Surging crime at the District of Columbia is prompting members of Congress to demand legislative action to combat the violence, a call made even more urgent following recent assaults against its own members.
Congressman Henry Cuellar was carjacked at gunpoint Monday night a mile from the U.S. Capitol in the Navy Yard area, marking the second attack against a lawmaker in the District this year. Congresswoman Angie Craig was assaulted inside her apartment building in February, suffering bruises but escaping serious injury.
“Congress has the sole power to make D.C.’s laws, and must intervene,” Senator Lee of Utah wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, in reaction to the assault on Mr. Cuellar last night. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green also chimed in: “They should be prosecuting real criminals instead of persecuting their political enemies.”
“Murder capital” is what the District was called in the early 1990s, when drug trafficking propelled the annual homicide rate to nearly 500. The name might once again be fitting today, as homicide rates in the city are reaching numbers not seen in two decades while dropping in dozens of other cities across the country.
D.C. has recorded a 27 percent increase in homicides and a 20 percent increase in shootings this year compared to 2022, itself a record year. The sharp rise in crime includes carjackings by armed teenagers, which is considered a serious felony offense in the district, punishable by up to 40 years in prison.
The mayor of the District, Muriel Bowser, is seeking to extend an emergency crime bill ahead of its expiration on October 18 while permanent legislation is considered. The bill makes it easier for the District police system to keep suspects accused of violent crimes in jail until trial, and makes it a felony for people who shoot a weapon recklessly in public.
“Not only is this good policy, but it’s necessary for the council to keep its momentum to keep D.C. safer,” the mayor said in a statement. Yet she identified issues with policies related to “treating our police officers differently” and “defunding the police.” Last night’s victim, Mr. Cueller, has himself supported defunding the police, having voted for policy provisions in 2021 that made it easier to downscale police departments.
While other cities are struggling with the same problems, like smaller police forces, as the nation’s capital, authorities in the District run nearly every part of its criminal justice system short of the police department, analysts say. As the Washington Post reports, crime is persisting there in part because local and federal leaders often disagree on anti-crime policies.
Illustrating the history of inaction on the issue, the city council chairman, Phil Mendelson, told members of Congress in March that “there is not a crime crisis in Washington, D.C.” The council pushed for a new criminal code that would lower the maximum sentences for carjacking and some gun crimes. President Biden signed a bill overriding the legislation in order “to keep the community safe in D.C.”
The mayor herself has to protect her city. She and other city leaders announced in August new measures to crack down on crime, such as enforcing a “juvenile curfew.” The proposed initiatives came after a council member, Trayon White, called the District a “war zone” and asked the National Guard to help assist D.C. Police.
Ms. Bowser declined National Guard assistance in the past, even refusing it in a January 5, 2021, letter that affirmed that the Metropolitan Police Department was “well trained and prepared” to police the expected “demonstration of First Amendment rights in the District of Columbia.” The local authorities, though, were wholly inadequate to quell the attacks on the Capitol the following day.
The duty to protect the most strategically important area in the nation rests not only with city government. As Newt Gingrich wrote in a recent op-ed for the Sun, “the first step is for Congress to recognize that it has a responsibility to the entire nation to make our national capital safe, beautiful, and enjoyable. It has an obligation to the residents of Washington to supervise and override politicians and bureaucrats who fail in their duty.”
Mr. Gingrich urges Congress to hold hearings and seek advice from successful crime fighters like New York City’s former police commissioner, Bill Bratton. The former speaker of the House, whose anti-crime initiatives made the city safe during the crack epidemic, also pushed for the passage of a “Safe American Capital” bill — otherwise, he says, the city risks “undermining everything we achieved in the 1990s.”
Meanwhile, Congressman Mike Johnson is recommending a repeal of the Home Rule Act. This would allow Congress to block any laws passed by the city council in order to give the control over local affairs to residents and “bring law & order back to Washington,” he wrote on X.
A majority of Americans agree: A survey by America’s New Majority Project in July disclosed that 58 percent of all voters believe Congress should step in when Washington’s city government cannot subdue crime.
“The people of this country,” Mr. Johnson insisted, “should feel safe when visiting our nation’s capital.”