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How the nation’s capital became an outlier on violent crime

Republicans blame Democrats for DC’s rising violent crime. The reality is much more complicated.

A police officer stands surrounded by caution tape.
A DC police officer stands at the scene of a fatal daytime shooting near Washington’s baseball stadium, Nationals Park, in December. The city’s striking homicide rate has shaken residents — and drawn national attention.
Craig Hudson for the Washington Post via Getty Images
Marin Cogan is a senior correspondent at Vox. She writes features on a wide range of subjects, including traffic safety, gun violence, and the legal system. Prior to Vox, she worked as a writer for New York magazine, GQ, ESPN the Magazine, and other publications.

In 2020, during the pandemic and after the murder of George Floyd, homicide and violent crime across the US soared. The number of murders that year represented the largest increase since the FBI began formally tracking national statistics in 1960.

But 2023 was different: Across the spectrum, violent crime and homicide dropped significantly from their 2020 peak, and murders fell more than 12 percent in cities, according to the FBI’s latest crime report. Last year saw “one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the United States in more than 50 years,” Jeff Asher, a crime data analyst, writes.

There were exceptions: In Memphis, Tennessee, murders skyrocketed in the 12 months following the killing of Tyre Nichols by city police, and in Shreveport, Louisiana, they jumped by more than 37 percent. But no other city has experienced a crime surge — or the accompanying national scrutiny about its meaning — like the nation’s capital has.

DC saw its deadliest year in more than two decades, with 274 people killed and a homicide rate that makes it among the deadliest cities in the country. Violent crime also spiked nearly 40 percent in the nation’s capital, driven largely by a surge of armed robberies and carjackings, many of them perpetrated by kids. The city reported more than 950 carjackings in 2023, and shocking news coverage about teen carjacking rings rattled residents and people who worked there.

The rise in murder and violent crime has been horrible for the city’s residents, particularly for victims and family members, and those living in the racially segregated eastern neighborhoods of the city where the majority of homicides took place.

Nationally, DC’s struggles with crime have become a partisan flashpoint, a key talking point on Fox News and among Republicans, who use the city’s struggles as an opportunity to criticize its Democratic leaders. The critiques are part of an election-year strategy to portray Democrats as being “soft” on crime, something President Biden and other officials are pushing to contradict.

Locally, officials have played the blame game with one another, with critics going after Mayor Muriel Bowser, the Metropolitan Police Department, US Attorney Matthew Graves, the city council, and pretrial monitoring and detention services for failures they say are responsible for DC’s rising violent crime. The Justice Department recently announced that it would commit more prosecutors and resources to combating violent crime in the city, with a focus on homicides and carjackings.

Assessing why homicides and violent crime might be on the rise in one place but not in another is incredibly difficult to do with certainty. It is not determined by which political party is in power. Still, experts and analysts say there are several possible factors that make the nation’s capital different from other places, and could help explain why violence surged in DC despite falling elsewhere.

DC’s unique status makes law enforcement more complicated

DC’s lack of statehood partly explains why its criminal-legal system is more complicated. Most cities have local government and law enforcement agencies that operate in conjunction with state and federal law enforcement, but the District of Columbia, because of its status as a federal district, has a much more complex, overlapping system of agencies and offices.

Multiple law enforcement agencies operate within city limits — the Metropolitan Police Department, which is DC’s main police department, reports to the mayor, and federal agencies, including the FBI, US Park Police, and Capitol Police, also work within the city.

Unlike other cities, where voters can elect district attorneys, or prosecutors who represent the local government, the US Attorney’s Office in Washington, DC, is appointed by the president. It handles most of the city’s criminal cases, acting as both local and federal prosecutor. (For years, local officials and DC statehood advocates have argued unsuccessfully that residents of the city should have the right, like other Americans, to elect a prosecutor who answers to them rather than to the federal government.) The DC Office of the Attorney General, the city’s primary legal office, also handles a limited number of cases, including juvenile cases.

