Don't Ask, Don't Tell Why won't police in D.C. name the crews involved in recent Petworth shootings?

Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

It’s no secret that something ugly has been going on in Petworth lately. Over the last few weeks, the neighborhood’s southern end has seen two brazen daylight shootings and a handful of other bursts of gunfire, clustered near New Hampshire Avenue and Shepherd Street NW, a few blocks from the Metro. Early Tuesday morning, a man was shot to death at Georgia Avenue and Varnum Street.

The violence, police say, may come from warring street-level crews in the area. Authorities say they know those groups responsible, what their turf is, and what other crimes they’re involved in. But don’t ask the names of the crews battling it out in Petworth. That, as far as Metropolitan Police Department officials are concerned, is a secret.

Two weeks ago, Petworth residents filed into St. Gabriel’s Church at 5th and Webster streets NW to learn from MPD Chief Cathy Lanier why their community seems to have turned into a combat zone. The neighborhood had seen six homicides this year. The question on the minds of most of the people there, says ANC 4C09 commissioner Joe Martin, was how worried they should be. After all, besides the recent gunfire, Catholic University student Neil Godleski was shot and killed in August, in what authorities say was a late-night robbery gone awry at Sherman Circle. Was that the nature of the recent shootings, the crowd wanted to know? Robberies turned deadly?

Lanier’s answer, complete with a PowerPoint presentation of crime stats, came as a relief: The shootings were most likely related to crew violence. ANC 4D06 commissioner Bill Quirk remembers sighing: “It’s somewhat reassuring that the shootings aren’t random.”

But before Lanier got to the news that might allow her audience to sleep a little easier, she made an unusual request. “It’s not helpful if you post the names of the crews,” the chief told the crowd. Police mentioned the names of the crews, but Martin and Quirk both remember Lanier asking those in attendance not to refer to the names on community message boards or blogs. Authorities made the same request to media outlets covering the meeting, which was open to anyone who wanted to attend.

Trying to head off the number of Google search hits a corner crew gets might seem like an odd law enforcement tactic, and people at the meeting say MPD didn’t specify exactly why Lanier made it. (Neither Martin, a frequent poster to Petworth e-mail lists, nor Quirk took issue with Lanier’s request.) The FBI, for instance, says it routinely names gangs it investigates.

The real mystery, though, is why the media complied with Lanier’s blackout. Washington City Paper wasn’t in attendance. But sources say two of the crews MPD is concerned about in the recent Petworth shootings are called CRT and Taylor Street.

A TV news crew from Fox5, though, did attend. And reporter John Henrehan filed this report from the St. Gabriel’s meeting: “[The chief asked reporters who were present to refrain from writing about specifics involving the gangs, and Fox Five agreed to that request.] We can tell you that D.C. police know the gangs, know their territories, and know which crimes gang members are involved in.”

Fox may not have been the only outlet to comply with that MPD request, but the station does seem to have been the most enthusiastic. The underlying tone of the station’s coverage of the meeting must have made Lanier happy: The police have things well in hand, no need to bother with details. Or, for that matter, to worry too much about it. (Henrehan didn’t reply to a request for comment; a Fox 5 spokeswoman had no comment by press time.)

Knowing the names of the crews shooting up the neighborhood might not help Petworth residents stay safe; after all, a stray bullet can hit a bystander no matter which crew the shooter might belong to. But keeping the situation quiet definitely has ancillary benefits for the police: It makes it harder to talk about the problem.

Fraternal Order of Police head Kris Baumann, a frequent critic of Lanier’s, sees the request for silence as harmful: “It’s been a problem for us that we won’t admit we have a gang problem.” In his view, Lanier keeping gangs and crews nameless isn’t about shorting them of fame. It’s a manipulation aimed at helping to prevent the gang problem from surfacing as an issue. “It’s politically disadvantageous, but we need to inform the public,” Baumann says.

These crew wars can have serious consequences, after all; the violence and retaliations that culminated in the shooting of Jamal Coates on U Street NW last month are believed to have sprung from a battle between crews in Adams Morgan and Columbia Heights.

