Can community groups tackle rising DC crime? 

Amid rising crime and falling police numbers, citizen-led patrol groups believe their community policing model could be key to tackling violence in the District.

Since the start of 2023, homicides have risen 36% on the previous year and motor vehicle thefts have more than doubled. Simultaneously, police officer numbers have been falling since 2020, as retirements, pandemic departures, and hiring struggles have plagued police forces across the country.

Citizen groups, like the “Red Hats” in Shaw believe they have a model that can help stretch police resources and deter criminal activity within the District.

Mahdi Leroy Thorpe Jr. stands at the junction of 5th St. Northwest and Florida Avenue in Shaw, Washington D.C. on Saturday Mar. 4, 2023. Thorpe has been running the Red Hat community patrol group since 1988. (Photo credit: Oliver Ward)

Mahdi Leroy Thorpe Jr. has been running the Red Hats since 1988. The organization patrols the Shaw neighborhood twice a week, usually with a police officer, confronting drug dealers and offering help and assistance to drug users and other vulnerable residents.

“We are actually trying to save lives and change lives,” he said.

While the Red Hat volunteers can’t effectively replace police, they say they provide an important link between law enforcement and communities.

“Most of the public don’t want to be involved with the police,” Thorpe says. But they might be more willing to pass information to a member of their own community who can work with law enforcement to ensure they receive information they need.

Police Cmdr. James M. Boteler Jr. of the Third District, which includes Shaw, recently praised Thorpe and the Red Hats at a community forum on violent crime.

“If I can take one cop and put him with 10 community members, we look like a force of 10,” Boteler said, according to the Washington Post. “That helps a lot, given our limited resources.”

The Third District has seen its officer numbers significantly reduced in recent years. In February 2020, the force stood at 234 officers strong. In February 2023, this had fallen to 185.

Brynn stands outside her residence in Shaw, Washington D.C. with her dog on Mar. 4, 2023. (Photo credit: Oliver Ward)

Some have noticed the force’s diminished resources. Brynn, a Shaw resident said “the cops here don’t do anything,” she said. “Parking tickets, but that’s about it.”

It's a sentiment Thorpe and others have heard before. "If they really want to do something about crime, the police can't do it by themselves," Thorpe said.

Residents familiar with the patrols expressed concerns about the safety of citizens carrying out police activities and approaching youth involved in potentially criminal activities, but Thorpe doesn't fear for his safety.

"Most of the time, they're not very resistant," he said. "Sometimes when they see us coming they basically walk away."

The Red Hats do not use violence and are not aggressive to those they suspect of criminal activities. Instead, they use legislative tools at their disposal. He used housing codes to shut down crack houses, the public service commission - the DC agency that regulates telecom providers - to disrupt efforts to distribute drugs from phone booths, and filed restraining orders against individual suspects to keep them away from his area.

Thorpe believes his community-led efforts have contributed to the closure of 56 documented crack houses since 1988, and helped make the Shaw area more appealing to developers. As crime spikes once more, Thorpe argues citizens can step up to help fill the gap left by fewer police.

"Look at my community compared to any other hotspot in the city," Thorpe said, "we do have flareups from time to time," he added, "but we are basically in better shape than the rest of the wards."

Thorpe acknowledged that criminals might simply relocate out of his area to avoid the hassle but continue to engage in criminal activities.

“But if everybody gets together,” he said, “you can push the crime out to Maryland or Virginia.”