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2009 Ends With Mixed Crime Results

Crime in Richmond remains an issue of major concern, and this year closes with mixed results. The story below, ”Statistics show mixed results in ongoing struggle with crime,” from Richmond Confidential is a good summary of the seemingly contradictory statistics of crime in general, which is significantly down, and homicides, which took a 74% leap over 2008.

Note the link to the homicide map in the story below and a previous Richmond Confidential story, “Crime overlays poverty.” Although Richmond sprawls over nearly 34 square miles of land area, all the homicides occurred in a triangle bounded by I-80 on the west and I-580 on the south, and the majority of them in the southern part of that triangle in neighborhoods dominated by poverty. Of the 47 homicides this year, 100 percent of the victims have been black or Latino. Thirty-four of the 47 killed were African Americans.

I have called for a “Homicide Summit” sometime in the first quarter of 2010 to evaluate Richmond’s efforts to prevent, solve and prosecute homicides.

In addition to the Richmond Confidential story, a highly placed and credible Richmond source offers the following:

·         Concentration of parolees:  Richmond has a high number of parolees coming back to the City after serving various lengths of sentences for a multitude of crimes, including many serious, violent crimes.  Many of our shooters in Richmond are individuals who have been in jail or prison multiple times and continue to be released back to the community because this is where they are from.  When they come back here, there are few programs and services to address their needs—such as comprehensive alcohol and drug abuse treatment, entry-level job training, life-skills development, conflict management skills, mental health treatment, etc.  Many of these individuals return to gang and other criminal activity as soon as they are back in the community.  Caseloads for State Parole workers in our area are overwhelming—especially as “early release” mandates increase at the state level.  To make matters worse, even when parolees violate the terms and conditions of their parole, they frequently serve little, if any, additional time behind bars, due to prison overcrowding and the high costs of incarceration.

·         Difficulties in apprehending and prosecuting suspects involved in shootings:  It remains difficult to get individuals who have been victims of shootings or who have witnessed shootings to come forward and cooperate with the police.  Although this is gradually improving thanks to improved relationship-building between police officers and residents in neighborhoods throughout Richmond, it remains a major challenge.   Victims and witnesses are concerned about reprisals and retaliation for talking to the police, or worse yet—from their standpoint—testifying in court.  It is not uncommon for many residents in some neighborhoods and the police investigating a case to “know who did it.”  What is truly frustrating is that there are simply not cooperative witnesses in most cases to get suspects charged.   In addition, these are difficult cases to prosecute because they typically require eye-witness testimony.  In many circumstances, the suspects, victims, and witnesses all have lengthy criminal records, past history dealing with each other, and serious credibility problems.  None of this is made any easier by continued cutbacks in the District Attorney’s Office and the Courts. 

  • Easy access to firearms:  Guns of all kinds are readily available in Richmond,  Whether obtained locally through burglaries, straw purchases, or the black market, more and more individuals possess firearms and are ready to use them, even for minor provocations.  The criminal sanctions associated with illegal gun possession and use are often minimal.  It is not uncommon for firearms charges to be “pled out” to obtain a conviction on a drug charge or other crime. 
  • Generational poverty, lost opportunities, and feuds:  Many of the individuals being investigated or arrested for shootings today are the sons and grandsons of other family members involved in similar activity in the past.  These individuals come from low-income families; many have grown up with one of both parents behind bars.  A great number of the individuals involved in violent crime in our city are high school drop-outs, have no job skills, and have serious substance abuse and/or mental health issues.  In addition to all these factors, many shooters continue to act on grudges or feuds passed on by their parents or older relatives, often over shockingly trivial matters. 
  • Challenges associated with implementing “best practices” locally:  We have seen what works in other cities and jurisdictions that have had greater success in reducing homicide rates.  Frankly, we know what many of the “best practices” are for reducing violent crime.  Unfortunately, programs like “Project Cease Fire” or the “Boston Model” require significant resources and intensive cooperation between multiple partners in the criminal justice system and the community.  The “carrot and stick” approach of offering suspects the choice of straightening out their lives or being sent back to jail is predicated on several things:  1) The suspects must believe there will be real consequences for not participating in serious rehabilitation efforts; 2) Real consequences need to be swiftly forthcoming if suspects continue with their criminal activity; 3) Programs and services have to be readily available for those who need them; and 4) There must be a coordinated and comprehensive system of case management to track the progress of all individuals involved in these kinds of programs.  At this time in Richmond, 1-4 are not even close to reality.  Until they are, while we are able to reduce other crimes, homicide will be a difficult crime to significantly and consistently impact.


Statistics show mixed results in ongoing struggle with crime

View Richmond Homicide Map 2009 in a larger map

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As 2009 draws to a close, police wrestle with an uncomfortable contrast: Overall crime is down citywide, but deadly bloodshed has spiked dramatically over the year before.

Total crime in the city was down about 10 percent through Dec. 1 compared to the same 11-month period the year before, a fact that Police Chief Chris Magnus highlighted in an internal city memo dated Dec. 8.

