WASHINGTON — Clutching the steering wheel of her taxi cab, Eartha Clark winds through the nation’s capital, pointing out little-known landmarks and flashy new developments that were once empty spaces or boarded-up buildings.
“It took people a while to get more comfortable out here, but you can’t live in fear,” she says.
As a cab driver for more than 40 years, Clark has seen it all, from the current booming economy to the city’s dark days of widespread violent crime.
“Crime fluctuates because it moves around. Because you clean it up in one area doesn’t mean that it’s gone — it’s just moved from one area to the next,” she says.
Lately, homicides have been fluctuating once again — they are on an upswing.
Metropolitan Police Department figures indicate there have been far more murders in the city this year than at the same time last year.
Still, from an historical perspective, the rate is extremely low.
From 1990 through 1995, the city averaged more than 430 homicides annually. Last year, that number was 104, including 12 victims from the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. In 2012, D.C. totaled just 88 homicides.
The Murder Capital
The District’s murder figures are part of a broader, drastic turnaround that has occurred over the course of just one generation.
“D.C. was known for its violent crime,” says former police chief Charles Ramsey. “It was referred to as the murder capital of the United States.”
Ramsey served as D.C.’s top cop from 1998 to 2006. Under his leadership, the police force launched a methodical focus on crime prevention.
“I was really surprised at just how intense the crime situation was in the District of Columbia when I first arrived,” Ramsey remembers.
Police facilities were rundown, equipment was outdated, and the department lacked a firm crime-fighting model for driving down the staggering homicide rate.
That all changed when Anthony Williams took office as mayor in 1999. Williams championed the strategy of directing additional money and resources to the police department.
“Until you’ve got a fully staffed, equipped and organized police force, you really can’t do much,” says Williams.
“You start building on that year-by-year-by-year and you begin to see a trail downward.”
According to Police Chief Cathy Lanier, the city was in serious trouble, facing a financial crisis and grappling with the crippling nationwide crack cocaine epidemic.
As integral as a focused police department was in addressing violent crime and other problems, officers could not succeed alone. They needed to form bonds within pockets of the city.
“We listen to what the community says. Going into those communities that we had policed through sheer brute force during the drug-market days and rebuilding those relationships has helped us now to turn around those homicide numbers,” Lanier says.
One key symbiotic relationship grew between the police department and leaders in the business community. Together, they helped develop troubled areas in and around D.C. while simultaneously targeting and driving away criminal activity.
“Something like only 50 percent of the population felt it was safe to come downtown, and it’s hard to grow businesses under those conditions,” says Richard Bradley, the executive director of the DowntownDC Business Improvement District, a nonprofit group that has worked to revitalize the area.
“Just putting lots of police officers around — that simply wasn’t going to be the solution for us,” Bradley says.
“The area has to be clean, safe and friendly in order for business to grow, in order for customers to feel comfortable,” he says.
More Work Ahead
Myriad forces in the community worked over the past 20 years to turn the city around. Today, D.C. is virtually unrecognizable compared to its former self.
The economy is robust. Major development projects are under way. The job and housing markets are on fire, and the city’s population is growing by about 1,000 residents every month.
But negative reputations can be tough to shake. And as police deal with this year’s flare-up in homicides, a true feeling of safety can be difficult to achieve, even for people such as cab driver Clark who have witnessed the city’s transformation as it happened.
“It has improved a lot, but it’s not going to get done overnight because it didn’t happen overnight,” Clark says.
That is a point Williams agrees with.
“We’re not there yet,” he says. “We have a long way to go, but we’re continuing to build.”