Damaged police trust helped fuel retaliatory murders, criminologists say

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This is the fourth story in a series about murders in Washington, D.C. Read the rest here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Larry McMichael was arrested for a gun charge before he could retaliate against his brother’s killer, the reformed drug dealer, who has been shot 22 times, told Fox News.

But others were shot in the fallout. The victim’s best friend, for example, was killed.

“It was a lot of going back and forth,” McMichael said.

His story embodies what criminologists told Fox News: packing culture and a drive to retaliate, rather than turn to law enforcement, has driven homicides in the nation’s capital. Those elements have become more prevalent since trust in law enforcement deteriorated after the defund the police movement took hold following George Floyd’s killing.

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“One of the hardest things to deal with in the streets is when somebody kill anybody you love, McMichael, 52, told Fox News. “At that point right there … the gun is in your hand.”

“Is you gonna to take up for your man or are you going to be a b****?” he continued. “Either you a b**** or you gonna go take up for your brother, your best friend, your cousin, your uncle, whoever.”

“Really, man, you throwing your life down a river either way you go,” McMichael said. “It’s a no-win situation.”

High-crime communities became more reliant on illegal guns for protection as they and the rest of the nation lost faith that the police could effectively keep them safe, criminologists told Fox News.

The influx of illicit firearms ultimately contributed to the ongoing homicide surge, since victims are frequently killed over petty disputes, rather than criminal endeavors, Fox News previously reported. McMichael said his 18-year-old brother was murdered for breaking up a dice game.

And neighborhoods that had poor police trust even before Floyd’s death – like many high-crime neighborhoods – tend to prefer retaliation to criminal justice.

Tensions between law enforcement and neighborhoods that already had poor relations with law enforcement were aggravated “even further as people lost confidence in the police,” University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor Richard Rosenfeld told Fox News. Consequently, those communities were less likely to “report crimes to the police that they were aware of” and more willing to “take matters into their own hands to settle disputes.”

Essentially, people carrying illegal guns in violent communities were already more likely to pull the trigger over a minor incident. But since Floyd’s death, more people are packing and are more willing to draw their weapons – all while witnesses are less likely to help the police catch killers.

‘Bring your .38’

McMichael planned to rob someone in 1991. But his would-be victim, who was packing, caught wind of it.

“He stood over top of me, shot me 17 times,” McMichael, who spent nearly his whole life working D.C.’s streets, told Fox News. “I don’t know why that boy did not bend down and put that gun to my head and end me. I could never figure that out.”

Larry McMichael, a reformed drug dealer, shows off bullet wounds.

Larry McMichael, a reformed drug dealer, shows off bullet wounds.

Packing culture, even before May 2020, was already a driving factor behind homicides, according to criminologists. McMichael’s brother was killed in 1998, for example.

“We’ve done a little research on why kids pack,” a criminologist at the Louisiana State University School of Public Health, Peter Scharf, told Fox News. “The answer is pretty simple: The other kids are packing and they’re stealing your lunch.”

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“You know the American Express cliche, ‘don’t leave home without it,’ right? Bring your .38 or else you shouldn’t go outside,” Scharf continued.

Tyrone Parker, who founded the Alliance of Concerned Men a violence prevention organization, echoed Scharf’s remark.

“‘I’d rather be caught with a gun than without a gun,’” he said, describing the mentality of members of violent communities. “It becomes a way of life in our particular community.”

“It has hit an epidemic perspective in our community,” Parker continued. Illegal guns can be obtained “almost as easy as them going to the store.”

Essentially, people living in high-crime communities feel they need to carry a gun for protection since they assumed everyone else is packing.

“A lot of folks think they need to carry a gun for a defense,” Deputy Mayor Christopher Geldart told Fox News. “They’re scared. They need some kind of self-defense, and if they don’t have it, they’re going to be the next victim.”

D.C. Witness Editor-in-Chief Trina Antoine said a “gun culture” in D.C. has led “people to think that the only way they can protect themselves, to keep themselves safe is to have a gun.”

They feel that they need a gun to feel safe within the city,” she told Fox News.

The sentiment stems from a sense that police aren’t protecting high-crime communities.

“If people believe the cops are going to keep them safe and that there will be a swift response to a violent offense, they are less likely to feel the need to protect themselves,” Charles Fain Lehman, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, told Fox News.

‘Morally and ethically immature’

But the guns aren’t being used simply for self-defense.

“Somebody get in your way, you’re going to kill them or they’re going to kill you,” McMichael, who works for Parker’s group teaching conflict resolution and mentoring youth, told Fox News. “That’s your mentality every day.”

McMichael describes his brother's murder.

McMichael describes his brother’s murder.

