Researchers are still figuring out what caused the nationwide drop in violent crime in the mid- to late 90s. Among cities experiencing this decline, DC stands out as particularly successful at extending that crime decline over time. That success is largely the result of a renewed emphasis on community-oriented policing and evidence-based tactics, as well as changing demographics and economic growth.
Building on the work of former police chief Charles Ramsey, DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has emphasized community engagement by increasing foot patrols, using social media and a tip line, encouraging more one-on-one interactions between police and residents, and valuing empathy in police recruitment and training.
Lanier has also rejected zero-tolerance and “hot spots” policing, aggressive strategies that combat violent crime by cracking down on minor offenses and flooding high-crime areas with police. The problem with these tactics, Lanier says, is that they alienate residents—who are also often victims and witnesses—and turn them against the police. And when you’re trying to focus on serious violent offenders, these strategies are not guaranteed to target the right people.
What’s more, DC’s police department has invested in new technologies, like gunfire detection sensors and body cameras for police, and has improved the quality of crime data, enabling better intelligence gathering and data sharing between agencies to improve strategic decisionmaking.
In this chapter, we focus on the violent crimes of homicide, aggravated assault, and robbery. We do not explore data on sexual assault because of measurement issues, as described in more detail in a related blog post.
Aggravated assaults are serious physical attacks, often involving a deadly weapon like a gun or knife. The biggest declines in aggravated assaults from 2000 to 2013 occurred in the Near Southeast-Navy Yard and Sheridan-Barry Farm neighborhood clusters in Southeast DC, Ivy City-Trinidad in Northeast DC, and the downtown-Chinatown and Cardozo-Shaw clusters in Northwest DC.
However, some areas had smaller declines, particularly in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The population east of the river also grew only a small amount during this period, meaning that the lack of decline in crime rates can’t be explained by changes in the neighborhood’s population.
Robberies, when the offender uses or threatens force, are considered violent crimes, but thefts, like pickpocketing or burglaries, are not. These robberies followed roughly the same trend as aggravated assaults in DC. In many neighborhood clusters, including downtown-Chinatown, Near Southeast-Navy Yard, and Dupont Circle-K Street, robbery declined substantially.
However, robberies increased in neighborhoods like River Terrace, Benning, and Greenway. Again, population changes can’t explain the increase in robberies because these neighborhoods gained only a small number of residents from 2000 to 2014.
In 2012, DC hit a record low of 88 homicides, down from a peak of 397 in 1996. Homicides have gone up slightly since then, hovering around 100 a year. The number of homicides at the midpoint of 2015 suggest that this trend may continue.
This dramatic drop in homicides from 1990s levels stems from a number of possible factors, including economic growth, improvements in policing strategies, and demographic changes. Additionally, the decrease may reflect changes like better medical care and improved EMT response times, which play an important role in preventing deaths from violence.
However, the recent uptick suggests that a broader array of strategies may be needed to further reduce homicides. For example, a growing number of homicides are related to domestic violence: 17 in 2014 compared with 9 in 2012. Addressing homicides like these requires social services rather than reliance on policing alone.
Looking at violent crime by neighborhood cluster, the biggest drop in crime occurred in the Near Southeast-Navy Yard area, one of DC’s fastest-growing areas. From 2000 to 2014, the rate of violent crime fell from 59 crimes for every 1,000 residents to 6. The violent crime rate also fell considerably in the downtown-Chinatown cluster.
During the same period, while crime was declining citywide, the violent crime rate increased slightly in four adjacent neighborhood clusters in Ward 7: Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth, Deanwood-Lincoln Heights, Mayfair-Hillbrook, and River Terrace-Benning.
Measuring crimes per resident allows us to compare neighborhoods of different sizes, but it’s also important to note that these four Ward 7 neighborhood clusters have much smaller populations and lower raw crime numbers than large areas, like the downtown-Chinatown cluster. For example, Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth, an area of roughly 2,300 residents, had 63 violent crimes in 2014, while the downtown-Chinatown area, home to some 13,600 residents, experienced 234 violent crimes. The Near Southeast-Navy Yard area, though, is more comparable in population size to Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth, with about 2,800 residents, and had only 18 violent crimes in 2014.
Many areas saw little to no change in the violent crime rate over the past 15 years. Stable crime levels can mean very different things. Several neighborhood clusters in upper northwest DC, for example, started out with a very low crime rate and have maintained it, while other neighborhoods had higher crime rates that remain unchanged. Therefore, much of DC’s reduction in violent crime is the result of big declines in a few neighborhoods that previously had high levels of violence.
Originally a hub for military manufacturing, by the 1990s, the Navy Yard area was a troubled neighborhood polluted by years of industrial production. Beginning in 2000, a sustained campaign of public and private redevelopment transformed the neighborhood, bringing in a wide array of businesses and Nationals Park stadium. This growth is likely one of several reasons crime dropped so dramatically. Increased activity may have made committing crimes more difficult, led to a higher police presence, or encouraged the delivery of better public services.
There is also a feedback effect: the drop in crime, coupled with other changes, attracted more residents, encouraging further growth and economic development. Average family income in the area rose 274 percent between 2000 and 2008–12 (using the five-year average from the latest American Community Survey), and now stands at around $123,000. The median price of a Near Southeast-Navy Yard home also grew rapidly, from $132,000 in 2000 to $827,000 in 2012.
Amid this economic expansion, the area’s population grew substantially, from 1,825 residents in 2000 to about 2,800 residents in 2010, while the total number of violent crimes declined from 108 to 18. The 2013 spike in the homicide rate reflects the tragic Navy Yard shooting on September 16.
The Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth cluster is largely residential, adjacent to the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, with many long-term residents. These neighborhoods have homeownership rates that are higher than average for areas east of the Anacostia River but have faced persistently high poverty and unemployment rates: between 2000 and 2008–12, the poverty rate went up from 28 percent to 43 percent. Meanwhile, the average family income fell 17 percent. These neighborhoods are also geographically isolated: cut off from the rest of the city by the Anacostia Freeway on the east and the Anacostia River to the west. Limited access to public transportation further isolates residents, making it difficult for them to reach jobs and resources in other parts of DC.
Violent crime rose slightly in Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth and three other neighborhood clusters in Ward 7. The increases have been small, but violent crime was already high in these areas and is also concentrated in a few neighboring city blocks.
Federal investment may help this community move forward. In 2010, the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative, which works in Eastland Gardens and Kenilworth, received federal funding for an ambitious effort to provide cradle-to-career supports, such as after-school programs and access to health care, for children and their families. One of the initiative’s goals is ensuring that children feel safe at school and in their neighborhood.
DC has made immense strides in public safety, but the crime-reduction strategies that have taken us to this point won’t be enough to build an even safer city. In a disturbing trend, an increasing number of homicides in DC have involved domestic or family violence, which cannot be reduced through policing alone. We need a holistic approach that involves social services, the police, nonprofits, and residents working together. Only through collaboration can the city build healthier, safer communities—creating the social supports, stability, and opportunities that will bring down even the most persistent pockets of violent crime.
Research by Elizabeth Pelletier, Samuel Bieler, and Nancy La VigneWritten by Samuel Bieler, Elizabeth Pelletier, and Serena LeiDesign and photography by Christina BairdWeb development by Hannah Recht
Copyright © August 2015. Urban Institute.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.