On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
In the District last year, 166 people died in homicides.
That’s the highest number in a decade.
The vast majority of those deaths happened because someone fired a gun. And for the second year in a row, the number of young people killed — a dozen school-age children and teenagers — is drawing particular concern.
But D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham is optimistic.
In a New Year’s Eve press conference, he pointed to the overall lower rate of violent crime in the district compared to the prior decade, and the many city initiatives to prevent and solve homicides and confiscate illegal firearms.
What is working and what isn’t to stem the rising tide of lethal gun violence?
Produced by Lauren Markoe
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast how the Washington region's Jewish community is responding to increasing antisemitism, but first when it comes to homicides in the District the numbers are going in the wrong direction. District Police counted 166 homicides last year. That's a four percent increase from the year before. It's also the highest number since 2008. The vast majority of those deaths were gun deaths. And this year is getting off to a violent start including three homicides this past weekend. How can we better understand this deadly trend and what are the police doing to reverse it? Joining me in studio to discuss this is Peter Newsham. He is the Chief of the District's Metropolitan Police Department. Chief Newsham, thank you for joining us.
PETER NEWSHAMGood morning, Kojo. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Alana Wise. She is a Reporting Fellow with Guns & America, a national project based here at WAMU. Alana, thank you for joining us.
ALANA WISEHappy to be here.
NNAMDIAlana, homicides in the District rose last year. Can you put that increase into context for us?
WISESo last year homicides went up about four percent, and while four percent may not sound like a ton that's coming on the heels of the year prior, which saw nearly a 40 percent increase in homicides. So we're looking at as you mentioned the highest number of killings that we've seen in the better part of a decade. This is important, because obviously these sort of deaths end up affecting far larger than just the families, who are hurt by them. There are ramifications that kind of reverberate through the entire community, and that has potentially pretty huge repercussions for the city at large.
NNAMDIDoes any other type of homicide approach the mortality rate of death from gunshot wounds?
WISESo guns are especially -- it varies from city to city. But gun deaths account for a huge number of the homicides we've seen here in the city. Police Chief Newsham's office has mentioned the growing problem with illegal guns. They've made capturing illegal guns a big part of their priorities and have said that they would, you know, work to more aggressively prosecute people who are caught in the commission of a crime with an illegal gun.
NNAMDIWho are the victims of these crimes and where do they live?
WISESo a pretty significant number of these killings are happening east of the Anacostia, but I do want to be clear that this sort of thing can happen anywhere. If you'll recall just a couple of months ago we saw a number of people shot in just the span of a couple of minutes in Columbia Heights. So while a big chunk of these numbers are happening east of the Anacostia this is a citywide problem.
NNAMDIChief Newsham, on New Year's Eve you shared these new homicide figures at a press conference. And you, however, expressed some optimism. Why?
NEWSHAMWell, I think that we have to put, you know, the homicide thing that's going on in Washington D.C. right now to see an increase is troubling to all of us. And I think what Alana said is exactly right, homicides impact not just the family who lost a loved one, but it can impact an entire community. A certain amount of fear is developed there. But I think, you know, when you talk about 10 years in the District of Columbia you have to consider the fact that we are a much safer city than we were 10 years ago, to the tune of about 3,000 less violent crimes that we've had in our city. This homicide and shooting issue has been very very persistent.
NEWSHAMAnd so, you know, you also ask, Kojo, about the demographics of the people that are involved in our homicides. In 2018, we took a look at the people that we arrested for homicide. In the 90 percent around, 90 percent of the people that were arrested for homicide had criminal histories with an average of about 10 arrests each. Nearly 50 percent of the people that were arrested for homicide had a prior gun offense. And about 30 percent -- a little over 30 percent, between 30 and 35 percent of the people that we arrested for homicide were under supervision at the time that they committed the homicide. And the really interesting part about that is the demographic for the victims of our homicide runs just about the same.
NEWSHAMSo this is a persistent issue. I am very optimistic moving forward. Some of the things that we're doing I think are going to pay dividends moving to impact the homicides movement.
NNAMDIBefore we get to those things, when you were asked what's driving the violence you point your finger directly at guns, why?
