Crime in Washington, D.C.

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Washington, D.C.
Crime rates (2012)
Crime type Rate*
Homicide: 13.9
Forcible rape: 37.3
Robbery: 589.1
Aggravated assault: 538.1
Total Violent crime: 1,177.9
Burglary: 556.5
Larceny-theft: 3,510.2
Motor vehicle theft: 561.3
Arson: 7.9
Total Property crime: 4,628.0
* Number of reported crimes per 100,000 population.

Source: Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Crime in the United States

Crime in Washington, D.C. (formally known as the District of Columbia), is directly related to the city's changing demographics, geography, and unique criminal justice system. The District's population reached a peak of 802,178 in 1950. However, shortly thereafter, the city began losing residents and by 1980 Washington had lost one-quarter of its population. The population loss to the suburbs also created a new demographic pattern, which divided affluent neighborhoods west of Rock Creek Park from more crime-ridden and blighted areas to the east.

Despite being the headquarters of multiple federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the nationwide crack epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s greatly affected the city and led to large increases in crime.[1] The number of homicides in Washington peaked in 1991 at 479,[2] and the city eventually became known as the "murder capital" of the United States.[3]

The crime rate started to fall in the mid-1990s as the crack epidemic gave way to economic revitalization projects. Gentrification efforts have also started to transform the demographics of distressed neighborhoods, recently leading to the first rise in the District's population in 60 years.[4]

By the mid-2000s, crime rates in Washington dropped to their lowest levels in over 20 years. As in many major cities, crime remains a significant factor in D.C., especially in the city's northwestern neighborhoods, which tend to be more affluent, draw more tourists, and have more vibrant nightlife.[5] Violent crime also remains a problem in Ward 8, which has the city's highest concentration of poverty.[6]


Crime Trends, 1995-2013[7]
Year Violent Crime Change Property Crime Change
1995 2,661.4 - 9,512.1 -
1996 2,469.8 -7.1% 9,426.9 -0.9%
1997 2,024.0 -18% 7,814.9 -17%
1998 1,718.5 -15% 7,117.0 -8.9%
1999 1,627.7 -5.3% 6,439.3 -9.5%
2000 1,507.9 -7.4% 5,768.6 -10.4%
2001 1,602.4 6.3% 6,139.9 6.4%
2002 1,632.9 1.9% 6,389.4 4.1%
2003 1,624.9 -0.5% 5,863.5 -8.2%
2004 1,371.2 -15.6% 4,859.1 -17.1%
2005 1,380.0 0.6% 4,489.8 -7.6%
2006 1,508.4 9.3% 4,653.8 3.7%
2007 1,414.3 -6.2% 4,913.9 5.6%
2008 1,437.7 1.7% 5,104.6 3.9%
2009 1,345.9 -6.8% 4,745.4 -7.6%
2010 1,241.1 -7.8% 4,510.1 -5%
2011 1,130.3 -8.9% 4,581.3 1.6%
2012 1,177.9 4.2% 4,628.0 1.0%
2013 1,219 3.5% 4,574.1 -1.2%
1995 2,661.4 - 9,512.1 -
2013 1,219 -54.2% 4,778.9 -49.8%

According to Uniform Crime Report statistics compiled by the FBI, there were 1,330.2 violent crimes per 100,000 people reported in the District of Columbia in 2010. There were also 4,778.9 property crimes per 100,000 reported during the same period.[8] Overall, violent crime in the District of Columbia has decreased 50% since 1995 and property crime has decreased 49.8% during the same period. However, violent crime is still more than three times the national average of 403.6 reported offenses per 100,000 people in 2010.[9]

In the early 1990s, Washington, D.C., was known as the "murder capital",[10] experiencing 474 homicides in 1990.[11] The elevated crime levels were associated with the introduction of crack cocaine during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The crack was brought into Washington, D.C. by Colombian cartels, and sold in drug markets such as "The Strip" (the largest in the city) located a few blocks north of the United States Capitol.[12] A quarter of juveniles with criminal charges in 1988 tested positive for drugs.[10]