Killers frequently lack conflict resolution skills, meaning they’ll impulsively turn to a weapon to resolve issues, Fox News previously reported. Consequently, petty insults are the most frequent motivation behind D.C. murders.

“There are kids who are cognitively, morally and ethically immature … And they’re armed with semiautomatic weapons,” Scharf said.

Guns become “a way of dealing with the challenges that they’re confronted with,” Parker told Fox News. They’re used “when they have a dispute about tennis shoes, dispute about a basketball game, dispute about how you looked at them, you dispute about this, it’s my territory.”

“They settle it so easily with a gun because the availability is there,” Parker added. 

And shootings put bystanders at risk of getting hit with stray bullets.

“We have been seeing an increase in homicides in other areas that have typically not been associated with violent activity,” Antoine told Fox News. “Violent crime is dispersing throughout” D.C.

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In 2021, there was a shooting outside of the city’s baseball stadium and multiple in areas packed with bars and restaurants, including a D.C.-famous spot where both President Biden and Vice President Harris have been sighted.

Innocent victims killed include a six-year-old girl and a Peace Corps worker.

More guns, shorter fuses

As police trust fell even further following Floyd’s death, packing on the premise of self-defense became even more common in dangerous neighborhoods, criminologists and local experts told Fox News.

Soon after an officer killed Floyd in May 2020 and set off nationwide demonstrations calling for police reform, Gallup reported its lowest results for confidence in law enforcement since 1993 when the group began surveying the topic.

A woman argues with protestors for blocking a street. (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

A woman argues with protestors for blocking a street. (Photo by Kerem Yucel / AFP) (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)

“The reason why there’s been a rise in homicides from last year and this year is because there’s a gun culture in D.C.,” Antoine told Fox News. She said there’s been an increase in turf battles, though those are typically predicated over a petty insult, rather than criminal activity.

Murders increased by 19% in 2020 up to 198 killings, Metropolitan Police Department data show. The next year jumped to 226 homicides – the most since 2003.

The criminologists stressed that there’s no clear, definitive cause for the ongoing homicide surge. But they made clear that people have become more likely to carry and use illegal guns.

‘Cycle of revenge’

“How can you not want retaliation when somebody just killed your little, brother?” McMichael told Fox News. “I don’t care who you are, you’re going to think about it.”

He said police never caught his brother’s killer. Fox News asked if he knew who it was.

“If somebody killed someone in your house, would you know who did it?” McMichael replied. 

The flood of illegal guns has helped perpetuate cycles of retaliation, leading to even more murders, according to criminologists.

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Rather than going to the police, a shooting victim or their friend or relative will seek revenge, the criminologists said. Even if they witnessed a shooting – or if they themselves were the victim – they may refuse cooperate with police so they can handle the matter themselves.

“You can get what are called pingpong shootings or pingpong murders, where one side shoots a guy and the other side shoots a guy and you get this constant classic feud cycle or a cycle of revenge,” Lehman, the Manhattan Institute fellow, told Fox News.

Handguns displayed on a counter.

Handguns displayed on a counter.

The preference to retaliate, rather than cooperate, became even more prevalent as police trust fell, according to criminologists.

Scharf described an incident where he saw boys showing off their gunshot wounds to each other.

“Being shot is, for some, a badge of honor,” he said.

Witnesses have also become even less willing to work with detectives as a result of diminished police trust, Fox News previously reported.

A cooperative witness is an investigator’s best chance at arresting a murder suspect, according to criminologists. As police fail to make an arrest, trust and cooperation decline further, forming a vicious cycle.

“A byproduct of the defund the police [movement] is this resistance to cooperate among the people that the detectives need most to cooperate,” Scharf told Fox News. “We’ve had several cases in the last few months where kids are killed and no one talks.”

“In the life of a street police officer, you haven’t lived until you look a kid in the eye and they basically say, ‘f*** you, I’m not going to talk to you,'” he added.

But it wasn’t just the defund the police movement. Officer misconduct and fear have also kept witnesses from coming forward.

“The culture of our communities has been reluctant to support or work with the police by virtue of the treatment and the behavior that has occurred within our community,” Parker told Fox News. “There’s a distrust. It has developed into a code of conduct within our communities.”

Threats of retaliation could also lead to silence.

“Many witnesses are afraid that if they cooperate with the police, they’ll be subject to retaliatory violence,” Rosenfeld, the University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor, told Fox News. “That’s not an unreasonable fear.”

McMichael said: “It’s a bad look in the hood. You deal with the police, you a snitch. Cut and dry.”

“People won’t talk to you,” he continued. “People don’t want to do business with you. You pretty much an enemy.”

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