The Face of D.C. Homicides
This year, the face of homicides in D.C. is a 24-year-old black male. Your name is Joel David Midgett, Charles Newell, Stephon Demarrio Clark, Derrick Black, John Jones, William Clemments Herndon, William Conley. Change the name, add or subtract a year, but the face of homicides looks the same, year after year.
Your face won’t be the one remembered as the biggest tragedy of 2015. Your face doesn’t spur legislation, a eulogy on the floor of the U.S. Congress or an hour-long CNN special. Despite your family’s pleas not to be remembered as such, you are one of hundreds of homicides of black men this year: a statistic.
And you’ll die on the street, alone, after everyone scatters.
The police and emergency personnel who respond to your shooting — someone heard gunshots — aren’t surprised. They find you unconscious and unresponsive, as the press release will say a few days later. Blood starts to leak into the crevices of the smartphone you’re still holding. It pools in the palm of your hand — a palm paler and softer than the darkness of the rest of your body. If your whole body were this color, would this be your fate? Statistics say probably not. Black males, who comprise 21.6 percent of the D.C. population, have been the victim in more than three out of every four homicides between 2010 and 2014.
There were 162 homicides in Washington, D.C. in 2015. Of those victims, a majority of them were young, black males. The most common age at death for a black man killed in a homicide is 24, followed by 21 and 23. Of the homicides, an unofficial tally compiled by D.C. Witness (formerly Capitol Justice) shows 129 victims were black, and 120 of those were black males. D.C. Witness has tracked homicides in the district since the summer of 2015, but other concerned residents have tracked homicides through Twitter, such as the group D.C. Homicide Count, which tweets victim information about each homicide and keeps a tally of race, age and geographic information.
A freedom of information request seeking the race, age and gender of homicide victims showed 85 percent of all homicide victims were black and 91 percent were male, according to data available as of Dec. 9 from the Office of the Medical Examiner — and 63 homicide victims were between the ages of 20 and 29.
There is one constant: location. Most of the homicides happen in Southeast or Northeast, in Wards 7 and 8, places where the victims and the ones doing the killing were raised in the same circumstances.
MPD Sergeant Delroy Burton, who is black and a 22-year veteran of the department, also heads the police union. What he sees is not a city overrun with violent crime: “We don’t have distributed homicides, we have concentrated homicides. And it goes to the living conditions, economic conditions and family structure, you name it. A lot of things contribute to why we have that spike.”
While the police union may have theories for the rise in homicides — which are different than those offered by the police chief and mayor — Sgt. Burton says there will always be homicides with young, black males as the victims unless something drastic changes.
“What’s wrong with most of these individuals that are killing each other is that most of them, other than accidental or unintended targets, most of them were targeted specifically because of lifestyle choices or some petty dispute that they should have easily been able to resolve without fighting about it, or without guns, anyway,” he said.
“Most of the children that live in the community where all this violence is centered are raised in these places where there aren’t good examples of conflict resolution — it goes back to the environment they’re raised in. If you have that very very vicious, violent environment, and you see that, where you have an unstable family life yourself — physical, emotional, sexual abuse, or all three, and you see all kinds of violence all the time across the street … how are you going to turn out?” Burton said.
For much of the last decade, D.C. saw a dramatic reduction in homicides. In 2003, 248 people were killed. By 2014 the number of people killed had dropped to 105, a 57.6 percent reduction. Upticks have occurred in previous years, but the recent spike stands out. Homicides in 2015 are up more than 54 percent over 2014, according to MPD.
D.C.’s homicide spike follows similar upticks in homicides in the country’s biggest cities, although crime and homicides have decreased in other places.
Over the Independence Day weekend, Kevin Sutherland became the unwitting face of D.C.’s 2015 homicides. Sutherland, a white American University graduate who once interned for a Connecticut congressman, was brutally and repeatedly stabbed on the Metro Red Line at Union Station on July 4.
Within 12 hours, police sent out an official press release announcing his death, but according to Police Chief Cathy Lanier, police began distributing fliers searching for a suspect within hours. The next day, police circulated a picture of Sutherland’s alleged killer, under an all-caps headline “WANTED FOR MURDER.”
Less than two weeks after Sutherland was killed, the mayor proposed a plan to increase penalties for violent crimes on public transit and at public parks. She recently criticized the D.C. council for not acting on that proposal, among other suggestions. According to the Mayor’s proposal, violators would face 150 percent of jail sentences and fines for violations at these locations.
Three other men were killed that same holiday weekend.
Twenty-six-year-old Dwayne Gene Dillard was killed on July 4, police announced the next day. John Jones, 24, and Thomas Harris, 52, were killed on July 5.
Although these homicides were reported, they didn’t garner the same attention of Sutherland’s — no huge police fliers and no new legislation.
“A hundred and nineteen other families are mourning their losses with us today. Our heart goes out to them,” Sutherland’s parents said in a statement at a court hearing.
Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental University pointed out that the media tends to focus on the anomalies, rather than the common: “dog bites man” is never as big as “man bites dog.”
Wade says the media isn’t entirely to blame — but it does have a responsibility to not write off demographics entirely. When a white woman is killed, though — which is the rarest homicide in D.C. — it makes the news because of the “man bites dog” philosophy.
“There are a lot of neighborhoods in America where young people are being extinguished at a shocking and horrible rate, and that’s a human tragedy for everyone — and it’s a tragedy that white Americans get to have the privilege of not thinking about,” she said. “We’re not just talking about criminals, we’re talking about their moms and their sisters and the people who love them. We’re talking about the longtime livelihoods. If generations are in prison or dead, how do families form? How do taxes get paid? If we say it’s not newsworthy, it’s saying we don’t care about these people at all — not just the people who are victims or perpetrators, but anyone else that is associated.”
In May, three members of the Savopolous family, along with their housekeeper, were brutally murdered in a ritzy neighborhood in Georgetown. The crime occupied the media and conversations across the city. A chase to find the killer ensued, crossing state lines — and garnered mass media coverage. An ordinary hearing for the alleged murderer, Daron Wint, brought scores of media to the courtroom, with media outlets having to wait in line for a coveted spot inside.
For most of D.C. homicide victims, there are no lines, cameras or action. Families don’t come to court prepared with a statement — because there isn’t anyone to take it down.
Ronald Carswell Jr. was an anomaly. He attended the hearings to represent his aunt, Loretta Carswell, the victim of a homicide allegedly at the hands of her cousin. His aunt’s death became a news headline only because of a 31-hour stand-off between his aunt’s alleged killer and police — and because she was the 99th homicide victim in a violent year.
“I don’t want her to be remembered as number 99,” Carswell said. “I want her to be remembered for the person she was.”