Resident angst about gun violence and parks once thought safe

This summer has seen an increase in gun violence that is understandably making residents very agitated and looking for someone to both blame and provide solutions. Neither is easy to find. 

Residents met with MPD and DC gov leadership at the Hamilton Recreation Center on Wednesday evening, August 24th to discuss the recent shooting at Hamilton Park on August 18th and talk through the issue. The takeaway is that residents are upset, and DC agencies don't have concrete strategies.

Attending the meeting were organizers ANC 4C Commissioner Maria Barry and 4C01 commissioner-candidate Sean Wieland, Jasmin Benab from the Mayor's MOCR office, Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue, Jackson Carnes from Ward 4 Councilmember Todd's office, a representative from the Department of Parks & Recreation and MPD Captain Brian Bray along with several officers (4D Commander Manlapaz and PSA 403 Lieutenant Shane Lamond are both on leave this week). Previous Ward 4 Councilmember candidate Leon Andrews was also there, along with dozens of other residents attending; Commissioner Barry thought about 60 people.

Sean Wieland and Commissioner Maria Barry

Captain Bray started the meeting saying that MPD reported earlier that day that an arrest had been made in the incident. Here's an excerpt from the MPD email:

Arrest Made in an Assault with a Dangerous Weapon (Gun):
1300 block of Hamilton Street NW

While the victim was playing basketball at the listed location [the 1300 block of Hamilton Street, Northwest, on Thursday, August 18, 2016, at approximately 7:15 pm], he noticed an unknown suspect going through his backpack. When the victim confronted the suspect, the suspect brandished a gun and pointed it at him. The victim turned around and walked away. As the victim walked away, he heard gunshots. No injuries were reported.

On Tuesday, August 23, 2016, 23-year-old Jamie Foster of Northeast, DC, was placed under arrest and charged with Assault with a Dangerous Weapon (Gun).

Interestingly, this incident was a robbery and an assault with a deadly weapon, not a shooting. There was someone shooting a weapon, but it was actually a separate incident that happened at the same time as the robbery at the park. At the same time, but unrelated. Wrap your head around the implications of that.

MPD 4th District Captain Brian Bray

According to Captain Bray, when MPD reviewed the video footage recorded at Hamilton Park, they observed the suspect in the basketball court going through the victim's belongings, and when confronted, lift his shirt and display a handgun (he may have pulled the weapon to display it). As the victim walked away from the confrontation, he heard a series of shots ring out behind him. But it wasn't the robber firing a weapon, the shooter was just outside the park, shooting into the alley. Two crimes. Two guns. 

The person arrested by MPD was the robber, not the shooter. They have no leads as yet on the shooter, and they have no victim reported (i.e., no one claiming to be physically injured), and they do not know if the two incidents are related or coincidental.

While MPD reports that violent crime is down citywide, the fact that there have been so many incidents this summer, both sounds of gunshots and shootings, has the community upset and scared. During the meeting, residents talked about the rampant pot-smoking wafting from the basketball courts at Hamilton Park, the cars illegally parked in the alley behind it, and the lack of MPD response to calls for service about both issues. One resident told me MPD showed up in the alley recently, got out and looked at parked cars, then backed out of the alley without inquiring at the basketball court or issuing tickets. Sean Wieland discussed the idea of getting DPW out to issue tickets in the alley more aggressively.

DC Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue

As MPD and city officials spoke, the crowd became agitated (one resident clamored for more cameras and asked Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue for a concrete date that a camera can be installed -- Donahue said he'd email the resident today with an answer). People wanted to know why these issues were occurring and what was being done about it. Captain Bray discussed the issue of the local crews ("gangs" like the Crittenden Street Crew) who have operated in the area for 30 years and continue to create issues. A long-term resident said she was convinced the crime was all due to outsiders coming in the area (there was some disagreement on this issue).

Colbert King lives in the neighborhood and shared his thoughts on the problems occurring with juvenile crime. (King is an Opinions writer with the Washington Post who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and recently published an opinion article on the topic, "A grim picture of D.C.’s juvenile crime.") He said the issue goes beyond MPD, as their role is limited in proactively stopping incidents, that the problem is larger, one that requires more from the city.

When another resident asked Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue about any successful strategies that have been used in DC or elsewhere to deal with violence at parks, things got a bit heated from residents. Donahue spoke about long-term strategies like school- and community-based programs to help people find new opportunities.

Resident Colbert King speaks to Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue

"Police presence has an impact mainly on property crime," Donahue said, "but issues like shootings are not necessarily deterred by police. Those tend to be crimes of passion or opportunity." He said the challenge is getting people who might benefit the most to take advantage of social programs.

Here's where the conversation began to devolve, as people said they don't want to hear polispeak, they want to hear strategies, tactics. Mr. King responded to Donahue, "You're clueless, Kevin! Clueless!" He said these issues didn't have anything to do with a target of opportunity; Donahue and the Bowser administration don't have ideas to deal with juvenile crime effectively. 

Other residents began calling out their concerns, saying they felt larger-programs were great to have, but didn't answer why these shootings keep occurring in the neighborhood, how to stop them and what the city is doing.

"It takes a taskforce," said one resident. "It can't be up to MPD alone," he said, referring to calls for more police presence. "Who's partnering with MPD? With vacant properties, abandoned cars, we need other city services to be more proactive and involved. We need action. This is a safe park and we want to keep it safe." 

"What's going to happen to the man locked up for the assault and robbery?" asked resident David Gottfried. "How quickly will he be released and back on the street? We need people like this in jail longer, not released 24 to 48 hours later. Where's Todd's representative?" he said, looking around. "We need legislative action. We need to start treating possession of illegal firearms as the violent crime that it is."

(The catch and release problem is something I've personally heard from several different MPD officers over the years. Their frustration is they arrest people, and they're back out a day or two later. It's a courts issue, and ultimately, something for the DC Council.)

Almost every resident seemed to agree that Hamilton Park, unlike Emery Park on Georgia Avenue, has been a safe place, and the neighborhood has historically been safe. But it's starting to feel the opposite, they said. One resident said to Donahue that this is an issue of investment for DC. "We move here, or have lived here, because we want to live in a safe neighborhood. The gunshots are getting worse. We're an investment, this park is an investment, Mr. Donahue. There's a breaking point that we're approaching, and if we move out, you lose that investment."

DPR counseled people to keep coming to the park as one way of deterring crime. "The park has been empty for the last 5 to 6 days," said a DPR staffer. "You need to come to the park and keep your eyes open."

"I want that camera," said one resident who stepped up close to Donahue. "I donated to your campaign. I expect to hear back from you."

Update: A new camera has appeared on Hamilton Street.  

Video from NBC 4 reporter Shomari Stone: