I am on the telephone listening to my granddaughter discuss the week’s events. Normally she is a confident, self-assured, sassy high schooler with opinions about everything. Today, however, I hear something else in her voice: anxiety.
A day earlier her mother spoke with her about the gun violence that occurred just one block from the Brightwood apartment where they live. Two children aged 9 and 6 on their way home from school were exiting a Metrobus when they were shot — accidentally, it seems.
(Photo by Kate Oczypok)
Before the call, my daughter had tried to update my granddaughter, but she seems to be resisting the conversation. Her mother thinks she doesn’t care.
“It’s too much. I can’t listen to it again,” my granddaughter explains, her voice quivering as if she is on the verge of crying.
A few days earlier, there was the furor over 13-year-old Karon Blake being killed by an unidentified adult. The details of that incident have yet to be released to the public. Before that, a 4-year-old got caught in crossfire on George Avenue.
As 2022 was ending, a 15-year-old was shot in DC’s Shaw neighborhood; a 16-year-old in Anacostia was killed in November. On a Friday night in early December, a woman was shot as she drove home with her two children; their young eyes witnessed her murder.
According to published reports, in 2022, as many as 16 juveniles were killed by gun violence in the nation’s capital. This year doesn’t provide much hope for a better outcome.
Still, despite the hue and cry from average residents and people like my granddaughter, the DC Council this week voted 12-1 to override Mayor Muriel Bowser’s veto of the law that would reform the city’s criminal code. Ward 8 Council member Trayon White was the lone holdout, although he previously voted for the bill.
In citing the reasons for her veto, Bowser said the Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 (RCCA) reduces maximum penalties for certain gun-related crimes. Further, because the bill allows persons charged with misdemeanors to request a jury trial, she said the courts could become clogged and unable to respond in a timely manner. That could result in criminals remaining on the streets while awaiting those trials.
Council members dismissed those concerns as they had when she raised them before the legislation was unanimously approved in November. They argued that the code is antiquated; the reform bill is the result of 16 years of collaborative work between experts and advocates; and it will produce a fairer and more just system.
They also asserted that the RCCA would not actually take effect until 2025. It, therefore, would not have any immediate impact on the crime and public safety issues that concern the majority of District residents right now.
In a prepared statement after the override, Bowser suggested that she understands that the RCCA “aims to rectify historic wrongs in our criminal code,” but contended it “unfortunately falls short on meeting the moment we are in right now” concerning public safety.
She argued that as elected officials “we must take the fear and trauma of gun violence seriously by ensuring our criminal justice system is fair and functional and supports our top priority: keeping our community safe.”
She promised to send legislation to the council within the “next 30 days” that would address her concerns.
For their part, council members accused Bowser of playing politics with her veto of legislation that had passed unanimously. Ward 1 DC Council member Brianne Nadeau called it a “distraction” and “political theater to create a perpetual scapegoat.”
Truth be told, it was council members themselves who initially took political performance to new levels. In 2020, just after the police in Minneapolis murdered George Floyd, DC legislators, including Nadeau and Ward 6’s Charles Allen, took actions and made comments that often demonized local law enforcement. They twice slashed Bowser’s proposed budget and staffing levels for the DC Metropolitan Police Department, suggesting officers are mostly superfluous to public safety. They even approved legislation that required the police chief at the time, Peter Newsham, to go through another confirmation hearing — an unprecedented action. Newsham, who had already served beyond the end of his contract, soon resigned his post.
Without providing sufficient oversight and program analysis, the council insisted the executive rely on alternative programs like violence interrupters and Cure the Streets to address crime in the city. The Office of the DC Auditor in June 2022 issued a report that found those programs didn’t necessarily live up to the hype associated with them. The Office of the Attorney General advocated a restorative justice approach, instead of fully using its authority to prosecute the increasing number of juveniles committing crimes in the city.
Critics argued those actions, coupled with legislation that reduced penalties for certain behaviors — like Metro fare evasion, for example — helped create an environment of lawlessness. In the ensuing years, each shooting involving children has raised concerns and heightened fear, including among youth like my granddaughter.
She normally is the kind of person who rolls up her emotions, stores them away and doesn’t fully share until she has had time to review and analyze, often alone. Given her academic schedule, that sometimes means things are never discussed.
Today, she unfolds and reveals: “What kind of person would commit such a heinous act?” she asks me about the bus shooting. Her voice rises with emotion. “What kind of person shoots into a crowd knowing there are children around?”
