by the way, because city officials and D.C. Police Chief, Peter Newsham, have blamed the uptick on violence on the prevalence of illegal firearms in the District. By the way, the chief will be our guest next Tuesday July 30th here. But how would you describe the gun problem in the city?

  • 12:04:59

    GELBSo the chief is right. First of all we're an non-advocacy non-partisan organization. We're neither about gun registration, gun limitation, or access to guns. We just cover it. And part of the thing that -- the problem that we have I think we all agree that any gun that is used in a homicide is probably one gun too many. The problem with it is as soon as he says, the problem is guns. Then it skews it and it becomes a guns rights. It becomes a guns issue. And we know that that's intractable. And so rather than -- and we're not going to get anywhere on that. The Supreme Court's ruled. And you can go over into Virginia. You, Kojo, could sell me a gun out of the back of your car in Roslyn. I drive across the bridge. It's legal there, absolutely legal. All of a sudden I have it here.

  • 12:05:47

    GELBSo what we try and get to is that the issue here is not so much that there are gun, because there certainly are too many. But what is creating an environment and a culture with the need for it. And the reason that we found the data tells us is something that I'll let LaTrina take on.

  • 12:06:05

    ANTOINESo what I've seen a lot in courtrooms is that a lot of these defendants, who are involved in these gun related homicides are saying, well, I carry a gun for protection. I need a gun to walk down the block of my neighborhood. I need a gun on me at all times to make sure that I can return home safe. Obviously with the amount of homicides we have that's probably not the answer, but that is part of the culture that we have in D.C., right now.

  • 12:06:36

    GELBAnd the data leads to something else. And as I say we just go off the data. When you find out that the data shows that the major motivation may be petty insults, well, you can't police that, right? So as great as the chief's folks may be, how do you police a petty insult rather than how do we go about addressing a culture that has created the need for people to have guns and then have no control when they pull out and that's the immediate way they resolve a dispute.

  • 12:07:05

    NNAMDII tell you when it comes to the availability of guns it occurred to me that we usually hear that most of the illegal firearms in the District are coming here from Virginia. So this morning just on a whim I decided to check the gun violence rate in Richmond, Virginia because obviously in Richmond, Virginia there are probably even more available than they are in the District of Columbia. Now Richmond, Virginia has a population that's about one third of the population of the District of Columbia. But according to the website cityrating.com Richmond is predicted to have 27 homicides by gun violence this year. In the District we are already up to 98 and it's just July.

  • 12:07:45

    NNAMDISo the homicide rate, the gun violence homicide rate in Richmond is significantly lower than it is here. So in my view it's simply couldn't be the availability of guns that are leading to homicides. But you touched on another issue, which I think Mike in New Carrollton also wants to touch on. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:08:04

    MIKEThank you. Hello, Kojo. I just wanted to say that as I said to the young lady it seems to me that there is a mentality at work whereby people don't know how to -- they don't know how to resolve matters through conflict resolution. And that it's not emphasized in schools. It's not taught in schools. So people are left with their own devices and not knowing what to do. And then the climate itself, that where they come from is charged with the inability to resolve an issue.

  • 12:08:47

    MIKESo what they do is they go -- when they start from A and go all the way to Z and there's no understanding the process. In having a discussion whether we agree or disagree, it doesn't mean that you're manhood is on trial. It doesn't mean that you're not going to get the girl you're looking for. It's not where the person itself is on trial, where they think that people -- they feel so embarrassed that they lost an argument in their mind, so the next step is to get a gun to prove something to this person that I'm going to get you, and that's the mentality that's strong out here.

  • 12:09:30

    NNAMDIOkay. We've been hearing reports about how the killing of an 11 year old in southeast Washington over the past few days was as a result of an argument and maybe smaller fights that were taking place in a certain location. So there was obviously some kind of dispute, some kind of beef, but nobody was able to stop it. Care to comment?

  • 12:09:49

    GELBWell, that's exactly right. And so it raises a bunch of questions. One is how do you police that? You can't police that. Perhaps a better use of a couple of cop cars in Anacostia is when you get an incident with a couple of young gentlemen you put them through a crisis simulation. Because how many times we hear the word, I wish I had those five seconds back? The five seconds that they pull that. So your caller is absolutely right. And increasingly we're finding that the number -- the main motivation is not drugs. It's not crime. It's these kinds of social interactions, which raises questions. It's not a policing matter as your caller, again, said. It's a schooling matter.

