Illustration by Devin Washburn
Illustration by Devin Washburn

One night, in June 1989, a man named Nathaniel Thomas was shot to death on a street bisecting a public housing project in the Northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C.

Like many homicides in Washington, this one took place within distant view of the U.S. Capitol. I covered the night police beat at the time for the Washington Post, and for cub reporters the shadow of the Capitol dome was an irresistible cliche, which I inevitably folded into my two-paragraph write-up of what one homicide detective labeled “misdemeanor homicides” - - unimportant murders of young black men involved with the drug trade -- and which my editor just as inevitably excised.

The killing took place about 1 a.m. At 2 a.m., Thomas still lay where he fell. Homicide detectives flipped over the body in search of bullet holes. A crowd had gathered behind the yellow police tape. Children made up much of the crowd.

This was before I became a father. Had I been a father at the time, I would have told these children to go home. Instead I wrote down their commentary about the body stretched out before them. “Watch out, man, he’s gonna get up and bite you!” one kid, maybe 14 or 15, yelled at the detectives. His friends broke up with laughter. “I can’t see. Let me look, let me look,” said an 11-year-old, stuck in the second row, behind taller teenagers.

Velocity of Violence

I saw this sort of scene over and over again. The callousness of children was the inevitable consequence of the velocity of violence: Every night saw multiple shootings across a dozen neighborhoods. Children become hardened to scenes of mayhem in war zones. And Washington, then under the chaotic leadership of Mayor Marion Barry, was a war zone.

As the city’s population dropped -- it had peaked at about 800,000 in the 1950s, and was about 600,000 by the late 1980s -- the homicide rate, fueled by battles between rival gangs of crack sellers, rose in spectacular fashion. More than 400 people were slain each year as the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, and a new epithet had taken hold: Washington was the nation’s “murder capital.”

Washington’s problem was severe (and highly symbolic) but not anomalous. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, cities across the country were plagued by rampant violence, and social scientists were predicting an unstoppable rise in homicide. The warning was stark, even apocalyptic: The “superpredators,” feral children born with crack cocaine in their bodies, would be reaching puberty in 10 more years, and then America’s cities would succumb to uncontrollable violence.

Fast forward more than two decades, to the end of 2011, and a news conference hosted by Washington’s current mayor, Vincent Gray, and police chief, Cathy Lanier. Lanier looked sternly into the cameras and warned D.C. residents of a sharp rise in crime. Not a crime against persons; a crime against iPhones.

“Whatever it is, if it’s a small mobile electronic device, it is the hottest commodity on the market,” Lanier said.

Theft of handheld devices was on the rise, she said, and she didn’t seem happy about it. The city’s homicide rate, on the other hand, was cause for some satisfaction. In 2011, 108 people were murdered in Washington. In 1991, 479 people had been killed.

One hundred and eight unnecessarily dead people is nothing to celebrate, of course, but the drop -- and the promise of further decreases -- is an extraordinary and largely unheralded development, replicated in many cities across the country. We are in a period of American history in which everything seems to be getting worse, but here is something that is getting dramatically better.

Bad Old Days

Not long after her news conference, I visited Lanier at her office at police headquarters to talk about the bad old days and about how she plans to keep them at bay.

Lanier, who is entering her fifth year in the job, is an unlikely police chief: a white woman in a largely black city, a native of blue-collar Maryland who was a mother at the age of 15 and who somehow earned a master’s degree while working her way through a series of dangerous jobs for a dispirited and dysfunctional police force.

When she first joined the department in 1990, she was assigned to a foot patrol -- not because the department had embraced the philosophy that later became known as community policing, but because it had so few working patrol cars.

“The whole government was in shambles,” she said. “The first car I did get had 157,000 miles on it, and the transmission dropped out of it when I was transporting a prisoner.”

She has vivid memories of the hopeless stretch of Georgia Avenue she patrolled as a rookie. “Almost every block had a liquor store, a funeral home, a hair salon, a check-cashing place, and there were a couple of strip joints. Crack-cocaine vials were everywhere on the sidewalk, and those liquor stores opened real early. The drunks were already passed out in front of them.”

She remembered the moment she realized the city was drowning.

“It was three o’clock in the afternoon, Benning Terrace, there was a homicide, a guy had been taken out of his car, they made him get on his knees, beg for his life, and then they killed him. We’re standing around in the parking lot waiting for Homicide, and there’s these little kids getting out of school, first grade, kindergarten, little backpacks, heavy coats, and I remember us trying to shield them. It was a pretty gruesome scene. And this little boy comes up to me, couldn’t have been more than 8 years old, he says, ‘Excuse me, could you tell me if that’s my brother over there?’”

She went on: “My heart stopped. He’s breathing real fast. He’s panicking. It was horrible. I said, ‘What’s your brother’s name, honey?’ He told me, and we had just gotten a preliminary ID on the guy. It was a different name, it was confirmed. So I said, ‘No, it wasn’t your brother.’ That was the image that will stick with me forever.”

Fixing Problems

I asked her why Washington had changed so dramatically. She made a series of broad sociological observations, noting the decline in crack’s popularity and the impact of gentrification on some parts of the city. What she didn’t do was praise herself. I interrupted her, noting that, in my experience, many police chiefs would answer this question by listing their many and profound achievements. “Not gonna happen,” she said, smiling.

Yet Lanier’s success in suppressing violent crime has much to do with the innovations in street policing and in detective work she introduced during her tenure, innovations that suggest it’s possible for government to intervene in social crises and fix problems that previously seemed immutable.

In part two of this column, I’ll discuss some of these innovations -- and ask the question, Why did social science get violent crime trends so wrong?

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own. This is the first in a two-part series.)

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at goldberg.atlantic@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Timothy Lavin at tlavin1@bloomberg.net.