NEWSHAMNo, I don't always say necessarily -- there's two things I think that I generally point to. It's the illegal firearms that we have in our community. And it's the repeat violent offenders. And I think moving forward if we're going to -- and that's for the homicides. If we're going to address homicides in our city those two issues need to be looked at very carefully. You know, we need to always be looking at how guns are getting into our city.
NEWSHAMWe've had a really good relationship with our federal partners, the U.S. Attorney, the U.S. Attorneys in Northern Virginia, because Northern Virginia is the source state for many of our guns that come into the District of Columbia. They seem to be stepping up their efforts to prevent firearms from getting into our community. When they do get into our community I think as a police department we have a responsibility to get these illegal firearms out of the community. If you look at our number of gun seizures last year we recovered 300 more guns than we had in the previous year. And then a big piece that you hear me talk about all the time is there has to be consequences that change behavior for people who pick up these illegal firearms.
NNAMDIWhat is a ghost gun?
NEWSHAMA ghost gun is a gun that's not traceable, because it's a gun that's put together. So people can buy most of the pieces for a firearm separately and then they could essentially put that thing that weapon together. The weapon is just as dangerous as any other weapon. Probably more dangerous, because it prevents law enforcement from being able to trace where it came from. So, you know, we talked about source states. That creates a roadblock from kind of figuring out exactly where that gun came from.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that these ghost guns you can start with something known as a lower receiver that's 80 percent finished and with a little work you can take that receiver to 100 percent. My question is is it illegal to purchase the lower receiver?
NEWSHAMIn the District of Columbia it would not be illegal to purchase that piece. The upper piece is essentially a piece of a weapon. So there would be some legal ramifications at the District, but in other jurisdictions, you know, you can put these guns together and then, you know, as you know many of these guns make their way into the District. I want to say we recovered over 130 ghost guns this past year.
NNAMDIYou point to Virginia as the source of many of the guns used in D.C. homicides. Why are so many coming from Virginia?
NEWSHAMI think it's because of the laws in the Commonwealth just make it easier for people to purchase weapons. And I'm not going to stand in the way of a legal law abiding citizen having a firearm, but I think the problem comes in if the laws make it too easy. Then you can have a lot of what you call the straw purchases going on. And what we see many of the guns that we trace back are the result of straw purchases. And that's where somebody in another jurisdiction purchases a firearm. They will sell it to somebody else and then they will report it lost or stolen. And oftentimes the person they're selling to -- selling it to has criminal intent. And that's how many of our guns end up getting into the District.
NNAMDICan you succeed as this goal of curbing gun violence without cooperation from authorities in Virginia and have you taken any steps in that regard?
NEWSHAMYou 100 percent have to have cooperation from your surrounding jurisdictions. You know, Washington D.C. is only 67 or so square miles. We're not very big geographically. And as you know, in Washington D.C., we don't sell firearms. We don't manufacture firearms, but we still have this kind of chronic shooting problem here in our city with illegal firearms. So for us to be successful -- you know, if you look at the two states that border us, if you look at Maryland, if you look at Virginia, Maryland in recent years has actually tightened up some of their laws surrounding firearms. And as a result they have become less of a source state over recent years where Virginia has actually increased as a source state when you look at overall percentages.
NEWSHAMSo we're just hoping that the folks in Virginia will be a good neighbor. They will understand the problems that this causes here in the District of Columbia and they'll change their laws accordingly.
NNAMDIAlana, what have lawmakers done to curb gun violence and can we expect new efforts in the New Year?
WISESo one thing that we've seen out of lawmakers recently especially in D.C. we've seen different community programs that have come up, Cure the Streets, different investments in violence interruption programs. More federally we've also seen a recent launch of what's called project guardian. And that is basically a collaboration between D.C., Maryland and Virginia that says they'll work to more aggressively pursue gun charges be it for straw purchasing like the chief was just mentioning or different illegal charges and that kind of things.
WISESo far the efficacy of these efforts is yet to be seen. As you know, we haven't really had any significant gun legislation in a very long time. So at this point a significant amount of what we hear discussed is better enforcement of existing laws.
NNAMDISpeaking of lawmakers, joining us now by phone is Charles Allen. He's a D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 6. He's also Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Charles Allen, thank you for joining us.
CHARLES ALLENThanks for having me on, Kojo.
NNAMDIWhat has the city done recently to address gun violence?
