"You'll get a group of kids that steals a car at gunpoint. And there could be violence there, where they assault somebody or pistol-whip somebody," Gregg Pemberton, chair of the D.C. Police Union, told Fox News Digital. "We see people shot during armed carjackings. Then, they'll take the car and use the stolen car to commit other crimes. They'll drive to other neighborhoods, rival neighborhoods, and they'll shoot people. Then they'll leave. They'll commit robberies of gas stations or convenience stores."
Pemberton says politics has gotten in the way of public safety. Other local officials, including Mayor Muriel Bowser, have blamed the rising crime trend on "the easy access of weapons." Officials have also pointed to the lingering impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2021, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) reported 226 homicides — the highest annual murder count seen in the nation’s capital in nearly 20 years. Only 42% of those homicide investigations were closed.
In 2022, homicides are down 6% year-to-date, with 59 reported so far this year compared to 63 at this time last year. The number of assault incidents with deadly weapons remains unchanged, with 457 reported this year compared to 455 reported last year, and robberies are up 54%, with 803 incidents reported this year compared to 521 at the same time last year.
Total violent crime is up 25%, and property crime is up 7%.
On April 22, four people were injured in a shooting in D.C.'s Van Ness neighborhood after suspect Raymond Spencer fired an estimated 200 rounds from an apartment window before killing himself, according to authorities. The shooting occurred less than two weeks after four people were injured in a shooting near Nationals Park.
"Unfortunately, I had to look in parents' eyes tonight who are terrified, and they were terrified thinking of what might happen to their children," Bowser said during an April 22 press conference after the shooting. "And we have experienced this too much in our country — the epidemic of gun violence. The easy access of weapons has got to stop. People should not be scared taking their children to school."
Motor vehicle theft, theft from auto and "other" auto incidents are also up compared to last year, and experts say auto-related incidents often lead to violence. Juveniles have made up the majority of carjacking suspects over the last two years.
MPD has arrested multiple juveniles between the ages of 13 and 15 in recent weeks ranging from unarmed and armed carjackings to armed robberies. On April 21, authorities announced the arrest of a 13-year-old boy charged in connection to two stolen auto incidents, two assaults, two unarmed carjackings and three armed carjackings, one of which included an assault with a hammer.
D.C. City Council candidate Nate Fleming became the victim of an armed carjacking that occurred in broad daylight at a gas station in January.
"I’m shocked, angry and a bit embarrassed," Fleming said in a statement posted to Twitter. "To be threatened at gunpoint is shocking, but I am not surprised to have been attacked given the crisis we are facing with carjackings and violence in general in our city. Increasing public safety is at the heart of why I’m running for a citywide Council seat."
In February, an armed suspect carjacked a vehicle near Capitol Hill with the victim and her 11-month-old child still inside. The victim told police the suspect said, "Keep screaming and I'm gonna stab you," according to a police report.
Mayor Bowser and President Biden have blamed gun violence and ghost guns for rising crime in not only the nation's capital but in other major U.S. cities, as well.
Last year alone, there were approximately 20,000 suspected ghost guns reported to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) after being recovered by law enforcement in criminal investigations— which the White House said is a "ten-fold increase" from 2016. In D.C., specifically, the number of ghost guns recovered from the streets jumped to a record high in 2021. District authorities recovered 25 ghost guns in 2018, 116 in 2019, 282 in 2020 and 313 in 2021, according to NBC 4 Washington.
Biden on April 11 announced that the Justice Department had issued its long-awaited final rule to rein in the proliferation of "ghost guns," making it illegal for a business to manufacture firearms without serial numbers. The president has also recently called for "universal background checks," an "assault weapons" ban and a ban on "high-capacity magazines."
Bowser on April 25 announced a new Violent Crime Impact Team comprised of local and federal partners to help recover illegal firearms and apprehend criminals.
"We cannot allow people to terrorize our communities with guns," Bowser said in a statement at the time. "This is about using a whole-of-government approach, but it’s also about focusing our attention and resources on exactly where we know the problem is. Our message is clear – we will continue to offer people in our city a better path forward, but if people choose to engage in violence, then they will be held accountable."
Bowser had also introduced a plan for the MPD to reach 4,000 sworn-in MPD officers through her 2023 Fair Shot Budget, which invests $30 million for hiring, recruitment, and retention incentives for the department.
While Pemberton, chair of the D.C. Police Union, agrees that part of the issue of rising crime in D.C. is the lingering impact of the pandemic, he also blames the trend on politics.