The presence of multiple law enforcement agencies, and the city’s unique prosecutorial process, requires a level of coordination and communication that would be difficult in normal circumstances but becomes especially challenging when the city is facing an emergency.

“Violence reduction is a team sport. The team cannot be successful in saving lives if the individual members of the team are not working well together. That is true in every city, but getting those players to work well together is more difficult in DC because of issues with federal-local hybrid structure,” says Thomas Abt, professor and founding director of the University of Maryland’s Violence Reduction Center and author of the book Bleeding Out, who has testified before Congress about legislative changes that would help the region’s law enforcement agencies communicate more effectively.

Congress has oversight over DC’s laws, and occasionally uses that power to override DC’s city council, which considers and passes laws for the District. Congress rejected the city’s attempt to reform its criminal code last year, with the president’s help, after a controversy over lowering the maximum penalties for certain violent crimes, including carjacking.

House Republicans have assailed DC’s leaders for being “soft on crime,” but the reality is more complicated: Amid rising crime last year, city leaders passed emergency legislation last summer handing more power to police and prosecutors to go after people suspected of committing violent crimes; the council is working on a larger public safety bill that would expand upon last year’s legislation. In describing the turn from police reform efforts toward expanding powers for law enforcement, Mayor Muriel Bowser told the Washington Post late in 2023 that “the pendulum is swinging back to the middle.”

Other major cities that enacted police reforms post-2020 didn’t see rising violence like DC did in 2023, making it less likely that any recent legislative changes are directly responsible for the violent crime surge. Research shows that when it comes to preventing crime, certainty of getting caught is a greater deterrent than severity of punishment — and the city has serious challenges catching those who commit certain violent crimes.

Fewer police are making fewer arrests, and fewer cases are being prosecuted

DC faced its largest police shortage in roughly 50 years in 2023, after being unable to meet its recruitment targets or keep pace with attrition. While the city isn’t alone in struggling with staffing shortages, police in the city are also arresting far fewer people than they used to.

According to DC Crime Facts, a pseudonymously written Substack newsletter that does in-depth analysis of DC’s publicly available police and crime data, arrest rates fell 44 percent per officer in 2022, with arrests falling from 7.8 per officer per year in 2014-2019 to around 4.4 in 2022. There’s no single reason for the decline — experts say it’s likely due to a combination of officers changing tactics to lower direct interactions during and after the pandemic, unrest following Floyd’s murder, and choosing to prioritize the most serious crimes instead of misdemeanors.

Fewer arrests isn’t inherently a bad thing, but the arrests in DC declined the most in areas where violent crime surged. In another analysis of police staffing in early 2023, DC Crime Facts also found that police weren’t deploying heavily in areas where crime was rising the fastest, raising questions about whether there were enough police focused on the “hot spots,” areas where crime is more likely to happen. Decades of research shows that targeting hot spots is an effective strategy for significantly reducing crime. (The Metropolitan Police Department did not respond to a request for comment.)

It’s not just that fewer people are being arrested — among those arrested, fewer are being charged. Data from the US Attorney’s Office, analyzed by Washington City Paper in 2023, showed that out of 15,315 arrests made by Metro Police officers in fiscal year 2022, the US Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute 10,261 cases, or more than 67 percent of arrests, and that prosecution rates have been on the decline for years.

In response to the analysis, the US Attorney’s Office told the City Paper that the drop had to do with charging fewer drug and gun cases, and said they were explained in part by the fact that DC’s Department of Forensic Sciences, or crime lab, temporarily lost accreditation from the national accreditation board in 2021, due to concerns over the lab’s accuracy and attempt to cover up mistakes. The lab losing accreditation, the US Attorney’s Office said, meant that “we often cannot secure the drug testing, DNA, and firearms testing we need to successfully prosecute these offenses.”

The office also noted that the addition of body cam footage on police officers allowed them to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of different cases, leading to them declining to prosecute in certain instances. Even when prosecutors bring charges, gun possession cases can be difficult to win, and hold up, in court.

