D.C. candidates grapple with questions on crime ahead of general election

Candidates running for local D.C. offices discussed strategies for violent crime prevention at a forum in Southeast Washington this week, grappling once again with a topic that District voters say is a preeminent concern.

The forum, hosted at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Wednesday night and organized by community public safety groups, came as D.C. and surrounding jurisdictions are grappling with elevated crime levels.

In neighboring Prince George’s, County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks announced a curfew for children younger than 17 after several people were shot over Labor Day weekend; elected officials and police in the District have similarly struggled to curtail violent crime throughout the summer, and D.C. police last month quietly resumed enforcing a youth curfew that was mostly dormant during the pandemic.

Some of the candidates for mayor, D.C. Council chairman and council at-large who appeared at the forum — the first to take place after the June primary — pointed out that four men were injured, one fatally, in a shooting just hours earlier, about two miles away.

“Quality of life is really suffering in this city, at least in the minds of those who roam the streets and are here every day,” said incumbent Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large), who won in the Democratic primary and is favored to retain her seat in the overwhelmingly Democratic city. “We have more money every year and programs every year. The question is, how do we get to them?”

Bonds is among eight candidates competing for two at-large council seats in the general election. Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) are also running, bringing heightened attention to that race. (McDuffie was disqualified from running for attorney general in the primary and entered the at-large race in July as an independent.) Several other independents are running at large, including Fred Hill, Karim Marshall and Graham McLaughlin, while Republican Giuseppe Niosi and David Schwartzman of the D.C. Statehood Green Party round out that ballot.

When the at-large candidates were asked by moderator and veteran journalist Tom Sherwood if they or a family member had been a victim of a serious crime, all but Schwartzman raised their hands. They were less unified on other topics, however, including missteps at D.C.’s 911 call center and the appropriate number of police officers in the city.

Asked what they might say to a grandmother who is too afraid to let her grandchildren play outside, some of the nonincumbent candidates blamed current lawmakers for what they characterized as a lack of oversight and innovation in reducing violent crime.

“I would say to that grandmother that your council has failed you as a whole because they’ve taken the approach of, ‘We’re going to wait for the mayor to fall down and point at her,’ as opposed to doing its legislative oversight responsibility of coming up with thoughtful, implementable projects and programs that can be tracked to make sure they’re actually working,” said Marshall, an attorney who spent nearly a decade in city government.

On the topic of police, Hill and Niosi pushed for more officers, while Schwartzman proposed an elected citizens’ review board instead. Other candidates discussed the importance of a whole-of-community approach to crime: McLaughlin, who for several years has opened his home to men returning from prison and helped some of them start businesses, said the city “asks police to do too much” — he pushed for more non-police responses for emergency calls related to behavioral health or substance abuse crises.

McDuffie, invoking his authorship of the NEAR Act in 2015, which aims among other things to address the root causes of crime through public health approaches, agreed. “If our solutions to violence begin and end with police, then those solutions are failed from the inception,” he said.

When asked about resident complaints that quality of life is decreasing in the city, Silverman recalled how earlier that day she confronted a resident who jumped the Metro’s turnstile — a decriminalized act in the District — and asked him why he couldn’t pay the fare. She said that after a brief discussion, the man called Metro’s services “great.”

“I said, ‘It is great … but it’s also really suffering financially. And if we don’t pay the fares, we’re not going to be able to keep Metro [afloat],’ ” Silverman said. “We all have to hold each other accountable.”

Some candidates for mayor and D.C. Council chair also appeared at Wednesday’s forum; the Democratic primary winners in those races are also favored to win. Incumbent chairman Phil Mendelson (D) responded to questions with Republican candidate Nate Derenge; in the mayor’s race, independent Rodney “Red” Grant appeared with Libertarian candidate Dennis Sobin. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who won the Democratic primary in June and is seeking a third term, did not attend.

Over the course of his campaign, Grant, a comedian and former police officer, has repeatedly called for the return of community-policing initiatives that were popular in the District in the late 1980s and 1990s, like “Orange Hats” — citizen watch groups that used to patrol D.C. neighborhoods independently of police.

Asked if he was supportive of a curfew for D.C. youths, Sobin said no. Grant was more receptive.

“Our young people are out here wilding sometimes, and whatever it takes for us to get them under control, we have to do it,” he said.

This report has been updated to reflect that a curfew is in place for D.C. youths, and updated the circumstances around a shooting that some of the candidates referred to in remarks during the forum.

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