An Intelligent Discussion on “Gun Violence in Columbia Heights” between a Resident and the MPD Chief

Photo by PoPville flickr user MrTinDC

A very honest, interesting, respectful and lengthy email exchange between a resident and MPD Chief Lanier, in which I was included:

“Chief Lanier,

I am a 25+ year resident of DC and currently live at the intersection of Sherman and Morton in Columbia Heights. I greatly respect the job you’ve done as Chief and am someone you could normally count on as a strong supporter. It is with regret that today I’m emailing you to express my strong dissatisfaction with the current state of the response to the uptick in violence in the city both from MPD and from the Mayor’s office. For months, I’ve been attending various meetings with the 3rd and 4th district leadership, following the statements of the agencies involved and privately and extensively canvassing line police officers across the city (nb: I have not spoken with any union officials). Here is what I’ve been told so far –


Reasons for the violence I’ve heard from official sources:

1. Synthetic drugs.

2. Local beefs.

3. Turf battles .

4. High capacity magazines.

5. Repeat offenders.

Evidence provided:

1. None.


Reasons for the violence I’ve heard from line officers:

1. The centralization of the vice squad

2. Beefs and fights over revitalized drug markets due to lessened enforcement.

3. Market reaction to legalization of marijuana.

Evidence provided:

1. Geographic concentration of much of the violence.

2. Obvious and clear drug markets where they had attenuated (i.e. Georgia and Lamont).

3. Increased evidence of heroin sales (needles in alleys, et cetera).


Reasons for the vice squad reorganization I’ve received various stakeholders:

1. Response to staffing level problems.

2. A way for the new vice squad commander to put their stamp on the unit.

3. Political (although nobody can or will say what the political calculation was).

4. An operational secret that the public has no right to know (seriously).

Evidence provided:

1. None.


I am sending you this information because it is quite clear that your line officers do not support the changes that have been made to the vice squad despite the fact that most I spoke with expressed quite positive sentiments about you and your management generally. In addition, virtually every officer I spoke with says that they were never given a believable official reason for the change. It is quite clear that the muddled statements made to the public about the probable causes of the recent violence extends to communications within the department. To restate, the line officers I have spoken to don’t believe in the reorganization, haven’t been given a clear understanding of why it was done and don’t think it’s working. I don’t think I need to tell you why that is an enormous obstacle to dealing with the current level of violence.

These issues have been exacerbated by the extremely ham handed response from the Mayor’s office and the DC Council. With almost insulting condescension, I have been told in meetings with city officials that the ‘scoobie snack’ sticker program will help the problem on Georgia Avenue, that we should ‘work the stat system’ by calling 911 at every moment of unease and that greater demands will be placed on already clearly overstretched local PSA’s. The greatest irony of the situation is that the people who have the least ability to make any changes or access to additional resources…your line officers and PSA leadership…are put in the position of defending policies they didn’t establish and often have been given no reason to believe in.

I appreciate your taking the time to read this email. I hope the perspective provided is useful to your efforts to come up with a better approach to the issue. Thank you.”

Chief Lanier replies:

“I appreciate your support for police, especially our officers on the street, and your willingness and effort to ask questions and try to find answers. You are the kind of partner we need. In return, I’d like to provide some of the information that I can.

In the beginning of August, I hosted a violent crime summit for Major City Police Chiefs and prosecutors from about three dozen major cities across the United States to discuss the dramatic surge in violence we are seeing. One thing was very clear; most major cities in the country are experience similar problems with violent crime. Although we don’t know all the reasons why, I do know that none of these cities are dealing with the legalization of marijuana. Nor have they necessarily had any significant new strategies or reorganizations. What do the cities have in common?

• Based on the survey from Major Cities Chiefs, 3 out of 4 cities have seen increases in homicides this year and about 60% have seen an increase in non-fatal shootings.

• In D.C., we had an increase in homicides while the number of non-fatal shootings were down. Clearly the shootings have been more lethal this year. Like D.C., almost half of the cities reported scenes with casings from multiple guns involved in the shootout and high capacity magazines. As you can imagine, the more bullets that are being recklessly fired greatly increases the shooters chance of hitting their target or an innocent bystander.

• Almost half report an increase in gang-related and retaliatory violence. As one of my colleagues said, homicide has become a means for dispute resolution among the criminally involved.

