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D.C. Council considers a bill intended to combat rising crime in the city

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are both here in Washington, D.C., the nation's capital, where nearly 300 people were murdered last year. That is the most in a single year since the late 1990s. The victims ranged from kids to the elderly. There were also nearly a thousand carjackings. Among those victims was a member of Congress. In an effort to address ongoing violence and other street crime, the council is set to pass new legislation today. The proposed bill would toughen some sentences and make it easier to detain people as they await trial. The council's actions seem to be part of a wave of rethinking criminal justice reforms that started to take hold in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Joining us now to tell us more about this is the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser. Good morning, Mayor. Thank you for taking the time.

MURIEL BOWSER: Good morning. My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Mayor, parts of this bill come from ideas that you've been advocating for some months now. It's a big bill. There's lots of provisions, so we can't go through it line by line. But what are some key elements that you think will help combat ongoing violence and other crime in the city?

BOWSER: Well, thanks for that question. And this is part of our efforts, and I believe the council's efforts to rebalance our public safety ecosystem, which I've been talking about for a number of years. They're buckets of interventions here that strengthen our ability to hold people who are committing crimes accountable to better support MPD in our recruitment efforts, and overall to rebalance what we're doing to have more of a focus on accountability.

MARTIN: Like what? Give an example.

BOWSER: We, for example, are giving the police a tool and reimplementing a law that had been on our books for drug-free zones. We are addressing what we have seen have helped people commit more robberies and carjackings by prohibiting mask use for the commission of crimes. We are also expanding our ability for MPD officers to - not expanding, we're codifying our ability for MPD officers to pursue people who have committed crimes if they're using a vehicle.

MARTIN: So, you know, Mayor, a lot of places experienced a spike in violence and other crimes during COVID and right after, but in other places, you know, in a lot of other cities, a lot of those, let's call those antisocial behaviors went down. But in D.C., that hasn't been the case. Somewhat recently, since the beginning of the year, but as you know, you know better than anybody, you know, murder is at the highest rate last year than in years. Carjackings, the same. Is there something specific about the district that's contributing to this?

BOWSER: Well, the district is unique, Michel. We are a - our criminal justice system is - you know, is scattered. We have a mayor that's responsible for some crimes. We have a federal prosecutor. We have judges that aren't accountable to the voters. And so when we make changes, all of those bodies have to be changing together. I also think that we had a pretty, you know, definite swing to the left in dismantling a public safety ecosystem that had worked for us in bringing our city back. So how we get back to the number of officers we need, how we ensure that we have laws, especially as it relates to guns, that send the clear message that you can't use a gun in our city or you will be held accountable is important.

We're seeing now, in the first couple of months of this year, the type of trends that will get us to numbers that have people feeling safe. Already this year, we've seen a reduction in homicide by 30%, we have seen a reduction in the assault with dangerous weapons by almost 30% and we're seeing our motor vehicle theft numbers also plummet by 30%. So our goal is - of course, is to get back or even better than pre-pandemic levels of safety.

MARTIN: So, you know, obviously, this is a community that has a reputation for being politically progressive, you know, some people might call liberal. So - but activists who oppose the bill say it's not really going to do anything. They feel like it's public safety theater or they fear, they say, that it goes back to the bad, old days of racial profiling. How do you respond to that?

BOWSER: This bill is only aimed at stopping people who are committing crimes, pure and simple. And we cannot escape the numbers. And we cannot also escape the fact that communities of color and communities that are - have experienced, you know, all kinds of barriers to opportunity are the ones that suffer the most from crime.

MARTIN: Now, we know you've gotten an earful from Congress, and they have a big megaphone, but what are you hearing from your other constituents, the people who live here and work here all the time, what are - what have they been saying to you that has particularly...

BOWSER: Well, my constituents...

MARTIN: ...Made a difference to you? I guess I'm interested in what has really stuck with you.

BOWSER: My constituents have always supported my approach to public safety, and that is, you know, supporting what the experts say, what the police chief and all of our government officials say they need in terms of the number of officers and the laws on the books and the cooperation with all of our law enforcement partners. What is striking, Michel, you know, I'm born and raised in Washington, D.C. I've seen D.C. at the worst of times. That's not where we are. But what I do see is people who are just fearful, and they want to make sure that they can enjoy their city, that their children and mothers and grandmothers and grandfathers can enjoy the city without fear. And that is our No. 1 job.

I've had the privilege of leading my hometown as mayor - as the three-term mayor, and probably the longest serving big city mayor in the country right now. And what's important is that the mayor speaks up, leads our criminal justice system and returns our city to levels of safety that we're accustomed to.

MARTIN: That is Muriel Bowser. She is the mayor of the District of Columbia of Washington, D.C., as she just told you, she is serving her third term in that role. Madam Mayor, thank you so much for your time.

BOWSER: Thank you, Michel. Thank you. Bye-bye.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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