The police tactic of keeping the whole thing quiet isn’t new. One former staffer familiar with the inner workings of MPD’s press machine says that throughout Lanier’s tenure, most District media sources have complied with the chief’s redaction of crew and gang names, despite there being no “journalistic or ethical reason” to do so. That’s because MPD can cut off the flow of information to anyone who doesn’t follow its rules. “They went along with it so they could play nice in the sandbox,” the former insider says.

Meanwhile, despite the official silence, the District’s gang problem seems to be both scary and growing. In March 2009, the Thriving Communities Collaborative Council issued a 60-page report, “Responding to Gang Crew and Youth Violence in the District of Columbia.” The report, funded by an MPD grant, found that gang and crew activities in D.C. were on the rise. Gangs and crews, the report said, were responsible for most youth violence in the city, with as many as 130 groups involving about 2,500 kids.

That’s a lot of affiliations for the press to ignore.

For reporters, cooperating with a police request to withhold information isn’t completely unheard of. A media outlet might delay publication if a story could damage a case in progress. A reporter wouldn’t want to blow a drug sting, for instance, or tip off a corrupt politician under investigation.

But when asked why City Paper, or any other news outlet in town, shouldn’t print the names of gangs and crews, Lanier doesn’t give a rock solid reason. She doesn’t mention stings or allude to ongoing investigations. Instead, she makes what seems like an emotional argument: “Publishing the names of gangs and crews in the media legitimizes those who are responsible for crimes and violent activity and gives them bragging rights that they do not deserve.”

In other words, publishing the name of a crew involved in an altercation might make the bad guys feel good.

Whether there’s anything to that is an open question among police sources. One high-ranking cop scoffs at the idea of street soldiers scanning the newspaper for a mention: “What are they, running for Congress?” But a mid-level cop who’s worked gangs extensively, and says he’s no fan of Lanier’s, disagrees. Among D.C. crews, name recognition is important. “If a crew doesn’t get a shout-out, they get angry,” he says. Some crews thrive off media attention, he says; like anyone else, thugs like to see their name in print. “Contrary to popular belief, gangs aren’t dummies.”

One 1st District detective, who often deals with crew and gang violence in turf ranging between M Street SE and Florida Avenue NE, says that doesn’t matter. Sure, crews thrive on attention—but the detective prefers the media publish their names anyway. Why? “I like to expose the people I’m targeting.” Though criminal groups might get a momentary kick out of hearing their names on TV or reading them in the paper, he says the coverage benefits cops more. A public outcry means police get the resources they need to go after them: “Let’s blast them.”

Just don’t talk too much about it in the process.

Our Readers Say

It kinda weird. The Chief seems to be getting some bogus info.Since I actually live in Petworth, it seems to me to be more than just those 2 crews.Maybe MPD might wanna do some real police work because the boys in the hood are not down by Petworth metro station.
There have been shootings and beatings from the Metro up to Missouri Ave. and MPD knows this. Every few blocks has a crew. There are at least 5 crews that operate within a 8 block stretch of Georgia Ave. MPD is once again under reporting the severity of the violent crimes in 4D.I'm yet to hear anyone talk about the car that drove around Petworth with the occupants firing at random on anyone they encountered. You know why? It would send the residents of Petworth into shock !!!
I attended the meeting at St. Gabriel’s Church. MPD Chief Cathy Lanier asked that the names of the gangs/crews to not be posted or broadcast because it gives them recognition. It is like giving them free advertising, putting the names in lights so to speak.

As for Kris Baumann's (Fraternal Order of Police Head) comments and constant criticism illustrate his dislike for the Chief. He does not like her approach and has disagreed with many of her changes. He has yet to recognize the things that are working and that overall crime is down across the city.
just check the graffiti at the local corner store, or the urban "flow chart" in the alley off of 9th street adjacent to the petworth rec center at 8th and taylor. RIP's, crew names, affiliations, targets, all laid out.

@sakani ogu, can you elaborate on the shooting you are referring to? hadnt heard about that.
Shady folks always hanging out at the corner of Quincy and Rock Creek Church Rd got me concerned. I've seen them harass girls walking down the sidewalk too.
Re: Sean Weiland

Mr. Weiland writes, "As for Kris Baumann's (Fraternal Order of Police Head) comments and constant criticism illustrate his dislike for the Chief. He does not like her approach and has disagreed with many of her changes. He has yet to recognize the things that are working and that overall crime is down across the city."

I have to question his claim that overall crime is down across the city.