The number of homicides per year in Washington, D.C., peaked at 479 in 1991,[13] followed by a downward trend in the late 1990s. In 2000, 242 homicides occurred,[11] and the downward trend continued in the 2000s. In 2012, Washington, D.C. had only 92 homicides in 91 separate incidents, the lowest annual tally since 1963.[14] The Metropolitan Police Department's official tally is 88 homicides, but that number does not include four deaths that were ruled self-defense or justifiable homicide by citizen.[14] The cause of death listed on the four case records is homicide and MPD includes those cases in tallying homicide case closures at the end of the year.[14]

As Washington neighborhoods undergo gentrification, crime has been displaced further east. Crime in Prince George's County, Maryland, has remained steady (even slightly increasing in some areas) as poorer residents move out of the city into the nearby suburbs because of rising housing costs.[15] However, the influx of more affluent new residents in the city has also led to an uptick in robberies and property crimes in gentrifying areas, including Columbia Heights, Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Shaw. There was an average of 11 robberies each day across the District of Columbia in 2006,[5] which is far below the levels experienced in the 1990s.[16]

In 2008, 42 crimes in the District were characterized as hate crimes; over 70% of the reports classified as hate crimes were a result of a bias against the victim's perceived sexual orientation.[17] Those findings continue the trend from previous years, although the total number of hate crimes is down from 57 in 2006,[18] and 48 in 2005.[19] By 2012, the number of hate crimes reported were 81, and dropped to 70 in 2013.[20]

Criminal justice[edit]

Law enforcement[edit]

Homicides in Washington, D.C. are concentrated in eastern neighborhoods.

Law enforcement in Washington, D.C. is complicated by a network of overlapping federal and city agencies. The primary agency responsible for law enforcement in the District of Columbia is the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). The MPD is a city agency headed by the Chief of Police, currently Cathy L. Lanier, who is appointed by the mayor. The Metropolitan Police has 3,800 sworn officers and operates much like other municipal police departments elsewhere in the country. However, given the unique status of Washington as the United States capital, the MPD is adept at providing crowd control and security at large events.[21] Despite its name, the MPD only serves within the boundaries of the District of Columbia and does not have jurisdiction within the surrounding Washington Metropolitan Area.

Several other local police agencies have jurisdiction within the District of Columbia, including: the District of Columbia Protective Services Police Department, which is responsible for all properties owned or leased by the city government; and the Metro Transit Police Department, which has jurisdiction within Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority stations, trains, and buses. Alongside local law enforcement agencies, nearly every federal law enforcement agency has jurisdiction within Washington, D.C. The most visible federal police agencies are the United States Park Police, which is responsible for all parkland in the city, the United States Secret Service, and the United States Capitol Police.

A number of special initiatives undertaken by the Metropolitan Police Department in order to combat violent crime have gained particular public attention. Most notable are the city's use of "crime emergencies", which when declared by the Chief of Police, allow the city to temporarily suspend officer schedules and assign additional overtime in order to increase police presence.[22]

Despite the fact that crime emergencies do appear to reduce crime when enacted,[23] critics fault the city for relying on such temporary stop-gap measures.[24] In 2003, the city launched its Gang Intervention Project to combat the then-recent upward trend in Latino gang violence, primarily in the Columbia Heights and Shaw neighborhoods. The initiative was claimed a success when gang-related violence declined almost 90% from the start of the program to November 2006.[25]

The most controversial program designed to deter crime was a system of police checkpoints in neighborhoods particularly affected by violence. The checkpoints, in place from April 2008 through June 2008,[26] were used in the Trinidad neighborhood of Northeast Washington. The program operated by stopping cars entering a police-designated area; officers then turned away those individuals who did not live or have business in the neighborhood. Despite protests by residents, the MPD claimed the checkpoints to be a successful tool in preventing violent crime.[27] However, in July 2010, a federal appeals court found that the checkpoints violated residents' constitutional rights. The police had no plans to continue to use the practice—with declining crime rates—but D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said that officers would work to find a "more creative way to deal with very unusual circumstances that is consistent with the Fourth Amendment."[28]

Court system[edit]

The Superior Court of the District of Columbia hears all local civil and criminal cases in Washington, D.C. Despite the fact that the court is technically a branch of the D.C. government, the Superior Court is funded and operated by the U.S. federal government. In addition, the court's judges are appointed by the President of the United States.[29] The D.C. Superior Court should not, however, be confused with the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which only hears cases dealing with violations of federal law.[30]

