D.C.’s crime rate rises as crime declines throughout the rest of the country

March 3, 2024, 12:44 p.m. | By Alex Feingold-Black | 1 month, 2 weeks ago

The high crime rate in D.C. weighs stress on local organizations to step in

“We can’t wait [on the] government to figure this out. We have to approach it in the same way that nonprofits [and] philanthropies have approached education,” Roger Marmet, founder of the nonprofit organization Peace for DC, says about the record-high gun violence in D.C. 

While violent crime decreased nationally 13 percent overall from 2022 to 2023, D.C. was one of the few cities where it increased. In fact, D.C’s violent crime increased by nearly 40 percent, marking its deadliest year since 1997.

In 2023, D.C. had the fifth-highest homicide rate among the country’s most populous cities, with 274 homicides just last year. Homicides in most other major cities like Chicago and New York decreased, revealing structural issues specifically in D.C. that have left the city ill-prepared to handle crime.  

D.C. crime rate rises, while national crime rate decreases. Photo courtesy of Gabe Marra-Perrault.

Reducing the violence

D.C.’s crime rate, particularly that related to gun violence, is a deep-rooted issue that government legislation and policies can't necessarily solve. An alternative solution is to provide support to people with violent histories by giving them tools to address their own trauma, as around 500 people in D.C. account for nearly 70 percent of the city’s crime. Violent offenders often have experienced trauma and other adverse experiences that impact the brain and its ability to regulate responses.

Marmet founded Peace for DC to reduce gun homicides after his son was killed by a stray bullet. The organization focuses on fueling front-line peacemakers and grassroots organizations to reach and heal individuals driving the violence.

Peace for DC’s largest program is training violence interrupters, who are people that know dangerous areas in the city and work to settle disputes between people with violent backgrounds. Oftentimes, violence interrupters have been previously incarcerated, and are working as a way to rebuild their lives while helping others.

The traditional path of prosecution only works to incarcerate people after they have already committed the crime. Instead, Peace for DC trains violence interrupters—who are already contracted by the city but have minimal previous training—to help break the cycle of violence and prevent crimes. 

“Most of what [the police] do is after a crime has happened. [We] train street outreach workers and violence interrupters to try to get to those same people who…the police know are driving crime. But if the police don't have evidence or witnesses, there's nothing they can do to make an arrest or have a successful prosecution,” Marmet says. 

Marmet further emphasizes the importance of training violence interrupters due to the lack of social workers and psychologists in the areas of D.C. with the highest crime rates. “We have a huge lack of access to clinicians, licensed social workers, and psychologists in the neighborhoods where we’ve applied this to reduce violent behavior,” he says.

Peace for DC trains their violence interrupters for 140 hours over 13 weeks. The course covers various topics including: conflict resolution, how to be safe in the neighborhood, emergency first aid, cognitive behavioral therapy, and how to de-escalate a situation. A lot of the violence interrupters, however, are already working in the field before this training.

Like Peace for DC, other organizations in D.C. focus on violence interruption initiatives, such as The TraRon Center, a small, grass-roots organization that works to address the intergenerational impacts of trauma caused by gun violence on young individuals in D.C.

The TraRron Center’s founder and president, Ryane Nickens – a gun violence survivor – named the organization after sister (Tracy) and brother (Ronnie), who were both victims of gun violence. As someone who has faced trauma from gun violence, Nickens started The TraRon Center to heal other youth in D.C. impacted by gun violence. 

“When we address the trauma caused by gun violence, we help people heal from the pain. Unaddressed trauma can lead to making bad decisions that can affect a person's life and future aspirations. I have seen unaddressed trauma create or continue a cycle of violence in communities like the one I grew up in,” Nickens says.

The organization's main programs are a summer camp and an after school program. Although there are more than 50 youth enrolled in these programs, the organization runs off of a small, specialized staff consisting of clinical interns, volunteers, and a mental health team led by a child psychiatrist.

The center’s programs emphasize the theme of incorporating creative arts in the process of helping youth heal their trauma. “Our primary healing tool with our young people is art therapy. It has proven to be most effective in helping young people, especially children work through traumatic experiences… We have seen youth with moderately high or high post traumatic stress disorder drop with a combination of group art therapy and one-on-one talk therapy over a nine month period,” Nickens says.

The creation of violence interruption and trauma-addressing organizations such as Peace for DC and The TraRon Center is a more recent trend. Nickens notes that just a few years ago, many people in D.C.'s pain and trauma went unnoticed. 

“The main goal of the TraRon Center is [to] provide a sacred space for children and youth to heal from the effects of gun violence. Before establishing the TraRon Center in 2017, young people in D.C.'s most underserved communities were advocating for mental health [and] trauma services and safe spaces to hangout.... Providing mental health [and] trauma support and [a] safe space meets the needs of communities like the one I grew up in and provides critical services young people need and want,” Nickens says.

Impact on surrounding communities

The high crime in D.C. has also impacted nearby cities. Bordering D.C, Silver Spring and other nearby cities like Takoma Park and Hyattsville experience crime rates 96 percent higher than the rest of Maryland. 

Takoma Park Police Department's Officer Keith Johnson notices that many of the crimes in Takoma Park are committed by people from neighboring cities and districts like D.C. “A lot of the crime we do see comes from PG County or D.C.,” he says. In fact, according to police crime analyst Misha Rowe, more than 70 percent of crimes in Takoma Park are committed by people from neighboring areas.

One of the main reasons people commit crimes in other cities is jurisdictional restrictions. If someone from D.C. committed a crime in a neighboring county and immediately returned to D.C., the police from the other county cannot technically pursue the criminal into D.C.

Officer Johnson explains that criminals feel as if there are more opportunities to commit crimes in other jurisdictions, especially if they can drive off quickly after. “[If] a civilian goes to get gas at the gas pump then another vehicle comes up right beside it and takes something from that vehicle… these crimes… are just moments of opportunity for criminals,” he says.

D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson recently passed legislation in December 2023 aimed at reducing gun violence in 2024. Although this legislature may not be the solution to reducing crime in the upcoming year, organizations such as Peace for DC are filling in for where the government is lacking to hopefully drastically reduce crime in D.C.

The causes for D.C.’s high crime rate are far from simple. But the bottom line is that people in the city need healing despite how difficult of a challenge that may be, as Marmet notes. “But we really need to change behavior, and behavior change when all we know is a life filled with trauma, is really hard.”

Last updated: March 3, 2024, 12:50 p.m.

Tags: D.C. Crime

Alex Feingold-Black. Hey! I'm Alex [he/him] and I'm the Feature Editor and External Manager for SCO. Outside of school you can find me running laps around a track and eating from Potbelly's Sandwich Shop. More »

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