What's up with the District's crime scare?

A spate of shootings in late June sparked new outrage over gun violence in the District. Here are just a few of the events which prompted headlines to explode across the local and national press: stray bullets took the life of a six year old girl in Ward 7 ; a gun battle outside of Nats Stadium forced an evacuation of an ongoing baseball game; and an attempted assassination along an affluent stretch of 14th Street — a hallmark attraction for well-to-do Washington — resulted in a wave of gunfire that scattered patrons across an array of upscale establishments.

Though statistics suggest that crime is about where it was last year, no one should take any of this as acceptable. Gun violence has been a constant in DC for as long as anyone could remember, though we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that any look at statistics over the past few decades will reveal that violent crime is down even as the city’s population has dramatically expanded. Though gun violence is pernicious in the city and especially damaging to the communities it tends to acutely affect (40% of bullets in the city are fired in 2% of its blocks), no one should adopt the impression that DC is some pit of terror.

But when well-to-do Washington gets nervous, Very Serious Politicians in the city like to spin up rapid — if specious — messaging in order to soothe the minds of K Street wine-and-diners. Mayor Muriel Bowser directed MPD to use “any overtime necessary” to meet the “public safety needs” of DC; though the city is one of the most heavily policed places in the country, so it’s unclear how many more badges we need to see on the streets before we actually start to identify a serious reduction in violence. MPD Chief Contee took to a street corner to warn residents that “marijuana is undoubtedly connected” to an uptick in violent crimes in the city; though tellingly he hadn’t taken the opportunity to advocate for the full legalization of marijuana so that we might be able to prevent all these supposed battles over weed. And Ward 2’s Brooke Pinto spread the rumor that violence in the District is a result of District courts "not running at full capacity”; an assertion that was quickly refuted by the District Court itself (additionally, policy advocates also took to Twitter to pushback against the underlying implication that releasing people for pretrial means letting violent criminals out on the street - policy studies on the subject do not suggest that this pernicious rumor is true)

All of these snake-oil responses amount to little more than security theater: lazy attempts to reassure a certain segment of the public that Something Is Being Done about the Mad Max hellscape that supposedly exists just outside the walls of Wealthy Washington's newly renovated condominiums. In reality, these are just lazy remixes of the “tough-on-crime” approach to public safety which last year’s protests and uprisings boldly refuted.

So what's causing gun violence in the city? Well, that’s an old and difficult question. There’s no easy answer, but one of the few things that three decades of mass incarceration and half a century of the War on Drugs should tell us is that more police and more prisons do not make us safer. Any serious approach to addressing gun violence will require us to hit its root causes: desperation, despair and alienation.

Thankfully, this sentiment was echoed by many elected officials across DC - providing some hope that there are leaders in this city wise enough to avoid leading the public into the same pitfalls and messaging which ballooned the US prison population a few decades ago. DC Attorney General Karl Racine noted that reducing violence in the city will require use to address poverty, hopelessness and trauma if we want to seriously break these cycles of violence. At-Large Councilmember Robert White emphasized the need to avoid falling into the “more police and harsher prosecutions” approach to delivering public safety. And Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George penned a detailed address to gun violence in Petworth News which outlined the District’s violence interruption and community engagement programs and laid out how the city can be more proactive in use of them. 

Hopefully these leaders can help persuade the public to stop looking at gun violence as a problem addressed by cages and big dudes in blue. The sooner we move away from thinking about “public safety” as a commodity that can be purchased, but rather as a social condition that can only be realized through the development of a society that shares its wealth and prosperity, the better.

We are, however — to put it mildly — a bit far from realizing that dream of becoming a truly equitable society. The District economy was broken before the pandemic, but last year’s lockdown deeply exacerbated the economic divide between well-to-do Washington camped out in Wards 2 and 3 and the working-class population that lives in the rest of the city. 

We don’t have to look too hard to find proof of that. I’ve pulled some basic economic stats from DC’s Department of Employment Services and the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics to help illustrate the scale of economic stress many District residents find themselves in. This is a very basic compilation of statistics, but it shows how destabilized economic life is in this city. The causes of crime and violence are obviously more complex than a few statistics - but economic precarity is latent across the city and likely plays some significant factor in DC's consistent struggles in stamping out violence.

First, take a look at Panel A below. It shows total employment in the city between February of 2020 and June 2021. Predictably, we see a big decline in employment between March and April of 2020 — a contraction of about 70,000 jobs. Though we observe a gradual recovery in jobs since April 2021, as of June the District is still down about 53,000 jobs. 

