04 Nov 2009

Councilmember Tommy Wells Talks Youth Crime with THIH

From Chicagos~Finest photostream

From Chicagos~Finest photostream

Recently, THIH sat down with Tommy Wells, who represents Zone 6 on the DC City Council.  The conversation ranged from  transportation and development, to crime and schools, and we look forward to continuing the conversation next month.  See the posts from earlier in the week to learn more about the how these issues effect Capitol Hill. Today we will focus on crime, particularly crime committed by young people.

The first thing you learn about Tommy Wells when you visit his website is that he’s a evangelist for livable, walkable communities, as discussed with THIH in an interview last week. But looking a bit deeper into his background shines some light on the approach he takes when thinking about crime on Capitol Hill.

Long before he joined the school board and then city council, Wells worked as a social worker, and eventually became the director of the DC Consortium for Child Welfare. To him, it’s no surprise that in a city replete with students who don’t finish school, there’s a growing fear of crimes committed by minors. This reporter brought up the recent rash of burglaries in Hill East; carjackings; and the trends of young people mugging people of their electronics when leaving the Metro; and Wells explained youth offender laws often hinder the city in its ability to address the root issues.

Wells has formed a task force to do some problem solving around juvenile crime. He’s aware neighbors have geographic sensitivities and preconceived notions about who’s committing the crimes in our neighborhoods. During the annual spring mugging sprees in Hill East that seem to begin as soon as the robin chirps, this reporter often hears references to Potomac Gardens as a source of the majority local crime. The tales of “packs of kids who run off in the direction of Potomac Gardens” is well documented on the HillEast listserv.

Wells says that talk in the neighborhoods isn’t totally accurate, and that police reports say between 35-50% of offenders are coming into Ward 6 from Wards 7 and 8, and from suburban Maryland. The key is, he says, to really know the facts about the arrests; and because the offenders are often under 18, the data is very difficult to obtain. Without that data, the police go into a reactive mode, and can’t get ahead of the next crime. “We’ve been unable to get block or census tract data on convictions.  We have a sense of who it is [committing these crimes], but we can’t prove it because the police won’t release the data.”  With that information, Wells says, police could better target criminals and direct social service resources.

Wells says there are federal laws in place which could make our communities safer but, again, due to the the age of the offenders, officials’ hands are tied. Housing and Urban Development laws say that if a person living in subsidized housing is convicted of a crime, the entire family must move out. There are 17 public housing properties in Zone 6, according to the DC Housing Authority. Wells is frustrated by the age-related roadblock. “If the crimes are committed by children, no one knows, so it can’t be enforced.”

“We need to do something different,” and the Council is rolling out new legislation that will allow the city to try some different approaches, Wells said. He knows from his professional background that much of the city’s crime arises from social service issues, and better coordination between the schools, child protective services, and the police can not only help keep students in school, but also out of trouble. Wells said he is in disagreement with Mayor Fenty about how much truancy monitoring is needed before protective services steps in. Wells wants to see Washington follow a successful technique used in Minnesota to track school absences as the first line of attack for fighting crime. Wells wants to amend the current law to mandate that when a child hits ten unexcused absences from school, the school reaches out to child protective services. The law had been approved as such by the city council when Mayor Fenty changed the law to have a higher threshold of more absences, “so it’s not as effective as intended,” Wells said.  “The goal is to have dramatically different outcomes for the kids,” he said,  and the coordination between the schools and CPS should promote young people to stay in schools as well as to help children who are in dangerous situations.

This reporter hopes to have a chance to talk with Wells again soon about other crimes on the Hill– in particular burglaries and the related small number of convictions. It would be helpful to find out more about the efficacy of community policing and foot (or Segway) patrols, and the success of focusing larger numbers of officers in specific neighborhoods for a short-term period.

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