LaTrina Antoine: News site steps up to battle homicides in DC

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Despite the District’s legalization of marijuana, an illegal weed is growing in Washington, DC. And instead of leaving users in a daze, it leaves fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands and wives sitting on wooden seats in courtrooms waiting for a verdict they never — before now — dreamed they’d have to endure.

The illegal weed is the city’s growing number of homicides. Not all of these cases, however, will live past the mass-circulated blurb in the daily newspaper, and most won’t even make it to the nightly news. But one nonprofit organization, D.C. Witness, was founded to keep that news cycle going, while also delivering data-driven statistics to help community members and government officials create better solutions to solve the city’s homicide problem, not just affix a temporary Band-Aid to the persistent social ill.

Without D.C. Witness, public officials can tout inaccurate statistics or misleading closure rates for homicides. Without D.C. Witness, parents who do not understand the legal system or know how to find out about a family member’s court case would not have their questions answered. Without D.C. Witness, the perception of our city’s homicides would remain defined by innuendo and alternative facts.

D.C. Witness reporters track the causes of homicides and follow each case by spending hours and days inside courtrooms at the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse. Our reporters, who are student interns studying journalism, sociology or legal studies, track judicial proceedings for homicide cases involving defendants such as 16-year-old Titus Iracks or 35-year-old Elliott Starks. We track each defendant, follow up with families on both sides, and consult with judicial staff to keep the conversation going and provide crucial information to residents, fostering a safer place for all to live.

D.C. Witness also tracks information from various city agencies. In tracking homicides in the city, D.C. Witness is not interested in capturing the “gotcha” stories of the evening news. Rather, it is a nonpartisan, non-activist organization that wishes only to use statistics to improve the city by working with residents, the police and local government officials.

And the data is sobering.

The D.C. Witness blog features daily stories, policy-oriented articles and a calendar of court proceedings, among other features. (Screenshot on Sept. 13)

According to D.C. Witness data, homicides in July increased by 46 percent from 2017. Although the percentage decreased in August, homicide numbers for 2018 have already reached triple digits. As of Sept. 6, there were 105 homicides in the District, with 31 homicides occurring since the summer began on June 21.  The Metropolitan Police Department is currently investigating whether one of the homicides, involving a Metro employee, was done in self-defense.

The data shows that homicides disproportionately affect minority residents since a majority of the crimes occur in Southeast, where more minority, low-income residents live. Looking back at homicide studies conducted more than 30 years ago shows that not much — other than motive — has changed. Today, according to D.C. Witness data, more murders result from disputes than from drugs, which was the main reason for homicides in the 1980s.

The irony is that all of the data D.C. Witness gathers is public and the mayor even has an office that gathers similar data. It just refuses to share it with the residents of DC.

Even though a majority of homicides are occurring in Southeast, the problem is significant to every District resident. What’s more, there are homicides occurring in generally affluent, gentrified areas of the District that attract tourists and new residents. One such example is the shooting death of 22-year-old Phillip Dumbuya in the 1900 block of 9th Street NW, which is in the U Street corridor.

As D.C. Witness moves forward, we plan to incorporate new aspects of reporting on and tracking homicide data, such as monthly recaps, homicide synopses by ward, videos, infographics and feature stories, as well as continuing our daily news coverage from inside courtrooms. Visit the D.C. Witness website to access data on homicides.

LaTrina Antoine is editor-in-chief of D.C. Witness, a nonprofit news organization established in 2015 to provide information on every homicide in the District.

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