ALLENWell, as you heard the chief talk about obviously the focus on the enforcement. But one of the things we're also trying to do is really also get at the root causes. Get to that individual who might have that possession of that firearm. And what we've done is invest and actually triple our funding for the type of efforts around violence prevention, violence intervention. And really focus in on the communities and individuals that have really experienced the trauma and the violence that then begets more violence. As we like to say a violent crime doesn't come out of nowhere. And so we have to be able at the same time pull a lot of levers. And we have to focus on getting at this violence interruption and violence reduction work.
NNAMDIChief, can you tell us a little bit about how some of that violence interruption programs, how some of those programs work?
NEWSHAMI don't have a lot of insight into those programs. Those are run separately from the police department. And there actually is a philosophy by some that are in that business to not share information with law enforcement, because it can somehow impact their legitimacy out in the community. So I do not have a lot of insight into it. The only thing that I would say is like any other government run program I think we need to ask questions about their efficacy. You know, what are their goals? What are they trying to accomplish? Who are the folks that work in this programs to make sure that, you know, is this a something that anybody can do. You know, is this -- it would seem to me that violence interruption would take a certain skill.
NEWSHAMSo I think knowing the people that are involved in it and having measures for success and then publically talking about those measures, because I think the councilmember is right. That this is not an issues that can be fixed by the police alone. You're going to need a lot of different folks to be involved in this. But if we're going to invest a lot of money into a violence interruption program, I think we need to have some measures of success and to ensure that that success is being met.
NNAMDICouncilmember Allen, how do these programs work? And how do we measure whether or not they're being successful?
ALLENYeah. You know, a lot of work does need to go into that. And as we've seen violence interruption is multifaceted. There are other issues. One portion as an example and that's our Pathways Program that's run through our Office of Neighborhood and Safety Engagement. And with that -- it's only about a year old. We've had about 70 or 80 individuals that have gone through that. But what we've seen is that through this very intensive program where we are taking people who are both at risk of being victims of violent crime as well as perpetrating violent crime that we've been able to get them into wrap around services. Get them into employment.
ALLENAnd over 50 percent are now employed full time. The renascent rate is I believe nine percent or even lower than that. So it is a strikingly successful program that has really targeted the right folks. And one of the things that we know is that when we talk about violent crime, the majority of violent crime and you'll hear this cited all the time is actually committed by a relatively small number of individuals, and they're known to us.
ALLENSo that's where on one side you are going to have enforcement that plays a very important role. On the other hand we also have to target these individuals for these types of programs and efforts. There's a great article in the City Paper today where some of the Pathways graduates were interviewed and talking about what are some of the areas of focus that they believe would help reduce violence. And many times it comes back down to programs like these intervention programs like the Pathways Program.
ALLENThey talk about economics. They talk about housing. They talk about jobs. And that's part of what the Pathways Programs has been really successful with is to link individuals with to the resources and support they need to not put themselves at risk. And then also to give them the stability that comes with the job that comes with housing. Listening to these men talk about the ability to provide health insurance for their child for the first time or as simple as knowing that their kid knows that bedroom is going to be theirs for years to come.
ALLENThat gives an incredible amount of stability. And it also helps make sure that when we're talking about successfully having someone return home if they have committed a crime and have been incarcerated it changes the trajectory of their lives, and then for their family and then for their neighborhood and their community. And that's why a lot of focus goes into that effort.
NNAMDICharles Allen is a D.C. Councilmember representing Ward 6. He's also Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety. Councilmember Allen, thank you for joining us.
ALLENThanks for having me. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIHere is Betsy in Hyattsville, Maryland. Betsy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BETSYHi. I was listening about the ghost guns and it seems to me it would take a special kind of knowledge to put a ghost gun together in the first place. So I was wondering, who are the people who are putting together these ghost guns and are there any ramifications? Also are there any instances of backfiring or a faulty guns that are put together in this half hazard way?
NEWSHAMYeah, my understanding is that you do have to have a certain degree of mechanical skill to be able to put the weapon together, but it's not a high degree of skill. So there are a lot of folks out there that are able to do it. I don't know of any instances where we've had a serious malfunction. But I would agree with you Betsy that folks that are, you know, putting guns together on their own know they're not being professionally made that there's probably a strong likelihood that they're going to be even more dangerous than the illegal firearms that are made by manufacturers.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on D.C. gun violence. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back we're about D.C. gun violence with Peter Newsham. He is the Chief of the District's Metropolitan Police Department. Alana Wise is a Reporting Fellow with Guns & America, a national project based at WAMU. Alana, the chief may have referred to this earlier, but not explicitly. What's Project Guardian?
