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As Murders Soar In D.C., Officials Embrace Tough-On-Crime Policies

As homicides and carjackings mounted in 2023 and social media depicted the nation’s capital as a hellscape, Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council turned away from progressive strategies to ease the footprint of law enforcement in the community and promoted more aggressive policing, prosecutions and detentions. Bowser, new Police Chief Pamela Smith and some lawmakers pushed for more accountability for adults and juveniles who shot people or stole vehicles at gunpoint, embracing the narrative that a lack of consequences emboldened criminals and contributed to driving the city’s homicide count to its deadliest level in a quarter century. Some 272 people in D.C. had been killed as of Thursday, up 35 percent from the same period in 2022. D.C. will finish the year with one of the highest per capita homicide rates among major U.S. cities. Through Dec. 21, 960 people in the city — 106 of them juveniles — had been shot, a 10 percent increase over the same period in 2022. In all, 19 people under age 18 were killed in 2023, including two infants. Sixteen were ages 13 to 17. Another was 10.


Meanwhile, the arrest rate for homicides was just above 47 percent, the lowest in at least 16 years. As a result, new laws enacted or still under debate appear more punitive, largely washing away or diluting many reforms enacted after the 2020 police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The changes would hand new powers to judges to expand pretrial detention for adults and youths, enhance penalties for gun-related crimes, revive the anti-loitering and drug-free zones of the early 1990s crack era, and empower police to randomly search people charged with violent offenses who are on pretrial release. Bowser described some progressive policies after Floyd's death as “unnecessary and reactionary,” and said they had led to the “complete destruction of that [criminal justice] ecosystem ...The pendulum is swinging back to the middle." With 40 killings per 100,000 residents in 2023, the District’s homicide rate was higher than in all but four of the nation’s 60 largest cities, surpassing Detroit and Oakland, among others. Only New Orleans, Cleveland, Baltimore and Memphis were worse.

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