Crime Emergency Declared In The Nation's Capital

A surge in homicides in the nation's capital this month has spurred beefed-up patrols and other measures in high-crime areas. (AP)
A surge in homicides in the nation's capital this month has spurred beefed-up patrols and other measures in high-crime areas. (AP)

Following a recent wave of homicides in Washington, D.C., the capital's police chief has declared a crime emergency, at the height of the tourist season.

Since July 1, 13 people have been killed in the district, including a community activist and a British citizen whose throat was slit on the stylish streets of Georgetown.

After an outcry from residents at community meetings and candlelight vigils held for the victims, Police Chief Charles Ramsey made his decision. He beefed up patrols in high-crime areas by changing officers' schedules and canceling days off.

"You can't make sense of it because it doesn't make any sense," Ramsey said at a briefing, trying to explain the sudden surge in homicides. "Thirteen people is simply unacceptable by anyone's standards," he added. "We have to do something right now."

So far this year, the murder rate in the nation's capital stands at 94 - the same number killed at this point last year - but July has been a particularly violent month.

Early Sunday morning, 27-year-old Alan Senitt, a British citizen working in Washington on a possible presidential run by former Virginia governor Mark Warner, was walking a female companion home on a tree-lined street in a quiet Georgetown neighborhood when they were held up at gunpoint. One robber allegedly tried to rape Senitt's friend. Police say the assailants slit Senitt's throat. The three suspects - one a juvenile - have all been arrested.

That particular crime produced some racial tension. The victims were white, and the suspects were black.

At a packed community meeting in Georgetown after the murder, one white police officer, inspector Andy Solberg, told residents to watch out for any suspicious activity in the neighborhood. He said the suspects would have stood out at 2 a.m. in that area. "They were black," Solberg said. "This is not a racial thing to say that black people are unusual in Georgetown. This is a fact of life."

Solberg was reassigned and is under investigation for his "racially insensitive" remarks.

One black D.C. police officer, Junis Fletcher, who worked under Solberg, called his comments "out of character" and said, "I've never had problems with him." And one black storeowner in Georgetown told The Washington Post he believed Solberg merely stated the truth.

"How come people don't know that? These people live in a box?" Lowaunz Tascoe, a 40-year resident of Georgetown, asked. "It is highly, highly unusual to see three young black males roaming around up there in the residential neighborhoods."

The police department has been criticized for its slow response to the killing of black activist Christ Crowder, shot early Saturday in a park near the Washington convention center.

No arrests have been made in that case, compared with the quick police action in the Georgetown slaying. But officers said obvious clues pointed them to the suspects' apartment and arrests were made within hours of the slaying.

Ramsey's declaration of emergency also follows a highly publicized string of violent robberies and assaults on the Washington monument mall. Police are investigating whether those crimes are linked to any of the homicides.

The police chief's media relations spokesperson said the crime emergency measures will not go on indefinitely. "The situation will be reviewed in 30 days."

So far, the Washington Convention and Tourism Corp. has received no inquiries from tourists concerned about the crime emergency. According to spokeswoman Victoria Isley, it's too early to tell how it might affect tourism.

"Certainly, safety and security of our residents as well as our visitors, are our primary focus," Isley said. "We support the [police] chief acting as swiftly as he has."