• We are seeing an increasing number of repeat violent offenders involved in our shootings and homicides. As of August 3, 2015:

o At least 16 of our homicide arrestees, and 17 of our homicide victims, were under supervision, pending trial or on probation or parole at the time of the crime.

o This year alone, 10 individuals involved in our homicides had prior homicide charges.

o Almost half, or 44% of the defendants had prior gun-related arrest in DC, compared to 27% in 2014. Almost half of the persons responsible for these homicides had previously been arrested for carrying or using illegal guns in the commission of a crime.

Release of Repeat Violent Offenders

At a time when there is growing consensus about the need to modernize the criminal justice system-from policing, thru sentencing, to incarceration-we cannot forget that our communities need to be protected from violent offenders.

Judges and parole boards making decisions to release offenders to the community must seriously consider the person’s criminal history and determine whether there is a history of violence that will put community members at risk if released to community supervision programs.

Synthetic Drugs

You have asked for evidence that synthetic drugs are having an impact on our community violence. In a survey completed in late July, 30% of the major cities that responded reported an increase in violent crime in which the offender is under the influence of synthetic drugs.

Often referred to as synthetic marijuana, this drug is not at all like marijuana and the effects are very different. People under the influence of this drug can have super human power, be effected by excited delirium, and have a reaction very similar to PCP. This is a very dangerous drug and if it is not addressed federally we will have a public health crisis on our hands as its use expands.

I know that the D.C. Police Union (FOP) initially said that synthetic drugs were not a problem; but you may have noticed, they have since backed off of this position. This is for two reasons; many other cities are now speaking out about the violence associated with this drug and we are finally able to begin reporting some data. In June of this year, the DCFEMS transported almost 450 patients to local hospitals suffering from overdoses on synthetic drugs. In July, one of the federal supervision agencies, tested 136 individuals arrested for violent crimes, and found that 20% were positive for synthetics, including 44% of those arrested for Assault on a Police Officer and 36% of those arrested for armed robbery. Synthetic drugs have now replaced cocaine as the most commonly found in the tests of arrestees besides marijuana.

Why has this catapulted to the top of the list? Because there are no requirements for its inclusion in universal drug screenings; therefore, people don’t need to worry about losing a job or being returned to jail if their conditions of release prohibit drug use. That is why the Major Cities Chiefs recommended that this type of drug screening be mandatory of everyone under supervision in our communities.

As for the allegation that the centralization of the drug units has led to the increase in violence; there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that. The spike in homicides this year began in March. The vice units were not centralized until June 16th. The bottom line is that the vice units had simply ceased to be as effective as they once were, largely because of the changes in criminal enterprises and changes in the drug markets that made our tactics obsolete. The productivity of the vice units has dropped dramatically over the years. For example, when looking at the first four months of 2015 compared to 2014, non-marijuana drug arrests had decreased 31 percent – this is five months before we centralized our enforcement strategy. Search warrants and gun recoveries in these units were also declining. This statistic was a telltale sign that our strategy designed to fight drug markets in a different era wasn’t working anymore. We had to change our tactics and adjust our focus.

Since we have centralized our narcotics and violent crime units under the Narcotic and Special Investigations Division on June 16, 2015, there have been over 550 drug arrests citywide for and this does not include ANY arrests for mere possession. This is taking into account that we are no longer focusing on the addict but rather the seller.

As we have all said for a very long time, arresting people for small amounts of any drug only facilitates the revolving door for users and addicts; decreasing legitimate opportunities for those who wish to be productive while decreasing police presence in our communities at the same time.

As far as the idea that the violence is being stemmed from the legalization of marijuana or beefs over markets, that has not been the case here in D.C. You are correct that heroin is resurging and we have been tracking and targeting some of the organizations bringing it into the District.

To address the questions relating to the process that we used to reorganize our drug enforcement and how we advertised, I will say this. We spent nearly eight months developing this strategy in meetings with officers, sergeants, detectives and managers from across the department. In fact, the final structure was put together by a team that included vice sergeants, officers and lieutenants that are now part of either the Criminal Interdiction Unit or the citywide Narcotics Enforcement Unit. These two units now work together in one structure with the Gun Unit and Major Narcotics Branch to target violent drug organizations. They have all received extensive training on new tools and technologies that will make them more effective while increasing their safety.