Please read Jack Mckay's post on DCWatch:
He states that robberies are up 13% compared to former PC Ramsey's tenure. I don't see how overall crime is down.

Here we go again falling into the trap of believing crime is down.Crime is down all over the country and its not that Lanier has come up with some plan to combat this. She has and always will ride the coattail of Chief Ramsey. Mr. Gray I again ask you to get your own team and let this wannabe police chief find a new job. Kris is correct. This is not the way to stop the volence of these crews. Maybe she should ask the officers that work around these people all day. Maybe just maybe she could learn something.oh I forgot. She knows everything anyway so why bother.
CRT = Crittenden Crew
Taylor = 7th-n-Tayler St. Crew

Im going to tell you right now, that these crews are fighting over something as simple as name-calling or a girl, etc.
I grew up around in and around 17th and Euclid st. NW (1-7 Crew) Currently beefing with the Crew in and around 14th and Girard st. NW (G-ROD), So I am no stranger to this sensless violence that has taken so many of my friends lives and people I know. Im also going to tell you that your fucked because the violence only stops when they decide. Sorry to say, If they want to kill a certain individual, theres nothing you can do about it unless they catch the person before he does it or the person fucks up. One thing that out-of-towners and yuppies dont realize about these thugs down here is that that are simple (meaning more inclined to kill you over nothing...its a known fact about DC thugs) and they are relentless when it comes to retaliation. Besides, im willing to bet anyone that the City is letting crime rise so that property values depreciate, and people buy the houses cheaper to flip them during the next housing boom as they did with columbia heights....I wouldnt put nothing past DC...fucked up town
The tagging is everywhere - and gets cleaned up, the cat and mouse thing. It's not as if the names of the crews/gangs are a mystery to anywhere who's lived here in Petworth for more than a week and asks neighbors about this.
The endless tragedy is knowing of young men who have no other vision for themselves and their futures.

I have seen so many young, the crumpled bodies of black men dead from bullet wounds in alleys, on porches, in the streets. Add Latino gang deaths to that. (Weapons of choice: knives, machetes, an ice pick in one case on Crittenden St NW near 9th a year ago last February.)

Senseless, horrible and incredibly stupid deaths. Another life ended - for what?

The devastating impact on families, friends, classmates (current and former), neighborhoods never ceases.

And shootings? "A shooting is a murder with a bad aim," words from an MPD officer to me a few weeks ago as the blinding, blue lights of MPD cruisers pierced the night sky.


Anon speaks the truth...most of this 'beef' is over nothing more than where your momma/auntie/grandma/family decided to rent or buy where you stay. It's a battle over concrete that neither side owns and never will.

Even those of us who are older and have families, homes, etc., we still move cautiously when on 'the other side' cause it's a part of you. Even when choosing to buy a house, I couldn't see me buying over on 'the other side' because it wasn't always cool over there. And that was 30 years ago when it wasn't too cool for us to be over there and them to be over here. And this is PG, so it's not just DC.

In fact, these same 'beefs' happen all over from coast to coast. Check Houston, TX for the Northside vs Southside (Blue Line vs Red Line), or Arizona or Northern Cali or even Salisbury, MD (ask folks that go to school down Eastern Shore, they know)

Call 'em Gangs or Crews, doesn't's like that all over, not just in Major cities and not just with major known Gangs (Crips, Bloods, Disciples, Vice Lords, Latin Kings, MS-13, etc.)
For the first time, I can say that I completely agree with Chief Lanier's approach on this issue. Having government officials publicly recognize the legitimacy of these adolescent criminal groups is completely counterproductive.

They are groups of criminals. That's all the legitimacy we need to accord to them. I don't care if they choose to call themselves "crews" or "gangs" or "klaverns" or "einzatzgruppen." I'm sure not going to pay them the courtesy of using their preferred name.

Kids fall into these groups in large part because of the sense of identity and belonging it gives them. Reinforcing that sense of identity, giving it official recognition, playing along: none of these things accomplish anything good.
Hey, Rend. Can I get my ipod back? Please? Thanks.
vid clips from Petworth crime meeting:

I've said it for years -- gangs/crews/violent youth/groups -- just call them "criminals" without concerns about appellation.

Someone should do a proper housecleaning of staff at DRYS to help prevent some of these problems.

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