WASHINGTON – The crack epidemic that began in the 1980s ushered in a wave of bloodletting in the nation's capital and a death toll that ticked upward daily. Dead bodies, sometimes several a night, had homicide detectives hustling between crime scenes and earned Washington unwelcome monikers such as the nation's "murder capital." At the time, some feared the murder rate might ascend to more frightening heights.
But after approaching nearly 500 slayings a year in the early 1990s, the annual rate has gradually declined to the point that the city is now on the verge of a once-unthinkable milestone. The number of 2012 killings in the District of Columbia stands at 78 and is on pace to finish lower than 100 for the first time since 1963, police records show.
"It strikes me probably daily as I ride around the city, or sometimes when I'm sitting at home at night, and it's 10 o'clock and my phone's not ringing. Or I get up in the morning, and I go, 'Oh my gosh, I've slept five hours," said Police Chief Cathy Lanier, who joined the department amid violent 1991 street riots. "It strikes me quite often how different things are now."
The drop reflects a downward trend in violent crime nationwide and is in line with declining homicides in other big cities. Though killings have risen in Chicago, New York City officials say homicides dropped to 515 last year from more than 2,200 in 1990. Houston totaled reported 198 homicides last year, down from 457 in 1985, while Los Angeles police reported fewer than 300 last year after ending 1992 with about 1,100. Across the country, violent crime reported by police to the FBI fell by 3.8 percent last year from 2010.
Though D.C. is hardly crime-free today, and crime in some categories is even up, the homicide decline is especially notable in a place where grisly acts of violence – sometimes not far from the U.S. Capitol – embodied the worst of the crack scourge.
The number of homicides in this city of about 600,000 residents averaged about 457 between 1989 and 1993, a staggering rate that attracted unwanted attention. "A war zone? No, Washington, D.C.," was the sub-headline of a 1992 People magazine story that described Washington as a "city under siege." The Economist in 1995 called it "the violence capital of America." Tony Patterson, a longtime homicide detective, recalled one eight-hour shift when every detective on his squad landed a homicide investigation. Drive-by shootings with multiple victims were common, as were witnesses who'd see something – but say nothing.
The 1990 arrest of then-Mayor Marion Barry for smoking crack cocaine fed a perception that the city where the nation's laws were made was, itself, lawless.
"If you asked people what would happen first, there'll be a thousand murders in D.C. in a year or there'll be less than a hundred, I think virtually everybody would have said there would be 1,000," said John Roman, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Urban Institute.
Everyone agrees there's no single cause for the trend.
One overarching factor is the city's continued gentrification – the 2011 median household income of $63,124 is higher than all but four states, census figures show. Whole city blocks have been refashioned, drug dens razed, a Major League Baseball stadium built in place of urban blight, high-rise public housing replaced by less-dense garden style apartments. Though the poverty rate has risen, the growing wealth has pushed impoverished communities farther away from the city center. Some crime has also migrated to neighboring Prince George's County, Md., though homicides are down there too.
"There are just more physical places in Washington, D.C., that are affluent and safe than there used to be," Roman said.
Law enforcement techniques and medical care have advanced at the same time. Improved technology helps officers pinpoint gunfire, even before a 911 call, and share information faster. A police unit dedicated to seizing illegal firearms was re-established and prosecutors, benefiting from the city's strict gun laws, routinely ask that defendants arrested on weapons charges be held without bond – in part, to head off possible retaliation. Stronger community relationships mean detectives have developed better sources on the street and witness cooperation, police say.
And better medical care, honed through lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, means patients who were once stabilized at the scene are more likely to be taken directly to the hospital, where they have access to improved blood transfusion processes.
"The advances in the way we practice nowadays, I think, probably helps today's trauma patient more so than 20 years ago," said Anthony Shiflett, an acute care trauma surgeon at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.
Still, homicides are but one gauge of a city's safety and an imperfect one too.
Crime in some other categories has risen this year from the previous year, including robberies and, as of mid-September, assaults with a dangerous weapon. There have been headline-making violent crimes in 2012, including the beating and robbery of a man returning home from a Washington Nationals game, the slaying of a taxi driver whose body was found inside his burning cab and, most recently, the fatal stabbing of an 18-year-old inside a subway station after a robbery.
U.S. Attorney Ron Machen, whose office prosecutes homicides, said that while witness cooperation has improved, retaliatory violence remains enough of a concern that he preaches against it during regular school visits.
"We always say, 'You're not going to remember what the argument was about five days from now, let alone five years from now. But you pick up that gun and shoot somebody, if you don't kill them, now they're going to be coming after you,'" he said.
The department doesn't track non-fatal shootings, but the number of aggravated assaults reported to the FBI – which would encompass such crimes – dropped from more than 8,500 in 1992 to 2,949 last year. The toll taken by non-fatal violence is apparent each Tuesday at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, where wheelchair-bound survivors gather for support sessions.
"I'm still frightened to a degree to come outside – day, night, it really don't matter," said Jordon Cook, 31, who was hit by stray gunfire at age 15. "I'm probably going to have to deal with this until the day I die."
The homicide drop is good news for violence-weary residents such as John Harper, who said his street in the historically violent Anacostia neighborhood feels far safer than it did 10 years ago. Still, a fatal shooting last July on his block returned his thoughts to the night in 1999 when his own son was killed in an alley.
"I didn't even want to look over there because it just takes me right back to that day," he said, adding, "A lot of it is starting to come to an end, that behavior is starting to just leave this city – hopefully for good. I know not all of it, but a lot of it."
Lanier, the police chief, said that in a city visited by millions of tourists annually, a continued downward trend might help alter a lingering perception of the city as a haven for violence.
"It really is about a vibrant, safe city. I want people to not only be safe but to feel safe," she said.
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