There's a way out of the homicide surge – but it's a long, uphill battle
Ending the homicide surge will require a multi-pronged, coordinated approach, experts say
This is the fifth story in a series about murders in Washington, D.C. Read the rest here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
WASHINGTON, D.C. – It could take years for the homicide surge to subside – and that’s only if multiple of initiatives can be implemented in a coordinated approach, according to criminologists and other experts who criticized the defund the police movement.
If the various efforts work in concert, they could lead to what one criminologist called "a virtuous circle," where each success helps lead to the next. Homicides would continuously drop, and more murderers would be arrested.
"There is no one strategy," Thomas Abt, a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, told Fox News. "But taken together, there is a toolbox out there that can be used to reduce homicide."
More shooters would be arrested if there was a bigger investment in police departments’ investigative units, the criminologists said. This would take known shooters off the streets, prevent retaliations and deter future offenders.
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Arresting more shooters – and building better relationships between police and violent communities – would also encourage more witnesses to cooperate with detectives.
But the criminologists stressed that over-policing would have the opposite effect and that violence prevention programs are a necessary part of the equation.
"I think, unfortunately, across the country generally, but especially in communities that are hardest hit by high homicide rates, there is this hopelessness that there's really nothing that can be done and that it is this chronic problem that is beyond sort of solving," Abt told Fox News. "Fortunately, that's not the case."
Nearly a dozen criminologists, local officials and other experts largely agreed on the strategies needed to combat homicide, though there wasn’t entirely consensus on which should be emhpasized. Nearly all of them criticized the push to defund police departments.
In Washington, D.C., some of these initiatives have been implemented, though there’s disagreement over how to balance policing and social programs. But one effective strategy – forming an investigative unit strictly dedicated to solving non-fatal shootings – isn’t in the cards, local officials told Fox News.
"Rather than taking a very either/or approach, really trying to think about this as a way to invest in the multitude of ways that we focus on public safety," D.C. City Councilmember Charles Allen told Fox News. "It is both an investment in law enforcement and policing and also the investments in violence interruption."
"We are not short for resources," he added. "There's lots of programs. There's lots of initiatives. We don't bring them under one umbrella to say, ‘what is the coordinated plan and strategy?’"
‘First you shoot the guy in the leg, and then you shoot him in the head’
Simply investing more time, attention and resources to investigative units would improve homicide clearance rates, Abt told Fox News.
Additionally, solving more non-fatal shootings would help improve homicide clearance rates and decrease homicides, criminologists said. But investigations into non-fatal shootings typically receive significantly fewer resources and consequently have significantly lower clearance rates compared to murders.
"Out of necessity or perceived necessity, agencies treat homicides as a special type of violence, as they should," University of Nebraska Omaha associate professor Justin Nix told Fox News. "But a lot of times the difference between a shooting being non-fatal and fatal is kind of chance."
In Washington, D.C., there were 581 non-fatal shooting incidents resulting in 717 people injured in 2021, according to the city’s police department. Less than 20% of those incidents had an associated arrest.
By comparison, the homicide clearance rate was more than double at 42%, according to D.C. Witness, a nonprofit that tracks murder in the nation's capital. It uses an aggressive methodology compared to the Metropolitan Police Department, which reported a 67% clearance rate in 2021.
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"The police really need to think about this sort of murder first strategy," Louisiana State University School of Public Health criminologists Peter Scharf told Fox News.
Officers probing non-fatal shootings typically have to juggle other types of investigations, making it harder for them to solve cases, according to Lisa Barao, a criminal justice assistant professor at Westfield State University. Homicide detectives, meanwhile, strictly investigate murders.
"They have very high caseloads," Barao told Fox News. "They really don't have the time or the resources that are dedicated to homicides."
MPD refused to provide information about detectives’ caseloads.
Non-fatal shootings and homicides "are really closely intertwined," Barao told Fox News. "We have to view non-fatal shootings as more or less failed homicides. They're one in the same."
Manhattan Institute fellow Charles Fain Lehman told Fox News: "Catching more non-fatal shooters would contribute to a reduction in violent crime. It would mean that those people won't go on to commit other shooting offenses."
Additionally, shooters and victims alike are frequently involved in future incidents, criminologists said. One shooting often leads to retaliations – what Lehman called "pingpong shootings."
"First you shoot the guy in the leg, and then you shoot him in the head," Scharf told Fox News. "That's the street issue and the street pattern."
Catching a non-fatal shooter thereby can prevent future murders, according to Lehman. He also noted that it would also deter future shooters.
