Concrete Steps to Improve Public Safety

A Letter to Ward 6 Residents

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Potomac residents Hold Vigil for slain DCHA Employee. Photo: Liz O'Gorek

Ward 6 Residents:

Over the past week and a half, I’ve met with neighbors in Shaw, Southwest, H Street, and Capitol Hill to talk about recent gun violence. We need to begin by making clear that every single person deserves to live in a safe community and that gun violence creates deep trauma that is felt not just by those directly impacted by a bullet, but the impacts ripple across family members, witnesses, neighbors, and residents throughout a community.

I wanted to reach out to update you on our office’s efforts to prevent violence and ensure our neighborhoods are safe for everyone. I think there’s an opportunity to make this a bigger and more engaging conversation that gives all of us concrete steps to take to improve public safety for everyone. My office will be hosting a community meeting in the coming weeks that goes beyond the traditional effort of a few city leaders standing in front of room to field questions, but rather, creates a space for accountability and action. I want this to be a chance to come together and proactively work on solutions beyond the usual meetings where we simply provide updates on recent crimes. I will share more information once we have the details in a future newsletter and on social media.

For now, though, let me share a few updates. And my apologies in advance, but as public safety is a very complicated topic that we’re addressing in many different ways simultaneously, this is going to be a long note.

The last few weeks have been particularly hard for all of us. We’ve lost neighbors to gun violence, and their families and friends are now grieving. Residents are understandably shaken. We know violence works like a disease, even for those not directly impacted, spreading trauma and pain. None of this is normal, and none of us should accept any violence as part of living in the District. In recent days, I’ve reached out to and met with some of the victims and their families to support them. I have also been working closely with MPD Commanders in the First, Third, and Fifth Districts to get real-time updates on investigations and understand their plan of action going forward.

As the Chair of the Council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, it’s my job to push for the necessary resources to be in place to improve public safety. In the new budget, which started on October 1, I fully funded MPD’s requested number of full-time employees to allow staffing to keep up with our growing city’s demands. I worked with the Mayor to extend the Senior Police Officer program to retain some of our most experienced sergeants and detectives – officers who work serious cases – who otherwise would have been forced to retire. We also continued a new pre-arrest diversion program so officers don’t have to spend their valuable time trying to solve behavioral and mental health challenges that our social services agencies are better suited to address.

However, the District’s public safety strategy can’t only be a police response. We have to pull all levers at the same time. We’ve tripled the funding for violence interruption programs in the District starting this month, which means more violence interrupters will be working in the community to build relationships at the street level and work to head off conflict. That includes increased funding for the very successful Pathways Program, which pulls young adults most at-risk for committing violence or being the victim of a violent crime off the street and places them in an intensive job training and emotional and behavioral support program. Pathways has graduated three cohorts already, with a high rate of post-program employment. I also supported the work of Attorney General Karl Racine by increasing staffing for his office’s restorative justice program for young people as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system in certain cases.

In looking at the violence we’re seeing in neighborhoods across the District, it’s clear there are just too many illegal guns on the street, and I’ve taken steps to address that as well. Last year, I increased the penalties for anyone caught with a high-capacity magazine, which only serves to fire more bullets faster. For the same reason, we also banned so-called “bump stocks.” And I created the District’s “Red Flag Law” to allow concerned police, loved ones, and mental health professionals to take guns – including illegal guns — out of the hands of people in a dangerous situation or mindset who would use them to do harm. I’ve spoken with too many mothers and grandmothers in the aftermath of a tragic shooting who wished they had been able to do something to get a gun out of the house. Now they can.

Our gun laws are among the strongest in the nation, but we live next to Virginia, which the Giffords Law Center gives a “D” for their gun laws. Following a hearing I held on regional gun trafficking earlier this month, the Washington Post wrote about the regional and federal challenges we have to overcome in order to stem the tide of illegal guns into the District. Without question, the majority of illegal guns recovered here come from Virginia. This is not to excuse anyone who carries a gun, which will always be unacceptable and comes with consequences. But we need to acknowledge even as MPD pulls more than 2,000 guns off our streets annually, more guns come in. I asked our federal partners at the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to be part of the conversation, to talk about federal efforts to fight gun trafficking and share data on tracking gun crimes from arrest to prosecution, but they refused to attend.

Strong laws and enforcement are critical, but there’s a wide range of other ways to approach improving public safety. For example, the gym at Greenleaf Recreation Center in Southwest has been closed for months. That’s unacceptable, and I’ve escalated the problem to the City Administrator. Over in Shaw, children are heading home in the dark by themselves once Kennedy Recreation Center closes for the evening – we need more programming and a safe passage plan. Rec centers and libraries are spaces for children who might have very few opportunities in their daily life to safely play, study, eat, and let their guard down. I also helped fund an increase in mental health services available in schools in this year’s budget so our children can process and cope with the trauma many carry with them daily.

A quick glance at school funding shows our at-risk dollars, meant to reach the students who need the most extra support, aren’t always making it to the classrooms teaching these kids, something I’ve introduced legislation to address. It’s not that at-risk students are causing violence, but it is about recognizing where our systems are failing children and what we can do to ensure the resources and supports are in place for them to succeed.

We also have so much to do together to improve reentry after someone returns home to the District from prison. Successful reintegration into society is in everyone’s best interest, because it prevents reoffending. For someone with a criminal record, getting a job is incredibly hard. Most recently on this front, I introduced legislation to make it easier for someone with a record to apply for an occupational license and open doors to meaningful careers.

As I said at the beginning, this was going to be a long note because it’s a very complicated issue. As a Ward 6 neighbor, I want you to know what I’ve been working on to make our community safer. Like many other parents, I’ve also had to talk with my children about gun violence when we hear shots fired near our home. I’ve personally experienced gun violence and take seriously protecting the safety of our residents. It’s also my job to look at the big picture clearly, to evaluate what is working to reduce crime, to pursue evidence-based interventions, and recognize it will take more than policing to reduce violence. My mission is to make the District of Columbia both a safe and a just city, and I know you’re there with me.

Please keep an eye out for more information on that Ward 6 Public Safety Meeting – we need to have your participation and perspective.

Thanks,

Charles Allen