  • 12:10:32

    ANTOINERight. Well, yes, it's a culture. And what I see is more resources need to be available to help people deal with anger management to help them deal with these situations to help them -- I also feel like it's to help them deal with situations where they do have this hopeless feeling and they're striking out to get rid of that feeling.

  • 12:10:54

    NNAMDIYears ago there was the Peaceaholics organization that was formed by Ron Moten and his partner, and their entire purpose of existence was to stem beefs that would occur across the city. And it would appear that for a while they were having some success. But, you know, there's politics in the District of Columbia and as a result of that we don't have that anymore. There are however other initiatives that are trying to do this. I don't claim to know them all at this point. But, Amos Gelb, you say that resorting to the too many guns blame game is also dangerous. Why is that?

  • 12:11:26

    GELBWell, because then everybody gets into these corners. We're not going to get a resolution. We've seen that. We spoke to somebody recently, who called us for information, who had worked with Ted Kennedy from the 70s on trying to get gun control. If you make it about an issue that is so divisive, we're not going to solve the problem. And so the question is can we attack the problem from a different avenue rather than running full speed into a brick wall, which we pretty much all know isn't going to give way at this point.

  • 12:11:58

    NNAMDIWhat -- Go ahead, please.

  • 12:11:59

    GELBOne other thing that I'd like to say is that one of the things that as we've gathered all the data and we have amazing people, who are completely committed throughout the government from the police department to the courts to the mayor's office to other people, part of the problem is that there is often this mandate myopia where they understand the data from their area and not the overall picture. We're like a vacuum at the bottom of the ocean. We just suck up everything and put it into data. Part of the problem is that if you don't have all the data and can't look at it, you end up coming with things that you think are going to. You're essentially throwing some kind of matter against the wall and hoping it sticks.

  • 12:12:39

    NNAMDIWhat does your data show about how gun crimes are prosecuted in the District? It's my understanding that even though the police and the mayor have the identified the prevalence of illegal guns as the cause of the surge in violence that's not what is being prosecuted in the courts; is that correct?

  • 12:12:53

    ANTOINESo we are finding that. And we're finding that a lot of times these gun charges are initially placed on defendants when they go into the system. And usually a lot of times gun charges aren't placed until they're indicted. So if they plea out before they're indicted then they'll have an enhancement that says, while armed, but they won't have that gun that illegal possession charge. And so that's what we're finding.

  • 12:13:21

    GELBIf you add to that -- if you think about that there is no penalty at the moment these guns are illegal, the ones that are killing people. So how does asking somebody, who has a fear that they need a gun, because they fear for their lives to please turn it in because it's dangerous, how is that going to really resolve our position? It's a noble thing, but how can we address these more deeper seeded cultural issues?

  • 12:13:46

    ANTOINEIt's a noble thing. And they do collect hundreds of guns when they do have these -- where they do have these locations where guns can be turned in, but, you know, we're also seeing increasing homicides. And we're seeing more and more gun fatalities. So, you know, that's just part of the solution. There is another side to this solution and so that's what we're trying to get out there through the data.

  • 12:14:14

    NNAMDIYou spend a lot of time or you or the people who work with D.C. Witness spend a lot of time in courtrooms. How well does D.C. do in terms of arrests and convictions?

  • 12:14:29

    ANTOINESo for arrests in D.C. so we always hear the police spout about high arrest rates. And for arrests in D.C. just to give you a few of the numbers dealing with those arrests, in 2019 there were -- so in 2019 there were --

  • 12:14:57

    NNAMDIShe's looking. She's looking at her iPad. That's why we're taking a pause here. She's scrolling. She's scrolling.

  • 12:15:03

    ANTOINEI'm scrolling. We deal with a lot of numbers. So I wanted to make sure that I had everything right.

  • 12:15:12

    NNAMDIIn the meantime, Kevin emails us to ask, can illegal gun sellers be charged with reckless endangerment homicide? Do you know that at all?