But by failing to make an arrest, "victims and their friends might be more likely to seek retribution and justice when their offenders aren't held accountable," Barao told Fox News.
"We see a lot of negative effects that are generated specifically within disadvantaged communities when these cases remain unsolved," Barao added. "It really impedes the development of police community trust, it impedes perceptions of police legitimacy."
"That feeds into these cycles where people are unwilling to cooperate with the police," she continued. "People are more reliant on finding their own justice rather than relying on the formal criminal justice system. That just perpetuates cycles of violence."
And like homicides, witness cooperation is an essential component to a police investigation. Since non-fatal shootings are viewed as less serious than murders, it may already be even less likely that witnesses will cooperate, according to Barao.
Studies on the effects of investing more resources into non-fatal shootings are limited, but have generally had positive results.
"There's some pretty compelling evidence out of Boston that if agencies would treat all shootings … like they treat homicides in terms of the aggressive follow-up by investigations, they could see improved clearance rates not just for shootings, but for homicides as well," Nix told Fox News.
Barao pointed to the Denver Police Department, which saw clearance rates for non-fatal shootings improve by nearly 30% after forming a unit dedicated to solving such incidents.
D.C.’s police department doesn’t have a dedicated shooting unit. Deputy Mayor Christopher Geldart indicated that one won’t be formed in the foreseeable future, particularly since law enforcement budgets are under a microscope.
D.C., like most major cities in the U.S., has seen a homicide surge since George Floyd was killed, with 226 murders in 2021 – the most since 2003.
Reform, but don’t defund
The criminologists warned that police departments can’t go overboard. Scharf told Fox News an aggressive, police-focused strategy could make arrests even more difficult.
Reforms within police departments, they said, would help curb homicides – and potentially mitigate future police killings.
"I don't think police departments and the cities that run them can afford to ignore the calls for reform," University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld told Fox News. "They do that at their own peril."
As an example, he said fire departments could handle drug overdoses, since they already primarily respond to medical emergencies.
"Not every call for reform needs to be taken as seriously as others," Rosenfeld added.
The defund the police effort has been "weaponized in a kind of the liberal/conservative conflict over law and order," Rosenfeld told Fox News. "It should never have entered our narrative."
Abt added: "In the middle of an unprecedented spike in homicides, this is the wrong time to be decreasing police budgets."
Cities should instead determine what services they expect from a police department and adjust the budget accordingly, the criminologists said.
"That might well mean a reduction in the police budget," Rosenfeld said. "It could also mean an increase in the police budget."
Allen, the D.C. councilmember, has favored decreasing the police budget to make room for social programs.
"We ask them to do everything from responding to mental health and behavioral health … to the person with a gun," he told Fox News. "We've got to be able to have smart approaches that really have our police officers respond where we really need them, but then also have resources that go where you don't need a police officer."
But most importantly, police departments need to take steps to improve their relationships with the public, particularly violent communities, according to the criminologists.
"I think that that will make a big, huge difference if they was to get out in a community and not like we in Vietnam," Larry McMichael, a reformed drug dealer, told Fox News. He said it’s about "everybody really getting along, the community and the police."
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An MPD spokesperson noted that the department participated in over 1,700 outreach events last year.
"MPD is working tirelessly and building upon relationships with the communities we serve to make them safer," she previously told Fox News.
If police already have a relationship with a community, it will be easier to keep peace following an officer-involved killing, according to Nix, who said future killings are inevitable. He compared building trust to making small bank deposits – and a negative incident is like a massive withdrawal.
With enough capital, the public may be more willing to listen to the police department’s side before a protest or riot breaks out, Nix said. But that would require frequent and, when needed, immediate transparency and communication.
Improving community trust would also decrease murders, since neighborhoods that don’t believe the police will protect them tend to have a higher rate of illegal gun possession, which tend to be used over petty conflicts, Fox News previously reported.
‘What the Creator want me to be doing’
Policing is only one part of the solution, criminologists and local officials and experts stressed.
"I want to just push back on this notion that whatever we do related to homicide rates begins and ends with the police. It doesn't," Abt said. "It's very important that cops and communities are working together on this."
McMichael told Fox News: "You don't know that people don't care about going to jail?"
"You can't just lock the shooter up and think the problem will go away," McMichael continued. "That don't happen. That's what the [district attorney] and the police want to think, but they know that's not the case."
Abt and others said decreasing violent crime requires "a whole society approach." Police, public health officials, community leaders and educators need to work in conjunction.
One of the most important components is teaching violent young men conflict resolution skills, according to experts. Killers' inability to resolve petty disputes peacefully drive most homicides in D.C., Fox News previously reported.
