Terry Lynch: DC government and all of us must do more to prevent wave of violence

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DC has seen a dramatic 53 percent rise in homicides in the past year, with 72 homicides recorded in 2018 as of June 15. Not including prior-year tragedies only reclassified this year, homicides are up by around 30 percent or more over this time last year. What is to be done?

The first and easiest move would be replacing the city’s decades-old streetlight system with new, “smart” streetlights that effectively eliminate the problem of streetlights being out at night. Predators look for dark corners, so it’s no wonder that all types of crimes happen either at or near broken streetlights.

Under the current system, the city only knows a light is out if a citizen reports it. Using available technology, the city would be alerted immediately when a streetlight goes out. Further advantages would be creating Wi-Fi access citywide, as well as enabling activation for emergency responders at the site of events. We have the technology — why not use it to make residents safer? Stop the delays for this long-overdue upgrade.

Second, we should have police officers connect with the neighborhoods they patrol — get them out of their cars and talking to the residents, shop owners, grandparents and kids they come across. Personal connections can never be replaced. Police can learn so much simply by better connecting with the residents and shopkeepers who know the streets where they live and work. Fewer transfers to other beats would also improve officers’ experience with the neighborhoods they are serving.

Third, we should expand meaningful youth-engagement activities, be they sports, arts or academic-related pursuits for after-school hours and summers. Let’s get more activities such as Ultimate Frisbee leagues, rugby teams, plays, robotics competitions and bike clubs going in neighborhoods across the city. Having youth work with good coaches to learn team-building and goal-setting provides lifelong rewards.

Fourth, we ought to have deeper and more frequent neighborhood walkthroughs to identify the “broken windows” that can lead to unsafe conditions. Vacant buildings need to be identified and made safe sooner. Graffiti, particularly that of “crews” or gangs, must be removed. Hazardous sidewalks must be repaired. Faded and missing signs be replaced. Illegal dumping locations must be cleaned up. And empty tree boxes should be planted with new trees.

If we improve the conditions in each neighborhood, we can improve the safety as well. This will mean attention not just from the Metropolitan Police Department, but from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, the Department of Public Works, the Department of Transportation and other city agencies — all of which must double down to clean up neighborhoods and make them safer.

The city can also move to take over properties that pose a public danger. Blighted buildings that remain that way for more than a year should be subject to eminent domain, and properties deemed vacant for years on end should be subject to eminent domain after three years. The longer buildings stay vacant, the more they deteriorate, the more they are used for illegal purposes and the more they present immediate safety and fire hazards to their neighbors.

Other things can be done as well. Look at the penalties associated with carrying dangerous, concealed weapons. Are they strong enough for persons who have been caught with knives and guns? Are the courts being too lenient on those who are charged? The Metropolitan Police Department has already seized over 700 guns this year, and that’s surely just the tip of the iceberg. Too many youth are able to get guns and believe settling “beefs” can and should be done with guns.

City officials should blanket the city in a public health advertising campaign associated with the tragic violence. Let’s run public service announcements on radio and TV and in buses and commercial vehicles that will engage youth and residents and encourage them to turn in guns. We need to educate our youth and adults alike on the tragic toll of gun violence and on steps that can be taken to live safer and stronger lives. Gun violence is not just a policing issue; it’s also a public health issue, and numerous other city agencies besides MPD have a crucial role to play in reducing it.

Each of us can do something, be it for an individual to make a 311 request for a safety/city repair or for a company to sponsor youth activities, teams or “get-to-know-your-neighbor” events. We can and must do better in responding to the conditions that have created this tragic wave of violence.

Terry Lynch, a resident of Mount Pleasant in Ward 1, is the executive director of the Downtown Cluster of Congregations.

 

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The DC Line welcomes commentaries representing various viewpoints on local issues of concern, but the opinions expressed do not represent those of The DC Line. Submissions of up to 850 words may be sent to editor Chris Kain at chriskain@thedcline.org.

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