Across the country, including in DC, police officers are solving fewer crimes. The percentage of crimes recorded that led to an arrest, called the clearance rate, dropped to historic lows in 2022, with police solving just over half of homicides and 37 percent of violent crime nationally, according to Asher. DC’s metro police reported a 52 percent clearance rate by the end of the year. (The city had previously reported a 41 percent clearance rate for homicide between January and September, which was well below the national average.)

Solving crimes is important for several reasons: Making sure justice is served when people do commit violent crime means you won’t have as many repeat offenders. “You also get a higher deterrence value,” Asher says, since certainty of being caught is shown to be a more convincing disincentive to committing crime than a harsh penalty is.

How are city leaders attempting to make DC safer?

There are a number of strategies the city can use to reduce violent crime, according to what’s known about the city’s unique challenges and the broader research. The key priorities should be deploying more officers to hot spots where crimes are more likely to happen and working toward a better clearance rate.

Prosecuting people who have committed gun offenses before those guns are used for a violent crime can also play an important role. In October, US Attorney Matthew Graves noted that the percentage of cases where his office pressed charges at the time of arrest had increased in the last quarter of the fiscal year, after his office secured access to better forensic testing.

He also defended the office’s record of charging cases, while promising to continue focusing his efforts on charging violent crime, drug, and gun cases. “Our office will continue to use every available tool in combating the violent crime crisis we are experiencing in our city,” he said. (In cases last fall, Graves’s office charged teens who committed violent crimes as adults, a controversial practice that city leaders have embraced in response to the rise in juveniles committing violent crimes.)

Addressing the city’s soaring number of homicides is a challenge, but DC has a strong blueprint for how to do it. According to a report prepared for the city by the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform in 2021, a group of 200 to 500 people in the city were at the highest risk of becoming shooting victims or suspects, collectively comprising 60 to 70 percent of homicides in the city. It was accompanied by a list of specific people the institute determined to be at the highest risk of falling victim to, or perpetrating, a homicide.

Though the list is controversial — civil rights groups argue that some of the people on the list don’t belong there, and their presence on the list puts them at risk of discrimination — experts say it’s a valuable tool in the city’s efforts to deter violence. The city’s programs aimed at interrupting violence among those at risk have had significant challenges both in staffing and in reaching the people on the list, but the evidence suggests they can be an important tool in preventing violent crime and are worthy of more investment.

Other agencies and offices have a role to play, too. The agencies that oversee people outside of prison, including the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and Court Social Services Division, need to ensure that people under supervision don’t slip through the cracks. According to the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform, “at least 64 percent of all victims and suspects had been under any prior or active supervision and at least 76% of homicide suspects had active or prior supervision.”

In the case of youth committing violent crime, getting chronic absenteeism under control would be a major help, since youth with more unexcused absences are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system. In DC, 60 percent of teens were chronically absent in the 2022-2023 school year. “The data tells us that no group has been affected more by the pandemic than teens with respect to mental health, and how they view the world, their motivation to go to school,” says Daniel Webster, a professor with the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions and an expert in youth gun acquisition. “I think that is part of what’s going on in DC right now — you have a lot of kids who stop going to school, and that sets you on a particular course that is not good.”

Passing legislation to make information sharing easier would also help. Abt says it’s important that the city stay focused on proven tactics for reducing crime in the places where they’re most likely to happen, and among the people most likely to commit them. “One of the challenges is that, on paper, the District is doing a lot of the things you’d want the city to do. The challenge is in implementation and collaboration,” Abt says. Government officials are also looking into ways to deal with staffing shortages, including speeding up hiring processes and recruiting candidates from nontraditional backgrounds.

It’s important, too, he says, to focus on what is shown to reduce crime, rather than being distracted by political debates. “What you often see is the public being presented with: You either care about social justice or you care about violent crime. You either care about law enforcement or attending to the root causes of crime. It may not be very satisfying politically, but the effective policies are some combination of both.”

Update, January 31, 2:30 pm ET: Updated to reflect a recent name change for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

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