Those skills were simply never taught, Tyrone Parker, who founded a violence intervention group called the Alliance of Concerned Men, told Fox News. He said it’s up to him and his organization to teach his community "morals, integrity and principles."
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"Our conflict resolution life skills classes … give them training and support to the point that they begin to see they don't need a gun," Parker, who said he formed the alliance after a stray bullet killed his son, said.
Typically, violence interruption programs aim to identify potential or previous violent offenders, Barao said. Then, they simultaneously offer help and outline how continued criminal involvement could lead to jail or death.
Geldart, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice, described three scenarios for violent offender: "You can continue in the game that you're in and find yourself a victim of gun violence … find yourself arrested for the gun violence … or we can help you find a way out of this."
Parker detailed one instance where his group intervened to prevent a shooting victim from retaliating against his attacker. The alliance contacted the victim’s father, who was imprisoned for murder. He convinced his son not to retaliate so he wouldn’t also spend his life in jail.
An important component of Parker’s conflict resolution program is turning students into teachers, creating a sort of exponential growth.
"We want to make it to the point that these kids become the transformational agents ... to talk to the other kids to circumvent them from actually participating in the violence," Parker told Fox News.
McMichael, for example, teaches the alliance’s conflict resolution course. He spent nearly his entire life working the streets and selling drugs. McMichael told Fox News he's been shot 22 times and said around 30 people he grew up with had been killed, including his 18-year-old brother.
McMichael said he first came to the alliance asking for help around 2001 after serving a prison sentence for a gun charge, but he ended up going back to the streets. It was a 20-year process to reform himself.
"The longer you be in the streets, the longer you're going to take to get out," McMichael told Fox News. "I haven't seen nobody could just turn it off like that and just walk away. But I have seen a lot of brothers that have changed over the years."
McMichael now serves as a Credible Messenger, a sort of big brother for youth incarcerated for violent crimes. He and Parker both said experience on the streets is needed in order to reform career criminals.
"I've changed so many kids' lives ... that actually work for the alliance now, that's actually mentoring kids now," McMichael told Fox News. "At one time they was carrying guns around and all that. They don't do any of that no more."
"Some going to go to jail, some going to die," he added. "But some of them going to get it and move past it."
"I really believe in my heart and my mind that this is what the Creator want me to be doing," McMichael continued.
A previous Fox News investigation detailed a vicious cycle that formed after Floyd’s death. Because police trust diminished, witnesses became less willing to cooperate, leading officers to solve fewer homicides, decreasing trust further.
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But Rosenfeld described how that cycle could be reversed to create "a virtuous circle." Arresting more murderers would improve communities’ faith in the police, which would make witnesses more likely to help in future cases.
"One of the best ways to improve rapport with the community is to solve the case," Scharf told Fox News.
Nix added: "Increasing trust in the police is a good end goal in its own right. But it leads to ... an improved ability to clear cases."
But detectives will need to increase the share of cases they solve in order to kick-start the virtuous circle. That would likely require a reduction in homicide, according to Rosenfeld.
"That, of course, depends on whether there will be another viral incident of police use of force, especially … against a minority member of our communities that enrages people across the board" and "stimulates mass protest again," Rosenfeld told Fox News. "Were that to happen, we're back to square one."
Police have around 60 million interactions with the public and kill over 1,000 people each year, according to Nix. Even if a killing is justified – what Nix called "lawful but awful" – it could still cause a backlash that harms the path to the virtuous circle.
But the very nature of reversing the vicious cycle is a slow process, Rosenfeld said. Significant attrition from police departments also means agencies must rely on rookies who lack experience-based skills, Fox News previously reported.
"We should not expect a change overnight or in the short run that would improve community relationships with the police," Rosenfeld said.
"It's easy to break something," he continued. "It doesn't take much time at all. Putting it back together necessarily takes more time."
Regardless, both Nix and Rosenfeld were optimistic.
"I hesitate to be all doom and gloom," Nix told Fox News. "There's a lot of reasons to think maybe the worst is behind us, but I can't predict the future."
He noted that the rate of the increase in homicides has slowed and that most cities still have much fewer killings than they did in the early 1990s.
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"There's reason to be hopeful that maybe five, 10 years from now, we'll look back at what was a two- or three-year spike that was really bad, but then maybe that we got back on track," Nix said.
McMichael offered another solution.
"It's on mothers and fathers to really give the kids some attention, to really give their kids some love," he told Fox News. "That’s the number one way how we can end this."
Isabelle McDonnell contributed to this report.