  • 12:15:21

    ANTOINEThey can be. That can be one of the charges placed especially at an indictment period. There have been cases where several charges were placed on a defendant and then it's really up to the judge to decide, well, is this really far to that defendant or are you kind of doing a double jeopardy kind of situation where you're charging the defendant for two of the same thing. So whether or not they're found guilty on one thing and not guilty on the other it's the same charge.

  • 12:15:57

    NNAMDIOkay. You keep on looking for arrests.

  • 12:15:59

    ANTOINEWell, I actually have it.

  • 12:16:00

    NNAMDIOh, you got it. Go.

  • 12:16:01

    ANTOINESo in 2019 --

  • 12:16:02

    NNAMDII was going to go to the phones, but go ahead.

  • 12:16:03

    ANTOINEIn 2019, so just to give you a perspective we've had 98 homicides, but we've only had 35 arrests in 2019.

  • 12:16:10

    NNAMDIWow. Here is Don in Nokesville, Virginia. Don, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:16:16

    DONKojo, I love your show. However, with respect to getting guns off the street I had an idea. You know, you can't go into an airport or get on a plane without being checked for --

  • 12:16:32

    NNAMDIAll kinds of stuff, yes.

  • 12:16:34

    DONOkay. And that goes for schools and courthouses and whatever. Well, I feel the same way about streets. You know, you shouldn't be able to go with an illegal gun on the streets. So I know it's a constitutional question as to frisk and search, but my feeling is that the authorities should be able to stop people and ask if they have a weapon onboard or are carrying a weapon.

  • 12:17:01

    NNAMDIWell, as you have already pointed out you have stepped into a constitutional morass when you raise that issue because --

  • 12:17:08

    GELBThe other point is that if, again, we're seeing most of them are not crime related. So if some guys are sitting on a porch talking to each other --

  • 12:17:17

    ANTOINEAnd one of them happens to have a gun, you're talking targeting that person. And it will also go into the police community relations. Like already you have communities of color, who are low income feeling like they're being targeted by the police. That's just opening another door to target these poor communities of color.

  • 12:17:40

    NNAMDIAs I said, Don, a constitutional morass you just stepped into. We're almost out of time. But as I said earlier you track homicides cases in D.C. from the time the crime is committed until the outcome in court. How do you do that? Who works for you?

  • 12:17:53

    ANTOINESo I have a team of interns throughout the year who work for me. And the whole basis of using interns is because throughout the years we have noticed that journalism internships and internships that actually give these interns really good writing skills, data, accounting, skills, accuracy skills, they're disappearing. So we want to give them that real world experience. We want to strengthen their communication skills, their writing, their data gathering skills. We really want to have them spruce their confidence level so that, you know, they can talk to people who they think are, you know, high officials with a confidence that says, I know what I'm doing. I know what's here.

  • 12:18:36

    ANTOINEAnd then there's also a separate part. It's a -- I call this a thinking internship. You can't get through this internship without thinking, immersing yourself into deep thought about how you're writing pieces, the tactics you're taking, and the like.

  • 12:18:54

    NNAMDIFinal word.

  • 12:18:55

    GELBThe final word was the idea behind putting interns or putting students would be journalism. We've now had law students and medical students in the courtroom is there's this interesting thing that's called facts. And that too often what does a fact actually mean and there's nothing like sitting through a three hour arraignment or sitting through a trial an understanding that this is not Law & Order. And how do you gather the right details and Trina does an amazing job, and we have a very strong system that trains people how to learn that. So if you want to do journalism, you want to have law, it's a rare opportunity.

  • 12:19:33

    NNAMDIAmos Gelb is the Founder and Publisher of D.C. Witness, which documents every homicide in the District from the time the crime is committed to its judicial resolution. LaTrina Antoine is the Editor-In-Chief of D.C. Witness. Thank you both for joining us.

  • 12:19:46

    GELBThank you, Kojo.

  • 12:19:47

    ANTOINEThank you.

  • 12:19:48

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll check in on the state of region's waterways. We'll also hear about the cleanup projects currently underway to make them healthier and maybe even clean enough to swim in. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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