In Panel B, I break down the difference in employment between DC residents and non-DC residents. While employment for both DC and non-DC residents in the District fell, the effect initially hit District residents much harder. Only in December did hiring for District residents really pick back up (I suspect this might be the result of hiring in anticipation for the Presidential inauguration). Today, employment of District residents is still about 20k short of where we were back in February. 

Panel C shows unemployment claims and the unemployment rate (the # of residents looking for work who can’t find it). We see that predictable increase in April again, with a slow, gradual decrease of the unemployment rate throughout 2020. But the rate of unemployment here is three points higher than where we were back in February. Additionally, new monthly unemployment claims received by the District — while much improved from the nearly 42,000 received last April — are still much higher than they were pre-pandemic.

This data indicates to me that there are still significant sections of the DC population unable to find or hold down consistent employment. (If 7% unemployment doesn’t seem too high, I’ll get to that in a second.)

But these numbers still don’t tell us the whole picture. Whose jobs were lost, and whose jobs came back? When we look at hiring by employment sector, we can see that the pandemic downturn affected residents in certain industries much worse than it did others. I break this down in Panel D, which shows the monthly employment (in thousands) in each sector since last February.

The data here might not seem surprising. However, while media reports have tended to stress the anxiety of business owners in finding employees, the lack of jobs across different employment sectors tends to be understated. In fact, there are still tens of thousands of jobs missing from the local economy. 

We see that most sectors have declined by total employment over the last year, but a few industries have been hit way worse than others. We all know that employment in food service was hit pretty hard — but it’s important not to lose track of the scale. Since February 2021, the sector is still about 17,000 jobs short. Surprisingly, we also see a dip in health care employment as well (maybe the result of people leaving the industry following pandemic stress — or maybe that represents the closure of supplemental or non-essential care following lockdown procedures). Employment in accommodations has been halved, employment in amusement and recreation is down by a third.

And we can’t lose sight of the fact that some sectors (white-collar and higher-paying) went almost completely unfazed by the downturn, or have largely recovered from their pandemic lows. For instance, for all the hardship we hear from landlords and realtor associations, employment in the sector held steady throughout 2020. Though employment in professional and technical work dipped in May 2020, the sector had largely recovered throughout the summer of 2020 — with a small dip in Q4 that was quickly offset by a January 2021 surge in employment.

Finally, Panel E shows unemployment rates by each Ward. The panel shows that with the exception of Ward 2, unemployment is up in every Ward across the city compared to February 2020. But it is particularly high in the less affluent, less white wards of DC. Unemployment is astonishingly high in Wards 7 and 8. While life has seemingly returned to normal for the upper classes of Washington, economic strains are still beleaguering working-class populations across the city.

I lay all these numbers out to really stress that perceptions of increased crime or violence ineed to be seen as a function of the economic stress that is still widely evident across the District. We can’t talk about addressing gun violence without acknowledging and truly digesting the fact that many people in this city are having a hard time finding a place in the post-pandemic world.

Now poverty or financial stress are not excuses for murder or robbery. But when job opportunities are scarce (or, should I say, when good job opportunities are scarce), rent is due and your family is hungry, securing resources through the barrel of a gun becomes a more feasible alternative to languishing in poverty or toiling in a dead-end job.

I also want to be clear that the data here isn’t implying that it’s poor or out-of-work people who are necessarily committing crimes. But when people start to see and feel that the formal economic system does not work for them or people like them, violence begins to seem like the only real option. (And we should nod to the horrendously easy trafficking of guns across state lines — especially from VA — fueled by greedy and unregulated gun dealers and corporate gun manufacturers. Though there's only so much we can do about that as a city.)

If we really want to get to the root of gun violence, we’re going to need to realize radical policy change across the board. We need to put people to work building public utilities that improve the quality of life for people who live here, so that they have a larger stake in the communities. We need to build housing that is actually affordable so that we can lessen the stress of making rent or a mortgage payment. We need to legalize and decriminalize drug use to create new avenues for people to make an honest wage. Jobs created must pay a living wage so that the people who work in this city can actually afford to live and play in it. 

Crucially, we need to divorce ourselves from the old-world idea that dumping more and more funding into police will bring us closer to building public safety. It hasn’t worked before, and it won’t work now. It's crucial we invoke the memory of last year's united front - even in hard times like this - to remind friends, neighbors and acquaintances that safety isn’t something we can purchase. It’s something built over years of social and economic development. It’s a collective process that requires building a society where people’s material and spiritual needs are met. And there are no shortcuts to achieving that.

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