Just a couple of hours after five people were shot outside a shopping center in Southeast D.C., John Branch, commander of the D.C. police department’s Seventh District, walked around Alabama Avenue talking to members of the community before addressing a few reporters who were still on the scene.
After a few minutes of talking about the particular incident, just the latest of several shootings that have plagued that area recently, the frustration over what happened — the brazenness and willingness of people to just “spray and pray” as he called it — was evident in his voice.
“There’s another way,” lamented Branch. “They have to look beyond what’s around their immediate surroundings.”
Then he started delving into personal terms. Branch, who has been a cop for nearly 30 years, was assigned to the post of commander of the Seventh District at the beginning of May.
Since then, he’s spent a lot of time responding to shootings. Too much time. In fact, the Sept. 21 shooting that injured five people — including a 13-year-old child — took place on the same day that a separate shooting hurt a 9-year-old boy only a mile away.
“I grew up in this area,” said Branch. “In fact, I was born not even a block away in these apartment buildings over here,” he added, pointing to some buildings behind the shopping center that was still surrounded by police tape.
As he continued to implore those behind the spike in violence, he was asked how personal his mission had become.
“It’s very personal,” he said with no hesitation. “It’s very personal. I take my job seriously. I want to have a good society where everyone can thrive and live and enjoy themselves.”
He didn’t hide the enormity of the job at hand right now.
“It seems overwhelming at times when you have so much gun violence lately,” he admitted. “In the Seventh District, we have so many areas unfortunately where there’s gun violence.
“You put resources and police in one area and then you have another area, and then you have another area, and this pops up and that slows down and you’re trying to do that. It’s like playing whack-a-mole. You’re trying to do the best that you can but we can’t do this ourselves. We never could.”
Branch credited his parents and other adults in his life for helping him avoid trouble and showing him “the right way” to deal with society and conflict.
“I wanted to do something positive,” he said, adding that it was up to him to “break the cycle.”
He stressed it will take that sort of support throughout the community, not just policing, to have a similar impact on the rest of the neighborhood he used to call home.
“It’s not an issue where we’re going to lock our way out of this situation or put everyone in jail,” said Branch.
“We have to change people’s mindsets, we have to change people’s way of thinking. We have to show them a new way. We have to give them opportunities. We have to give them that type of assistance. Prison isn’t always the answer. I can tell you that honestly it’s not. But we need to stop these kids and adults from entering this life to begin with and show them a new way.”
For Branch, that means finding a way to clamp down on the proliferation of illegal guns, which he said are still abundantly available no matter how many hundreds of them that officers assigned to the Seventh District take off the streets every year.
“They’re just getting them back again,” he lamented. “Everyone has to do their part. We’re one small part of the system. Everyone has to do their part, whether it’s the citizens, the neighbors, the Justice Department, the Mayor’s Office — everyone. Everyone has to have their part to play. We need everyone’s help.
“We can’t do this alone.”