City on a Hill: bi-weekly column on D.C. news and politics


New faces in government have a way of fading quickly into old faces. Two months into Adrian Fenty’s (D) term as mayor, everyone has their fingers crossed that this time, things might be different.

If Fenty’s new police chief, Cathy Lanier, is going stand out from the dreary crowd, she will have to tackle the District’s crime problems much more directly than has been done in recent years. Rather than pointing self-approvingly to the declining crime rates that have accompanied gentrification—as has been done far too often—the MPDC will have to take direct responsibility for establishing an effective and robust rule of law.

In the early 1990s, unrivaled homicide rates earned the District the nickname the “murder capital” of the United States. Since then, crime has dropped significantly. Reported homicides in 2005 were less than half of those reported in 1996. Many have ascribed the drop in crime to gentrification that occurs when middle-class citizens move into urban areas.

But gentrification should not be treated as a panacea. As Maureen Kennedy and Paul Leonard of the Brookings Institution wrote in 2001, “For all the benefits it can bring, gentrification can impose great financial and social costs on the very families and business owners who are least able to afford them.”

By raising property rates and limiting the concentration of housing, gentrification displaces lower-income residents and business owners and creates a conflict between old and new residents. Some have speculated that this conflict might have motivated Chief of Police Charles Ramsey’s “Crime Emergency” declaration last summer. As Courtland Milloy wrote in the Washington Post at the time, the Crime Emergency was not necessarily characterized by higher crime rates, but by a greater proportion of crimes perpetrated by disillusioned youths against the District’s “affluent and influential.”Another conflict resulting from gentrification is racial profiling in wealthy areas: a study commissioned by MPDC and released at the end of 2006 found that police are engaging in racial profiling of pedestrians in Adams Morgan and Georgetown. According to the report, composed by John Lamberth Consulting, black pedestrians near Wisconsin Avenue and M St. are nearly six times more likely to be stopped than expected.

In economist Franklin Zimring’s book The Great American Crime Detective, the author found that the largest and most well-sustained drop in crime occurred in New York City, and that the decline was not due to solely to economic or demographic trends, but to a powerful improvement in the police force. Sophisticated crime mapping techniques and other tools led to an increase in police effectiveness which continued even after the complexities introduced by September 11.

Crime rates must respond not to a forced exodus of the poor—which is neither practical nor ethically tenable—but to a healthy rule of law enforced by an active and accountable MPDC. This requires an administrator at the helm of the MPDC capable of rejuvenating the organization’s culture and procedures, as well as a corruption-free police force that can be trusted to respect the law. Most importantly, it requires that MPDC recruit and hold on to high quality officers, a job at which MPDC has performed unimpressively, to say the least.

The District of Columbia is feeling some significant birth pangs as it attempts to deal with the effects of uneven economic development and potentially beneficial trends in the crime rate. These pangs will amount to nothing but a miscarriage unless the MPDC can stock itself with intelligent leaders of strong character, able to revitalize the MPDC and to strengthen its relationship to the community. Whether Lanier can act in that role remains to be seen.

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