Analysis: violent crime in Washington, D.C.

The District has come a long way since 1990, when the city was known as the murder capital of America. Homicides in D.C. peaked in 1991 with 479. For perspective, this number eclipsed all homicides in the past four years combined. Despite an uptick in 2015, homicide rates in D.C. have seen a steady decrease over the last two decades. In 1996, there were 397 reported homicides compared to 135 in 2016 (a 65% decrease).

Aside from the total number of homicides, an important statistic is how many homicide cases were “closed” in any given year. This percentage is known as a “closure rate”. Between 2003–2011, MPD reported a steady increase in closure rates, from 60% in 2003 to a staggering 95% in 2011. However, to understand how this is possible, it’s important to know how closure rates are determined.

You might be wondering how a police department in a high crime metropolitan area managed to solve 95% of all homicide cases in 2011. The short answer is: they didn’t. It begins with understanding that when a case is “closed” it doesn’t necessarily mean it was solved nor does it mean police made an arrest.

Source: Metropolitan Police Department

Homicide Closure Rates

Like most police departments in the U.S., MPD’s homicide closure rate is calculated using the Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) guidelines established by the FBI. Homicide cases can be closed one of two ways:

  • Cleared by Arrest: at least one person has been (i) arrested; (ii) charged with the offense; and (iii) turned over to the court for prosecution.
  • Cleared by Exceptional Means: In certain situations, elements beyond law enforcement’s control prevent the agency from arresting and formally charging the offender.

“Exceptional means” is basically a catch-all term. It applies to a variety of scenarios. Including, but not limited to: death of the suspect, witness refusal to cooperate, or denial of extradition. Any of these can be used to “clear” a case if law enforcement is prevented from arresting and prosecuting.

For example, if police identify a suspect but are unable to prosecute due to lack of witness cooperation, that case can be considered cleared by exceptional means. But here lies the inherent problem with closure rates: “cleared by arrest” and “cleared by exceptional means” are two different outcomes, represented by the same statistic. There’s no available data to distinguish what percent of the closure rate was by arrest or by exception.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, FBI guidelines also allow police to include older cases from previous years to be reported within the current year. Remember the 95% closure rate from 2011? In a 2012 report, Washington Post examined police records from that year and found that only 62 cases were solved: a true closure rate of 57%. Nearly half of all cases reported “cleared” in 2011 were from previous years— some dating back to 1989.

For 2010, Lanier reported a 79 percent closure rate, but The Post found that the department solved 72 of 131 homicides that year, for a true rate of 55 percent.
For 2009, Lanier reported a rate of 76 percent, which would amount to about 110 of 144 cases. Records show that 67 of the 2009 cases, or 46 percent.
For 2008, a 75 percent closure rate was reported, but the department closed 91 of 186 slayings that year, for a true rate of 49 percent.
And for 2007, Lanier reported a nearly 70 percent closure rate, but records show that 89 of the year’s 181 homicides were closed, for a rate of 49 percent.

On November 5, 2015, a community activist in D.C. — Denise Rucker Krepp — filed a FOIA request seeking data concerning criminal prosecutions handled by the DOJ. Specifically, “the conviction rate of each crime” organized by ward. Two months later, DOJ responded by denying her request, claiming that the data requested “did not exist”.

Ms. Krepp filed an appeal, however, the DOJ once again affirmed the denial, implying that they maintained the data requested, just not in the exact format requested by Ms. Krepp:

“The USAO does not track this information by ward or in the specific manner which you are requesting”.

Their denial went on to suggest that Ms. Krepp “make a new request”. That’s when she decided to file a lawsuit against the DOJ in federal court. Shortly after, in July 2016, DOJ responded to a request from Senator Chuck Grassley to release the information to the public. The following statistics come from that release, covering D.C. homicide prosecutions from 2010–2015.

Let’s take another look at 2011. According to MPD, they cleared 95% of homicides. But, according to the DOJ, only 66% of homicide cases were “papered” (charges were filed). Convictions by themselves are a separate statistic. In 2011, only 50% of homicide cases actually ended in conviction.

Homicide statistics are like nesting dolls. It’s a statistic inside a statistic inside another statistic. Each “doll” represents a smaller piece of the whole. And each are unreliable in their own way. The closure rate is unreliable because it’s a homogenization of arrests, older cases, and exceptional means. The number of papered cases is unreliable because not all papered cases end in conviction. And the conviction rate is unreliable because of pending convictions awaiting trial and a disproportionate number of guilty pleas. In other words, DOJ and MPD’s statistics are seemingly incompatible.

Unsolved Murders

Despite an overall decrease in violent crime, homicide closure rates haven’t increased since 2011. In 2016, as of November, approximately 65% of all homicides in D.C. were unsolved or under investigation (according to public records, local activist groups, and media reports). Yet, at the end of 2016, MPD reported a 70% closure rate for the year.

In Southeast DC, not only have we seen an increase in the percentage of total homicides, we’ve also seen a disproportionate number of unsolved homicides. In 2014, more than 60% of the city’s violent crime was concentrated in only 35% of the neighborhoods. From 2009 to 2014, the District experienced a 15% decrease in violent crime, with seven of the eight Wards seeing declines ranging from an 8% reduction (Ward 8) to a 36% reduction (Ward 1). However, during that same time period, Ward 7 (Southeast) moved in the opposite direction — a 28% increase in violent crime. In 2009, violent crime offenses in Ward 7 represented 16% of all violent crime across the District. By 2014, violent crime in Ward 7 represented 24% of all violent crime in D.C.

Homicides are becoming increasingly concentrated in the poorest areas, as development and gentrification rapidly transform a city once known as the murder capital. Over the past 15 years, the percentage of homicides in Wards 7 and 8 have increased from 23% of all homicides in 2000 to 50% of all homicides in 2016. According to D.C. Witness — a local activist blog that tracks homicides — in 2017, there’s been a total of 96 homicides. Nearly 60% of homicides this year have occurred in Wards 7 and 8, 20% in Ward 7 alone.

*2013 homicide statistics do not include the 12 victims of the Washington Navy Yard shooting incident

Economic Impacts

The homicide trend in D.C. mirrors a separate trajectory of economic displacement. According to a study by the Urban Institute, 23% of D.C.’s 179 neighborhoods are considered “economically challenged” (neighborhoods in which the unemployment rate, share of residents with less than a high school diploma and percentage of households headed by a single mother exceed the citywide average by at least 20%). A majority of “economically challenged” neighborhoods are located in Southeast.

Between 2000–2010, the study found that the number of economically challenged neighborhoods in Southeast, increased disproportionately to the rest of D.C. This trend seems to follow the same shift in homicide rates during the same time period. If this trend offers an accurate prediction of the next decade (likely, considering the pace of development and increased population growth in D.C.), it appears the majority of crime and poverty will be increasingly condensed into a small cluster of neighborhoods where crime and poverty are already rampant.

According to a 2015 report by the Urban Institute on violent crime in D.C., the only neighborhoods that experienced an overall increase in violent crime over a 15-year period were four adjacent neighborhoods in Ward 7: Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth, Deanwood-Lincoln Heights, Mayfair-Hillbrook, and River Terrace-Benning.

The report found that D.C.’s overall decrease in homicides from the 1990s stems from a number of possible factors, including economic growth. However, in neighborhoods in Southeast where violent crime increased — like Eastland Gardens-Kenilworth — residents have faced persistently high poverty and unemployment rates, along with a decrease in the average family income.

As gentrification continues it’s expanse across the District, all of the problems the city once faced are being expelled upon the poorest citizens. If violent crime continues it’s migration, the economic despair currently facing this community will only get worse. And if residents cannot rely on police officers to solve crimes in their community, the violence will only continue.