WISESo Project Guardian is a federal program from the Justice Department that basically says that D.C., Maryland and Virginia will better coordinate to stem some gun violence. So we've seen -- during the announcement we saw that they said that they would work to more aggressively pursue illegal gun crimes, particularly those of straw purchasing. As the chief mentioned earlier that's when a person purchases a firearm under their own name and then later goes to sell it to a person, who is not authorized to have that gun, and then reports the gun as lost or stolen. So this -- the program basically says that they will seek to better enforce existing gun laws as opposed to seeking to expand on gun laws themselves.
NNAMDIChief Newsham, you also talked the expansion of CCTV for preventing and fighting crime. Talk about that and how the city is using closed circuit television cameras.
NEWSHAMSo the mayor has really just recently given a significant investment into increasing the number of CCTV cameras we have at the police department. Just to give some folks some sense. We had around a little over 200 cameras and we're going to move that up to about 360 cameras. I can tell -- and I tell people all the time when I speak publically on this issue -- I think the number one thing that has improved the police department's ability to close violent crimes in particular is the video that we're able to get. We get it from various sources. There's a couple of programs in D.C. You know, we talk about optimism going into 2020.
NEWSHAMHaving the police cameras out there, we put them in the areas where we think we're going to have our most violent crime and we base that off our prior year statistics, but also there's a rebate program that the city has. There may be other cities that have a program like this, but I haven't heard of it where people can actually get cameras for free. And these cameras that are installed, these doorbell cameras that you see now are relatively inexpensive, and the clarity of the images that we get is excellent. So if you haven't taken advantage of this program please do. It's going to be very beneficial to us. That combined with the mayor's investment into our crime cameras is one of the things that's going to help us for sure moving into 2020.
NNAMDIAlana, are community activists satisfied with what the police and what the city is doing to try to stem the tide of gun violence?
WISERight. So we've seen some community activists praise the strides that have been made so far, increasing funding for violence interruption programs, having the violence interruption programs existing at all coming off of Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement. But one thing that I have heard pretty consistently from a lot of people is that it's still not enough. There's not enough funding. There's not enough focus being paid to the scourge of gun violence and how it's affecting communities. I've heard from people that they like to see better efforts for helping people get gainful employment to kind of end the draw to violent crime to other things that might lead you to criminal behavior.
NNAMDIHere is Nathan in Anacostia. Nathan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NATHANThanks for having me on. So I'm a Social Worker over at Anacostia High School. So unfortunately we've lost several students to gun violence in the last couple of years. And my question was so we don't have a level one trauma center east of the river. And my understanding is the operator of the proposed new hospital United Health Services does not want a level one trauma center in the new hospital, because it would cut into profit. So my question is would having a level one trauma center east of the river reduce the number of deaths by gun violence?
NNAMDIThat is it may not reduce the gun violence itself, but would it reduce the number of possible fatalities as a result of gun violence?
NEWSHAMYeah, Nathan, first of all thanks for what you do. That's a challenging job with our kids over at Anacostia and to the extent that you're helping those kids, God bless you. But with regards to a trauma center I think you're asking the wrong person. Whether or not, you know, having one east of the river is going to substantially change the outcomes from folks, who are involved in gunshot victims. I do know this though, I know that Roger Mitchell our Medical Examiner is looking at that issue very very closely.
NEWSHAMHe's done that for the last couple of years to see if when people are shot if whether or not they have none survivable wounds at the time. And then I think with that information you can get some indication as to whether or not. And then you have to look at a lot of different things when it comes to the response of a gunshot victim. It's the initial response by the D.C. Fire and EMS. It's how quickly they get there, how quickly they get to the hospital. And so I don't know enough about that business to be able to say with any degree of certainty if the location of the trauma center could actually save the lives of the gunshot wound victims.
NNAMDIHere now is Matthew in upper northwest. Matthew, your turn.