I have posed those same questions to myself repeatedly over the past several years as the city’s children are repeatedly put in harm’s way by drug dealers more concerned with protecting their territory than human life, or people using guns to resolve their petty beefs built around fragile egos and low self-esteem, or some domestic dispute tied to money, sex and an illusory sense of power.
“And what is a 13-year-old doing out at 3 or 4 a.m. — where were his parents? What was the person who shot him doing going out of his house with a gun?” My granddaughter interrogates me as if I am responsible for the affairs of this city or at least can translate the madness she is witnessing into some language she may be able to understand.
Is she worried, I ask, because the shooting happened on her school route and so close to home?
“Yes. I am also angry and tired and sad,” she says.
She is not alone. The District is a traumatized city. It doesn’t matter that statistics suggest a small drop in violent crime so far this year. Perception is as important as reality when human life is at stake.
At-large Council member Robert White seemed to grasp that fact. “This is a city that is afraid right now because of the violence that is happening in our city,” he said Tuesday, just before voting to approve the override.
The traumatization was palpable even before the 2020 anti-police movement and before the pandemic, however. In 2018, during an interview I conducted for an investigative report about trauma and academic failure in the District, Dr. Tanya Royster, then-director of the DC Department of Behavioral Health, told me as much: “Trauma is ubiquitous.
“Young people all across this city are traumatized. And some of it is primary trauma. Some of it is secondary trauma, but it’s trauma nonetheless,” she added.
Nothing has changed to reduce the trauma. In 2022, the DC Child and Family Services Agency received 16,899 calls to its abuse and neglect hotline. While many of them were screened out for various reasons, it matters that 4,429 were accepted for investigation. Translation: Children are living in trauma.
Data from the 2021 Youth Behavioral Risk Survey (YBRS) conducted by the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education revealed that a significant percentage of middle and high school students who participated in the assessment thought about committing suicide, were subject to violent behavior in their homes, and missed school because they were afraid they would be beaten up at school or on their way to or from it.
According to OSSE, the risk survey provides “an important lens into student health, experiences and well-being and can inform District efforts to support the physical, mental and social-emotional health of students.”
In the past, the agency has formally released survey results to the press.
While the 2021 data is available on OSSE’s website as long as you know where to look, it is not presented as a traditional report. Nor has there been any public announcement — notwithstanding the fact that some of the findings are alarming.
For example, 28% of the 11,541 middle schoolers answering the question said they had seriously thought about killing themselves; 18.3% of 11,055 high school students had similar thoughts during the 12 months before completing the survey.
Of the middle school students completing the survey, 20.9% had ever carried a gun, knife or club onto their school campus; 3.5% of high schoolers did the same at least one day during the 30 days before the survey.
Children aren’t just being traumatized in their communities. Among the middle schoolers who participated in the YBRS, 37.2% said they saw or heard people where they live be violent and abusive during the 12 months before the survey; 27.3% of high school students had the same experience, according to the data on the OSSE website.
Experts have suggested that children and youth who experience violence sometimes proactively resort to violence to protect themselves. Equally important, they come to perceive violence as the appropriate answer to what ails them or as a vehicle for securing what they need.
Underscoring the violence-begets-violence scenario is the Gun Violence Problem Analysis Summary Report, a collaborative project between the National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and the Metropolitan Police Department. In a report dated December 2021 but made public in February 2022, the organizations offered that only “500 identifiable people” were responsible for 70% of the 863 homicides and nonfatal-injury shootings that occurred in DC between Jan. 1, 2019, and Dec. 31, 2020. Among all victims and suspects, the report noted, “46% had been previously incarcerated.”
If DC knows who may be potential perpetrators and victims, why can’t they do more to prevent violence involving them? If the RCCA, with its 2025 implementation date, won’t reduce the current level of crime in the city, why hasn’t the council developed a plan to do so?
Council members say harsher sentences aren’t effective in reducing crime, and add that the existing criminal code and current penalties have led to a status quo that is unsatisfactory. Alas, even if that’s true, the council’s discussion on Tuesday gave no indication that legislators have a cohesive plan to reduce crime and ease the palpable fear among DC residents of all ages.
“Where does [the violence] stop?” asks my granddaughter. I don’t have the answer for her question.
Listening to her, however, I know the accuracy and danger in the assessment at-large Council member Christina Henderson made Tuesday: “We are robbing our young people of their innocence.”
That surely should fuel more from the council than defensive posturing and a mayoral veto override.
jonetta rose barras is an author and freelance journalist, covering national and local issues including politics, childhood trauma, public education, economic development and urban public policies. She can be reached at [email protected].