Eknoor Kaur, 3, stands with her father Guramril Singh during a candlelight… (Jason DeCrow/AP )
Back in the crack-infused 1980s, young men with guns and drugs ruled the single block of Hanover Place NW. People who lived in the two-story rowhouses one mile north of the Capitol fell asleep year round to the sounds of the Fourth of July, a pop-pop-pop that they hoped was firecrackers. It rarely was.
But after two decades of consistent and dramatic declines in homicides and gun violence in Washington and many other major cities, Hanover Place is mostly quiet these days. Complaints to the police tend to be more about kids shooting craps on the sidewalk than about drug dealers shooting at rival street crews. On a block where houses were unloaded for as little as $30,000 in the 1990s, the most recent sales have ranged from $278,000 to $425,000.
As welcome as such changes have been, explanations for the nation’s plummeting homicide rate remain elusive, stymieing economists, criminologists, police, politicians and demographers. Have new police strategies made a difference, or have demographic shifts and population migrations steered the change? Could the reasons be as simple as putting more bad guys behind bars, or does credit go to changes made a generation ago, such as taking the lead out of gasoline or legalizing abortion?
Mass shootings such as last year’s searing incidents in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo., have put gun and mental-health policies back atop the nation’s agenda. But the narrative of crime over the past two decades runs in a different direction. Law and order has largely vanished as a political issue — in 1994, more than half of Americans called crime the nation’s most important problem; by 2012, only 2 percent of those surveyed by Gallup said so.
Today, there are more theories about why crime has fallen than there were slayings on Hanover Place in the past decade.
The drop in deaths from firearms and in slayings overall — over the past two decades, homicide declined by 80 percent in the District and overall crime fell by 75 percent in New York City — has come even as the economy has tanked, the number of guns owned by Americans has soared and the number of young people in the prime crime demographic has peaked.
“There has been a real drop in crime, and anyone living in New York or Washington sees it,” said David Greenberg, a New York University sociologist who has tested theories for the decline. “In principle, we should be able to explain it, but it’s easier to determine what factors don’t contribute than it is to say what does.”
On Hanover Place, residents are quick to name two reasons the nights when they heard as many as 75 gunshots are a fading memory: The cast of characters has changed, and the police cleaned out the place.
Starting in the mid-’80s, D.C. police focused on the open-air drug market Hanover Place had become. Emptying onto North Capitol Street, Hanover could not have been better designed for drug dealing and the gun violence it spawns. Entered through a warren of alleys, the street gave bad guys any number of quick exit routes — through back yards, walkways and unmarked alleys — but prevented police in squad cars from seeing anything from adjacent streets.
“It’s not an easy place to get into, even though it’s the perfect walk-in spot for drug sales,” said Andy Solberg, police commander for the 5th District, which includes Hanover Place.
So when the city got serious about taking down dealers such as drug kingpin Cornell Jones, whose family home was on the block, they set up a trailer on a vacant lot and created at least the illusion that the cops were always there, always watching. Then the D.C. government, using federal, local and private money, worked with a community development corporation to buy vacant properties, build houses, and sell them at cost to people with jobs and clean records.
The result is a very different population, said Joyce Robinson-Paul, a 32-year resident and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for the area. “The new neighbors are very quiet,” she said. But “the real crime problem didn’t leave until many of the dealers were arrested and went to jail.”
Since Solberg became a police officer 25 years ago, the prison population has tripled nationally, the result of anti-drug and anti-gun enforcement efforts, mandatory minimum sentencing, and the widespread elimination of parole. Most studies agree that increases in incarceration explain part of the decline in violent crime, though Solberg and many criminologists say the warehousing of young men convicted of nonviolent crimes causes as many social problems as it solves.
Police and residents also credit community policing, in which officers meet with local activists and keep close tabs on known bad guys. But studies of police tactics such as New York’s stop-and-frisk campaign or the “broken windows” emphasis on enforcing minor infractions conclude that those measures have little impact on crime.