I messaged this initiative in meetings and through several avenues within the department. In fact, we did mandatory training explaining our reasoning and new approach. This was required for every sworn member of the department. And then, we included the press in our roll out. I understand that every officer may not be happy. But, in the end we took the very best officers that we have and incorporated them into our new strategy and they have been very successful.

Lastly, the patrol district commanders were not left without any specialized units within their Districts. Each District currently has a Crime Suppression Team (CST) made up of about twenty members that they can use to deal with a variety of issues. Just last week, the Third District’s CST conducted operations that resulted in the seizure of methamphetamine, numerous pharmaceuticals, marijuana, mushrooms, ammunition and a large amount of cash.

As you can see from the string of press conferences we have had to announce arrests in this year’s homicide cases, the reasons for the violence are wide and varied. We are using a variety tactics from uniform presence to plain clothes operations along with new technologies, social media, and intelligence we have cultivated from the community to stop the violence. We will not give up and I assure you that if we work together we can be successful. I do understand your frustration and I also understand we have a ways to go. I am committed to making sure we get there.

Thank you for writing and I hope that the information I provided you has been helpful.”

Resident replies:

“Chief Lanier,

I appreciate the speed and thorough nature of your answer…especially so given how many balls are in the air at this moment. The data you present and your replies point to the reality that the MPD can’t control all factors that lead to gun violence and some of those factors may ultimately be unknowable. At the same time, you are forced by public pressure to give answers…which you have done so thoroughly below. I don’t envy you that position. Please take my reply in that light.

To your points:

Shootings – I would first point out that correlation is not causation. Comparing violence across US cities is a fraught business when the individual circumstances are so varied. Baltimore and DC are near neighbors yet I think we would agree that their levels of violence do not stem from the same (or even broadly similar) set of circumstances. In addition, any solution will have local solutions. There will be those who would use a putatively national trend to in effect pass it off as an locally unsolvable problem. I don’t believe that and I suspect you don’t either.

Putting aside for a moment the synthetic drug issue, your next points seem much more relevant to me. In sum, you say the following:

1. Overall shootings are down.

2. Fatal shootings are up.

3. Bigger magazines have a role.

4. Shooters are previous possession, homicide, supervised, repeat violent offenders.

5. Drugs arrests are up despite the elimination of possession charges.

Illegal guns have been common currency in the this city forever. So has the drug trade. I don’t think the average gun buyer is likelier than a gang member to buy a large magazine for a fire arm and certainly is much less likely to use it with intent to kill someone. The average gun buyer is also much less likely to succeed in that endeavor. From my front stoop I can see a few things that have changed around me recently: marijuana laws were reformed (which I thoroughly approve of), several previously declining neighborhood drug markets revived and gang related shootings drove the city murder rate up by an unprecedented 30%. Those data points suggest very strongly to me that two things are happening in this city…that crew violence is up and that it’s up for a particular set of reasons.

It is perhaps worth reconsidering the idea that the alteration of the local illegal drug market with the effective legalization of marijuana may be roiling those markets as crews perforce seek other drugs to sell and different markets to sell them in. That would also put the issue of synthetic drugs in a different light and explain why both of us have noted the resurgence of heroin use. It would also explain, as once profitable markets disappear, why turf battles and associated beefs would turn violent. You disagree with this position below but did not provide any data. It seems like an obvious conclusion. It certainly is what many of my neighbors believe based on what they can see with their own eyes.

Vice Squad Changes – Here the data you present is compelling but the data is colliding with circumstances. You point out the great lengths you have gone to explain to your department why the vice squad changed. I believe you and it sounds like you did it for the right reasons with sound results. The problem is that the line officers I have spoken with have not been convinced and do not seem to know the facts you presented to me. Your officers believe it doesn’t work and that belief is passed on to the community. I wouldn’t dare presume to tell you how to handle that situation. From a policy and public relations perspective it’s a grave problem.

Thanks again for responding to my concerns. I continue to be impressed with your commitment and you willingness to respond at such length. It would be helpful if others in the administration responded with such thorough candor. I look forward to continuing the conversation. Have a great day.”

Chief Lanier replies:

“Thank you. Point well taken. I will certainly redouble my efforts to improve understanding within Mpd. It matters quite a bit if the officers aren’t getting the facts.”

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