When police question juveniles "about their involvement" in a crime, the juveniles "are telling the detectives that they know there's no penalty, so they don't care," Pemberton explained, naming D.C. District Attorney Karl Racine's Restorative Justice Model as a reason why.
The model allows juveniles charged with violent crimes to take part in a restorative program that includes connecting with victims and therapy instead of being prosecuted with the goal of decreasing the likelihood that the same juvenile offender will commit future crimes. The office of the attorney general is the sole prosecutor for juvenile offenses.
"There's just this lackadaisical sort of laissez-faire attitude about committing these crimes because they know that even when they go in front of a judge in D.C. Superior Court, and even if they're convicted, it's likely not going to be any significant penalty," Pemberton said.
Pemberton also blames D.C. City Council policies introduced since the May 2020 killing of George Floyd — a tragedy that occurred shortly after COVID-19 swept across the U.S. and led local and national lawmakers to hastily introduce police-reform bills.
Such policies "have multiple consequences," one of which includes officer retention rates, Pemberton said.
"We've seen almost 700 officers leave over the past two years, and that's a significant number of them," the union chair said. "… Right now, it's our total strength in sworn-in police officers is right around 3,500. The mayor is saying that we need 4,000. The chief agrees with that. The union agrees with that. I think … the minimum that we should have is 4,000."
The D.C. Police Union directly blames increasing D.C. crime on City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, as well as Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Allen, in a new advertisement campaign. Allen introduced the" Comprehensive Policing and Justice Reform Emergency Act" in 2020, and Mendelson introduced the "Strengthening Oversight and Accountability of Police Amendment Act" in 2021.
Pemberton specifically took issue with Mendelson's bill, introduced in July of last year, which publicizes an officer's entire personnel record for the entirety of that officer's career. It also makes public certain victim and witness information.
"Wat it does is it takes the Office of Police Complaints [OPC], which is a civilian agency outside of the MPD … that handles complaints, and just completely gives them carte blanche to investigate any police officer about any issue," Pemberton said. "This is [a] very biased agency that comes up with some pretty ridiculous allegations against our officers. And of the allegations they make against our officers … only 8% of the complaints that come in are sustained against our members."
Pemberton added that the council is "not willing to listen" to police, who want accountability within the MPD but do not want policies that will make police recruitment and retention more difficult.
D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee said during an October 2021 hearing that Mendelson's bill "goes too far," not because he does not want "police accountability" but because it treats MPD officers, "the overwhelming majority of whom serve our community faithfully, unfairly."
"It is because it will bog the Department down in endless bureaucracy that will prevent the agency from effectively and efficiently serving the city. And it is because it does not protect the privacy interests of everyone who is victimized by crime or chooses to work with the Department," Contee said at the time.
Mendelson's office shared a statement from the chairman last month saying the legislation "would strengthen police accountability."
"This has nothing to do with public safety, as they’ve alleged. Creating a Deputy Auditor of Public Safety, and making it harder for the [fraternal order of police] to defend one of their own for excessive use of force does not increase carjackings or homicides," the council chairman said. "Moreover, the legislation says nothing about the number of officers, nor the police budget. What it does is makes sure DC Police are held accountable. I am not against an increase in Police officers, I want more police. But I want the kind of police who can be held responsible for wrongdoing."
The White House did not immediately respond to an inquiry from Fox News Digital. Allen and several other councilmembers also did not respond or declined comment.
D.C.'s population fell by about 3%, representing a loss of more than 20,000 residents, in 2021, the D.C. Policy Center reported on March 25, citing data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The percentage represents a record-high exodus from the District over the last two decades, the Policy Center reported.
Additionally, D.C.'s population growth rate is -2.9% compared to the national rate of 0.12% and the Washington metropolitan area rate of 0.46%.
"The District had the lowest rates of domestic and net migration among all states, and though its birth, international migration, and natural growth rates ranked second, third, and fourth respectively, those gains were not at all enough to compensate the losses," the Policy Center said in its report.
Pemberton said victims of crime are being left out of the conversation.
"People who have been raped or robbed or shot or burglarized or whose families have been murdered — those are the voices that get silenced in this debate," he said. "It's really just an issue between activists on one side that say policing is aggressive and all of the other rhetoric that gets spewed out. And police officers who are saying, ‘Hey, we need to be able to do our job to protect these communities.’ That's the debate. But what you're not hearing is all of the individuals who've been victimized by crime is traumatized."
Fox News' Danielle Wallace, Ethan Barton and Brooke Singman contributed to this report.