“As you can see, our staff is dealing with a lot of challenging situations,” Magnus wrote. “But significant progress continues to be made.”

But homicides have occurred nearly twice more often this year than last. Through Dec. 22, the city has suffered 47 killings, according to department statistics. That number represents a 74 percent increase over the 2008 total of 27 homicides.

Police Chief Chris Magnus briefs the City Council in October on the investigation into the alleged rape at Richmond High School.

Police Chief Chris Magnus briefs the City Council in October on the investigation into the alleged rape at Richmond High School.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Bisa French pointed to two factors in helping explain the significant jump, maintaining that the continued reduction in overall crime – total crime was down 12 percent in 2008 over the previous year – is the trend more indicative of quality of life and safety in the city.

French said 2008’s low homicide total was an aberration during a decade in which 40-plus annual homicide totals have been routine.

2007 and 2006 recorded 47 and 42 homicides, respectively.

French also suggested that although the 47 homicides have occurred within city limits this year, the violent killings have not been a community-wide phenomenon, but one concentrated mostly among men and boys engaged in gang and/or drug activity.

“There has been neighborhoods at war,” French said, citing tensions between central and north Richmond sects as examples. “It’s tough to keep track of, but it’s a lot of little different areas (fighting) over drug areas and turf.”

The death toll is concentrated among small populations, French said.

Shernetta Anderson, 25, sister of homicide victim Kaneesha Mallard, 19. Mallard was shot at 76 gas station on Carlson Blvd. in September.

Shernetta Anderson, 25, sister of homicide victim Kaneesha Mallard, 19. Mallard was shot at 76 gas station on Carlson Blvd. in September.

“In retrospect, there’s just a relatively few people committing these homicides, which are affecting a very small portion of our community,” French said. “The victims have for the most part been deliberately targeted.”

French added that most of the homicides – the vast majority of which remain unsolved – were likely connected.

“This year, I can say we’ve seen a lot of retaliatory shooting, and infighting among the criminal element, while last year it didn’t happen as often.”

French said the spike may be in part attributable to the economy.

“We’ve seen more drug dealing as a source of income, and a lot of the homicides are turf related and drug related crimes, which then triggers retaliatory shootings.”

Of the 47 homicides this year, 100 percent of the victims have been black or Latino. Thirty-four of the 47 killed were African Americans.

Rev. Kamal Hassan of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church said the racial breakdown of victims in the city is the result of historical and present factors.

“We should not be surprised that there is violence against people of color in our cities,” Hassan said. “These communities are awash in alcohol and weapons that residents do not import or sell.”

Hassan said that the present conditions in Richmond, including joblessness, poverty and availability of drugs and firearms combine with historical and cultural antecedents glorifying violence. That deadly violence ensues should be no surprise, Hassan said.

“This is what I think H. Rap Brown meant when he said in the ’60s that ‘violence is as American as apple pie,’” Hassan said.

While news on local crime, particularly the 10 percent drop in overall crime atop last year’s 12 percent decline, is hailed by police as another step in the right direction, a deeper look at the statistics may be cause for concern.

In addition to the spike in homicides, total violent crime – a category that includes attempted homicide, rape, armed robbery and carjacking – was up 2 percent over the same period last year through Nov. 1.

DeVone Boggan, director of the city's crime intervention agency, said retaliations often multiply the impact of killings on the community.

Devone Boggan, director of the city's crime intervention agency, said retaliations often multiply the impact of killings on the community.

Attempted homicides doubled during the period, while carjacking jumped 8 percent, according to police statistics.

DeVone Boggan, who serves as director of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a six-person city team whose chief job is to reduce local violence through intervention and community service work, has said that retaliation over simmering disagreements continues to fuel local violence.

“Retaliation is a central component to the nature of violence in our city,” Boggan said in an interview last month.

According to Boggan’s statistics, 847 people have been slain in Richmond since 1986, an average of about 32 homicides per year.

But police officials are careful to point out the positive. In his citywide memo, Chief Magnus wrote ” … there continues to be a lot of excellent police work and crime prevention efforts underway in our community,” before providing a series of short anecdotes of foiled crime and dogged police work.

French echoed that sentiment, noting despite the grim homicide numbers, police are seeing some positive signs, especially in terms of community cooperation.

In the alleged rape of a student at Richmond High School, a story that commanded national headlines, witness cooperation was strong, French said.

“We got all of our suspects in custody, and part of that was people coming forward,” French said.

French said she could only think of one homicide all year in which the victim was clearly just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That was the case of Euvaldo Sisneros, 79, who was beaten to death June 16 in the 2800 block of Humphrey Avenue while he took his usual afternoon walk.

A man approached Sisneros from behind and struck him repeatedly before stealing his wallet.

A suspect, Michael Villalobos, 21, was arrested and charged days later.

“Sisneros was totally random, and we made the arrest in part because of help from witnesses,” French said.