The District of Columbia has a complicated criminal prosecution system. The Attorney General of the District of Columbia only has jurisdiction in civil proceedings and prosecuting minor offenses such as low-level misdemeanors and traffic violations.[31] All federal offenses, local felony charges (i.e. serious crimes such as robbery, murder, aggravated assault, grand theft, and arson), and most local misdemeanors are prosecuted by the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.[32] United States Attorneys are appointed by the President and overseen by the United States Department of Justice.[33] This differs from elsewhere in the country where 93% of local prosecutors are directly elected and the remainder are appointed by local elected officials.[34]

The fact that the U.S. Attorneys in the District of Columbia are neither elected nor appointed by city officials leads to criticism that the prosecutors are not responsive to the needs of local residents.[35] For example, new felony prosecutions by the U.S. Attorneys in the District of Columbia have fallen 34%; from 8,016 in 2003 to 5,256 in 2007. The number of resolved felony cases has also fallen by nearly half; from 10,206 in 2003 to 5,534 in 2007. In contrast, the number of misdemeanor and civil cases prosecuted and resolved by the D.C. Attorney General's office has remained constant over the same time period.[36] The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia cites the drop in prosecutions to a 14% cut in its budget. The cuts have caused the office to decrease the number of federal prosecutors from a high of 110 in 2003 to 76 in 2007.[37]

Efforts to create the position of D.C. district attorney regained attention in 2008. The D.C. district attorney would be elected and have jurisdiction over all local criminal cases, thereby streamlining prosecution and making the justice system more accountable to residents. However, progress to institute such an office has stalled in Congress.[38]

Prison system[edit]

Under the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act of 1997, prisoners were put under custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; the Lorton Correctional Complex, a prison operated by the District government in Lorton, Virginia, was closed in 2000. Offenders serving short sentences for misdemeanors serve time either at the Central Detention Facility or the Correctional Treatment Facility, both run by the District of Columbia Department of Corrections.[39]

Approximately 6,500 prisoners convicted in the District of Columbia are sent to Bureau of Prison facilities around the United States, including over a 1,000 sent to West Virginia, and another 1,000 to North Carolina.[39] The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency was established, under the National Capital Revitalization and Self-Government Improvement Act, to oversee probationers and parolees, and provide pretrial services. The functions were previously handled by the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency.[40]

Gun laws[edit]

US total and Washington, D.C. homicide rates, 1960–2012. Source:[41]

Washington, D.C., has enacted a number of strict gun-restriction laws. The Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975 prohibited residents from owning handguns, excluding those registered prior to February 5, 1977; however, this law was subsequently overturned in March 2007 by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Parker v. District of Columbia.[42]

The ruling was upheld in June 2008 by the Supreme Court of the United States in District of Columbia v. Heller. Both courts held that the city's handgun ban violated individuals' Second Amendment right to gun ownership.[43] However, the ruling does not repeal all forms of gun control; laws requiring firearm registration remain in place, as does the city's assault weapon ban.[44] Additionally, city laws still prohibit carrying guns, both openly and concealed.[45]

Critics, citing numerous statistics, have questioned the efficiency of these restrictions. The combination in Washington of strict gun-restriction laws and high levels of gun violence is sometimes used to criticize gun-restriction laws in general as ineffective. A significant portion of firearms used in crime are either obtained on the second-hand market or in neighboring states.[46][47] Results from the ATF's Youth Crime Gun Interdiction Initiative indicate that the percentage of imported guns involved in crimes is tied to the stringency of local firearm laws.[46]

Washington, D.C., has tried a number of other strategies to deal with gun violence. In 1995, the Metropolitan Police Department conducted Operation Ceasefire, a gun-violence crackdown initiative involving intense gun law enforcement, in conjunction with the United States Attorney's Office.[48] This initiative resulted in seizure of 282 firearms in its first four months, mainly 9mm, .380 ACP, and .25 ACP pistols, and .38 caliber revolvers, most of which were purchased in Maryland and Virginia.[49]


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