West News Wire: As Pamela Smith remembered her difficult upbringing and how it helped prepare her for the challenges she faced as the new police chief in the nation’s capital, her voice rose and trembled like a preacher in the middle of a sermon.
“I stand before you as a little child with no aspirations or desires since they were out of my reach. But I do believe that anything is possible,” she remarked in cadences perfected over years as an ordained Baptist pastor at her Washington, D.C., news conference. “I think I’ll approach this with a new perspective, a different kind of energy, and a different level of passion,” the speaker said.
Smith accepts the position at a perilous time.
Violent crime is rising sharply, fueled by more homicides and carjackings. The District of Columbia’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, and the D.C. Council have, at times, been at odds about crime legislation. On Capitol Hill, the Republican-led House has begun citing the city’s crime statistics while aggressively reviewing local public safety laws.
On July 24, the Mexican Consulate posted a tweet urging its nationals to “take precautions” in the city due to “a significant increase in crime in areas previously considered safe.”
Even before the Council decides on Smith’s nomination as chief, the 55-year-old now serves as one of the public faces of this protracted battle. In her new position as head of the Metropolitan Police Department, she takes an uplifting tale with her. Smith and her siblings were at one point taken from their home and spent time in foster care. Smith was raised by a single mother who struggled with substance abuse in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. After becoming a track star, Smith spent 24 years as the first Black female chief of the U.S. Park Police, leaving in 2022 to take a top leadership post at the MPD.
Law enforcement and government officials repeatedly point out that overall crime numbers in Washington have stayed relatively stable. But the crimes that have increased the most murders and carjackings are the ones most likely to damage public confidence.
“The scariest crimes are going up and regardless of what’s happening with other crimes, that’s what’s going to fuel the overall perception,” U.S. Attorney Matthew Graves told news reporters.
Graves’ office prosecutes most felonies in Washington, in a unique arrangement due to the district’s status as a nonstate. The city’s attorney general’s office prosecutes misdemeanors and juvenile crime, which is also on the rise.
This intricate dynamic among two separate sets of prosecutors, the city’s police force, Bowser’s administration and the Council has been publicly tested as the crime numbers have stayed high all with Congress taking an increasing interest in the district’s affairs. Public safety was a primary topic of debate last year when Bowser, 50, successfully ran for a third term in office. She has spent this term sparring with both the Council and the House Oversight and Accountability Committee over how best to address crime.
As of last Friday, there had been 22 homicides in July, including killings on the campuses of Howard and Catholic colleges. One of the victims was an Afghan man who spent years translating for the American Army in Afghanistan before being killed in America while working as a Lyft driver. When a shooter in an SUV opened fire on the gathering at a Fourth of July picnic, nine people two of whom were children were shot. After being hit in the back Tuesday night by a bullet that entered her home through the walls, a 12-year-old girl is still in the hospital.
Although the local murder rate is well below the levels in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Washington regularly led the nation in murders per capita, it has climbed steadily in recent years. In 2022, there was a roughly 10% drop in homicides, but now, homicides are up 15 percent compared with this time a year ago and the city is on pace to surpass 200 for the third year in a row. Police also reported 140 carjacking incidents in the month of June the highest monthly total in more than five years.
Crime in Washington is now a national headline issue in Congress. In the spring, Bowser and Council members were summoned before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee for a heated session on local crime rates.
Congress voted to completely overturn the Council’s comprehensive rewrite of the district’s criminal code. Bowser was caught in the middle of the dispute. She had vetoed the overhaul, saying the reduction of maximum penalties for certain violent crimes “sent the wrong message,” but was overridden by the Council.
The mayor opposes congressional intervention in local affairs as part of Washington’s long push for statehood, but her initial veto was frequently cited by Republican lawmakers as proof that the rewrite was soft on crime. In an embarrassment for the heavily Democratic city, the move to cancel the criminal code revision drew support from dozens of congressional Democratic and was signed into law by President Joe Biden.
The author of the measure, Brooke Pinto of the D.C. Council, claimed that the public is aware of the current state of emergency. To solve the issue we are experiencing, we must act immediately and as if there is an emergency.
However, proponents of reforming the criminal justice system claimed that municipal legislators were turning back to long-discredited mass incarceration practises.
The now-cancelled criminal code revision’s co-author and executive director of the D.C. Justice Lab, Patrice Sulton, said, “We’re way beyond thinking that we can just incarcerate more people.” Everyone who supported it, in my opinion, is aware that it won’t matter.
The local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement on Twitter that the new bill “essentially flips due process on its head treating people as guilty and detaining them.”
All sides agree that a torrent of firearms into Washington is the main cause of the violence.
Graves, the US prosecutor for the district, claimed that as crimes involving firearms have increased, smaller disputes have evolved into lethal conflicts. A new generation of “ghost guns” weapons that may be purchased in kits and assembled at home fall under this category. Other kits make it simple to convert a semiautomatic weapon to an automatic one, allowing for the rapid-fire and typically less accurate spraying of many bullets. Authorities found three of these weapons in 2018; 461 were found in 2022.
Graves likened the illegal firearms to “a virus” spreading over the neighbourhood.
“The more virus there is in the community, the more people are going to get sick,” he declared. The more illegal firearms are in the community, the more likelihood those illegal firearms are going to be used.”