Bowser declares DC gun violence a public health crisis in new order

Gun violence in D.C. is a public health crisis, Mayor Muriel Bowser said Wednesday, and she’s forming an emergency operations center to combat it.

“This is a level of violence that we haven’t seen in more than a decade,” Bowser said. “And the homicide trends are disturbing.”

“But we know that we must act, and we must act differently. And that is why today I am signing a mayor’s order that recognizes gun violence as a public health crisis and creates a first-of-its-kind gun violence prevention emergency operations center to coordinate the government resources necessary to better support our residents and communities most impacted by gun violence.”

Linda Harllee Harper, who was appointed D.C.’s first gun violence prevention director late last month, has been tasked with creating a team to staff the emergency operations center and lead the city’s new “Building Blocks DC” program.

Harper called the program “a comprehensive community-oriented approach that focuses on the circumstances that put people at high risk of engaging in or being victimized by violence. We want to focus on people, places and process.”

She laid out three facets that will be focused on, such as “meeting the needs of the small number of individuals responsible for a large amount of gun violence,” working together with community members to create “safe places” where gun violence is most prevalent, and creating the emergency operations center to better “coordinate and enhance” work that’s already being done by other local agencies and community-led efforts.

The program will launch on specific blocks in Anacostia and expand from there.

“Using last year’s crime data, we know that 2% of all blocks in the city were the site of 41% of all gunshot related crimes last year; we will initially focus on those areas,” Harper said.

“This place-based strategy is a data-driven approach that uses a comprehensive block-by-block analysis to pinpoint specific areas where gun violence is a constant reality and the sounds of gunshots are a regular event,” she added.

Acting Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Chris Geldart said that, as the program expands, officials will “look at what’s being effective and what needs to adapt as we go forward, just as we did in the coronavirus EOC.”

There will also be an advisory board for Building Blocks. “This advisory board will help us have good, solid information to go off of and be able to vet the information that we are looking at as we go through this process of moving Building Blocks throughout the city,” Geldart said.

Ward 6 Councilman Charles Allen said the news was “a big deal” and an “incredibly important step for our city.”

“And I think what it does is it is telling the city that violence is not inevitable,” Allen said. “Focusing smart, strategic and coordinated approach to reducing gun violence across our city, this is something that I think is incredibly important for our city, and can have significant and important impacts that absolutely save lives.”

Ward 8 Councilman Trayon White thanked Bowser for her leadership.

“I’m tired of going to vigils and funerals every other day in the city that raised me, because I think to myself, one day it may be me, or my child, you know, and it hits home directly,” White said.

“And I think that we all in the community have responsibilities to decreasing gun violence in our city. And if not now, then when? I want to thank the mayor for stepping up. And I look forward to the leadership of Linda Harllee Harper. I know she’s been in the game since I’ve been doing violence intervention.”

DC gun violence data

Though overall violent crime was down in 2020, gun violence was up; 922 people were shot (a 33% increase from 2019), and there were 198 murders (a 19% increase).

The overwhelming majority of murder victims in 2020 were Black: 95%. Black men accounted for approximately 81% of all victims, and Black women accounted for about 15%.

Homicides with female victims rose by almost 142% in 2020, from 12 victims in 2019 to 29.

Violence against kids was up as well, by about 16%.

Will Vitka

William Vitka is a Digital Editor and reporter for WTOP.com. He's been in the news industry for over a decade. Before joining WTOP, he worked for CBS News, Stuff Magazine, The New York Post and wrote a variety of books—about a dozen of them, with more to come.

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