MATTHEWYes. Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I was curious. It sounds like there's a lot of guns being recovered, which is a really good thing. But what is the outcome of these cases in which someone is found with one of these illegal guns? And you see a lot of bail reform and things like that occurring in the country. Does D.C. have that same revolving door problem?
NEWSHAMYou know, I would stay away from the revolving door kind of accusation. What I would say though is that I do think that in recent years we have seen out on the street -- and I hear this from my officers particularly the officers that are engaged in recovering guns. There seems to be an opinion or a thought out there by our gun offenders that the consequences for carrying a firearm in the District are not that serious. And I think we have to change that. I really do because I think -- you know, if you look at the nature of the type of homicides that we've had a lot of times you have some kind of an altercation.
NEWSHAMSomeone has a firearm readily available; shots are fired. Next thing you know we have somebody dead, a community impacted, a family that has lost a loved one. I think that we need to change that thought process out there and let people know if you are going to carry an illegal firearm in the District of Columbia and you go through the criminal justice process and you are convicted of that gun crime then the consequences have to be enough to change behavior. And right now I don't think that that's the case.
NNAMDIAlana, can we compare the District's 2019 homicide rate to those of other major American cities in nearby jurisdictions?
WISESo as I mentioned D.C.'s rate did rise. One thing that I do think is important to mention is the city's closure rate, which is slightly higher than the most recent national average from the FBI. Closure rate being the number of arrests or instances where an arrest cannot be made, but a suspect is located. That is relatively high compared to other cities. In some places you have up to a nearly a 75 percent chance of getting away with killing somebody, because closure rates are so low elsewhere, but the rate of solving crimes is particularly homicides, particularly homicides of poor underserved communities is quite low across the board. And I know that that's something that both community activists and those in law enforcement have said that they would like to see pretty significant improvements in.
NNAMDIChief, do we have the closure rate for this past year, 2019?
NEWSHAMYeah. It looks like our closure rate is going to be 68 percent for 2019. That is -- as Alana said that's well above the national average, and that's the USR closure rate. The other thing too is we did look at other cities that had increases in homicides, New York City, Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas and even neighboring PG County all had increases in homicides. So we're not the only city that's struggling with increases. When it comes to closure, you know, I meet with the victims' families who have lost loved ones all the time. And I feel that our philosophy at MPD is that, you know, there's nothing else that we can do for your family than close this case. And the men and women -- I have to say hats off to the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Department.
NEWSHAMI don't think some people really appreciate how difficult it is to close a homicide case. Oftentimes you come on the scene of a homicide and the only thing that you have there is a deceased person. There's not a lot else. Maybe there's some shell casings. Frequently everybody that was on the scene at the time has left. So it takes a lot of effort. And the men and women who work in this unit, they really live, they eat, they breathe these homicides. And to be able to achieve a closure rate above the national average is something that I've very proud of them for doing. I'll just share one story.
NEWSHAMOkay. You may have seen in The Washington Post. One of our homicide detectives, a detective by the name Jeff Owens, a veteran detective every year -- he just closed a case from early 2000. Every single year on the anniversary of that homicide he would walk with the mom in the neighborhood where that homicide occurred. And those are the types of things -- that's one little story. But those are some of the types of things that our homicide detectives do on a pretty regular basis.
NNAMDIFinally, Alana, you've done some very powerful reporting on the impacts of gun violence on survivors and the communities where these crimes take place. What was your main take away from that reporting in the minute we have left?
WISEAs I mentioned earlier, I just think it's very important to note that while it may seem like a crime that is isolated to maybe neighborhoods east of the Anacostia or neighborhoods that are poor these are things that can happen anywhere to anybody. Very often crimes like this are committed against people who have relationships. It's interpersonal violence, domestic violence, intimate partner violence. And when we look at the problem of gun violence and when we're looking to address it I think it's important to come at it from all different angles as opposed to just looking at it through a very narrow focus of perhaps gang violent crime or other community violence.
NNAMDIAlana Wise is a Reporting Fellow with Guns & America, a national project based at WAMU. Alana, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIChief Peter Newsham is the Chief of the District's Metropolitan Police Department. Chief Newsham, thank you for joining us.
NEWSHAMKojo, thank you. Happy New Year.
NNAMDIHappy New Year to you. We're going to take a short break. When we come back how the Washington region's Jewish community is responding to increasing antisemitism. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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