Fighting for Safety in the Hill East

Neighbors Want More Cameras, Police Enforcement After Shootings

A pocket park at 15th Street and Constitution Avenue SE. (Photo: Google Maps)

A young mother and Hill East resident watched as her children played at a local park on a Saturday afternoon in November. The Center City Charter School (1503 East Capitol St.) playground seemed safe.

But when she heard gunshots about 20 feet away, her family’s sense of safety vanished.

“I am sickened that someone felt emboldened enough to shoot someone in the open in the middle of the day on our street,” she wrote on the neighborhood listserv Newhilleast on Nov. 19 after the shooting. “What can we do about it?”

That same day only hours later, another man was shot at the same site — the 1500 block of A Street SE. Also in the Hill East and on Nov. 25, 16-year-old Breyona McMillian, a bystander, was fatally shot outside of Potomac Gardens (1225 G St. SE). Finally on Nov. 27, Anthony Young, 27, was fatally shot on the 600 block of L Street SE during a dispute.

After these four shootings in the span of two weeks, neighbors in the Hill East want action on preventing future violent crime. Part of the problem stems from neighborhood pocket parks and the streets around the Potomac Gardens’ building that need better security and more, quality cameras to catch criminals, several advisory neighborhood commissioners (ANC) continue to argue.

ANC 6B commissioners Daniel Chao (07), Denise Krepp (10) and incoming commissioner Aimee Grace (07) have made several requests and held meetings with MPD, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen (D), the DC Housing Authority (DCHA) and the DC Department of Transportation  (DDOT) to address the problems.

But they face challenges: many of the perpetrators in these crimes don’t live in area, District agencies have been slow to install cameras and unchecked loitering facilitates seedy hangouts.

“They feel way too comfortable right now to be doing these things in public,” Chao said. “They feel comfortable to engage and conduct illegal activities in broad daylight.”

More Cameras, More Speed Humps

Chao started emailing MPD and DCHA as soon as he took his position on the ANC in 2015. For nearly two years, he has fought to get more security cameras installed around the pocket parks and an increase in enforcement of closure times for the those public parks.

But he said it feels like the only time people pay attention to the problem is when a crime happens.

“We’re sick of the four rounds of gunshots happening when people drive through,” he said. “It always takes somebody being injured or shot to death for the city or government to act.”

With the help of private donations, ANC 6B raised about $20,000 in the spring of 2016 to replace outdated cameras in the parks and at Potomac Gardens. DCHA didn’t take the money, Chao said, but it installed new cameras at Potomac Gardens in the early summer.

The cameras capture footage from the interior of the development and buildings, DCHA spokesperson Rick White said. Following the Nov. 28 community meeting to address the recent shootings, DCHA pledged to install several more cameras to cover the streets and sidewalks around the property before the end of December.

Chao also met with First District Cmdr. Morgan Kane in early December to decide which roadways around the I Street and 12th and 13th Streets area would benefit from speed humps to slow cars. Kane and Chao plan to work with DDOT for the installation, and think that forcing cars to slow will deter potential drive-by shooters or other vehicle-related crime.

Krepp also wants similar speed humps in the areas around 15th and A Streets SE.

A Pocket Park Problem

Neighbors like taking their children to pocket parks on the Hill to play. Residents near the parks around and in Potomac Gardens like to use the space early in the mornings for games of chess. But when the sun goes down, drug dealers and people committing crimes come in to the parks, often trekking from outside of the Hill community.

“Why do we have individuals who do not live in neighborhoods coming here?” Commissioner Krepp said.

Councilmember Allen helped facilitate the installation of LED lights in the parks for MPD to better see people conducting illegal business. Krepp and Chao have also both fought to curb the criminal activity in the parks with similar improved lighting and by asking police to clear the parks at night.

DC doesn’t have an anti-loitering law that would prohibit them during the daytime, which some argue contributes to the problem. Chao said too many people use that argument for loitering laws to detract from the real problem, though.

“There is a law that people on the sidewalk shouldn’t block the sidewalk. There are a lot of laws on the books,” he said. But they need police to enforce the laws, especially those that prohibit people from staying in the parks after dark.

Enforcement of ‘Stay-Away’

Commissioner Krepp wants her neighbors to feel safe walking outside of their homes. But after the two men were shot near 15th and A Streets SE on Nov. 19, people fear taking their families out to places like local parks.

Krepp had hoped the two victims of the shootings would help police identify the shooters, but MPD has stated that the two men don’t live in the area they were shot and are refusing to help in the investigation.

Councilmember Allen has spoken with Cmdr. Kane about the problems in the Hill East. He said they’ve discussed several strategies to combat the violent crimes, including stronger enforcement of “stay-away” orders — a judge-issued order that prohibits a convicted criminal from reentering the region in which he/she committed the crime.

“If [police] even observe individuals, they’re able to come in and get them out of the neighborhood,” Allen said of the possible enforcement strategy.

As for the pocket parks, Allen wants to work with community members like Chao to revive them. He and his staff are looking into possible funds for the parks.

“We want to create spaces that are inviting and accessible for our neighbors with positive activity,” he said.