By Heather Tirado Gilligan
In the last two months alone, Richmond has seen seven murders. This year’s crimes include the killing of a pregnant mother in a drive-by shooting February. Another February shooting shocked local residents and spectators statewide when teen-aged gunmen opened fire on two churchgoers, also teenagers, as the choir sang during Sunday services. And a murder of a toll-booth worker last year on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and the subsequent chase of the suspected shooter played out on television screen across the country.
The latest surge is a step back for the city after years of progress. Between 1991 and 2001 Richmond’s murder rate dropped from 69 killings for every 100,000 people to just 18. The rate has been rising steadily since then, except for a one-year dip in 2008. Last year there were 47 murders in the city of about 104,000 people.
What is at the heart of Richmond’s plight? The simple answer is poverty. Poverty and violence go together. Look at a map showing both of them and it is clear that murders occur almost exclusively in areas of high poverty. And Richmond is one of the poorest cities in the state.
But that simple answer doesn’t capture the real story in Richmond. People of all walks of life, from the government, law enforcement and the community, are trying new strategies to reduce the violence. The city is using ex-cons to reach out to at-risk “trigger-pullers.”
“It’s not any surprise that the areas where we see most of the homicides in our city are the poorest areas of our city,” said Devone Boggan, director of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. “But I’ll never buy into because I don’t have money I have a right to go shoot and kill someone.”
Poverty and Crime
People such as Boggan and the office he directs are rowing against a very strong tide. The improvement in overall national homicide numbers has obscured a rise in homicides among young black men, according to researchers James Allen Fox and Marc Swatt. Among young black men nationally, the homicide rate increased by 31 percent between 2001 and 2007, and the rate jumps to 54 percent for gun-related homicides.
“Richmond has had a serious violence problem for many, many years,” said Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Criminal Justice at Berkeley’s Boalt Law School. “What we see is that violence rises when you have concentrated and compacted poverty. Unlike other cities, Richmond is still characterized by really compacted poverty.”
Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin agrees. “Poverty is clearly at the root of violence,” she said. “Racial injustice, social injustice are a part of the history of this city and all of this is part of the problem.”
Krisberg questions the effectiveness of crime preventions solutions undertaken outside of efforts to tame poverty. “It’s my opinion that cities have to reduce poverty if they want to see significant reductions in violence,” he said.
Looking for local answers
But people in Richmond refuse to accept that economics is destiny when it comes to violence. One possibility of change lies in the men the Office of Neighborhood Services employs as outreach workers—formerly incarcerated Richmond natives.
“We should build on the assets of those coming home from incarceration,” Boggan said. “For the city to take a step in actually hiring folks who have interesting pasts…and that’s a criteria for the work, I think is a positive step.”
ONS runs Richmond’s version of Project Ceasefire, a violence reduction program that originated in Boston. The city agency uses outreach workers to identify people who are most likely to offend, and tries to redirect them to resources in the community that can help them learn marketable skills and find work. The office identifies what they call “known-trigger pullers” in the community and targets them for services. They focus on young people aged 14-24.
Outreach workers like Sal Garcia, who was incarcerated in the late 1980s on a narcotics charge, share a similar background to the clients they reach out to on the streets. They also share a common pain. “The majority of people who are dying in Richmond are Latino and African American. Kids who look like me,” said Garcia.
The outreach workers have a lifetime of experience dealing with the problems that drive at-risk young people to lives of crime, including losing family members to violence. “Back in ’92,” Garcia said, “I lost my brother.”
Reducing retaliation is key to their mission to reducing crime, outreach workers say. Outreach worker Sam Vaughn says that he participated in the wave of violence that plagued Richmond in the 1990s. He regrets his past, he said, especially after seeing his young nephew follow in his footsteps and end up in prison. Still, he draws on his past involvement in crime while reaching out to young people in Richmond, particularly when he talks to victim’s family members who may be thinking about revenge.
“When you have a young man that’s been murdered and you have his older brother who feels like I have to pay somebody back for this, for me watching my mom cry, or me realizing that my dad had to sell his truck to pay for the funeral, there’s anger and a lot of frustration involved in that, so you definitely want to engage people with those kinds of emotions,” Vaughn said.Vaughn and Garcia comprise half of the office’s staff of outreach workers. Garcia has worked for the office since 2007, when ONS was created, and Vaughn joined the staff in December 2009.
“It amazes me how large and ambitious the mandate is of this office and how the resources don’t match that mandate,” Boggan said. “You have an office of four outreach workers and one director. I think that’s a crime.” The office has been chronically underfunded: Richmond budgeted about $800,000 for ONS this year, $1.2 million short of what the city initially promised, Boggan said.
“That’s absolutely true,” Mayor McLaughlin said of the budget shortfalls at. She blames declining tax revenues and the state raiding of city coffers for the decreased city funding of violence prevention. “We could use a lot more neighborhood change agents,” she acknowledged.
But Andre Shumake, president of the Richmond Improvement Association, a faith-based organization working in violence prevention for the past 10 years, thinks ONS might be getting too much money already. No matter the amount of their resources, city agencies are ill-equipped to reach into the communities, a task most suited to grassroots organization like his own, he said.
“For the most part, it’s our nieces, nephews, sons and daughters who are out there committing these crimes,” Shumake said. Because of these close connections, he advocates a community-generated approach to violence prevention. “People look at the problem and feel so overwhelmed and think it’s insurmountable,” Shumake said. “It’s not. It’s really not.”
When the Richmond homicide rate skyrocketed in 2006, Shumake worked with other faith-based organization to create what they called a tent city. Local residents camped out for 40 days and 40 nights, Shumake said, to call attention to the violence raging in the city, and to deepen community bonds. Richmond churches, including the Richmond Improvement Association, are mobilizing now to respond to the Feb. 14 church shooting by organizing marches and rallies that took place on Feb. 27 and March 5.
Mayor McLaughlin favors such a community-based approach, she said, specifically citing the outreach work of the churches. “That’s a very key piece, the community organizations.”
When the community speaks out against violence, she said, it shows people who might break the law “that the community will not tolerate that.” “We have decades of injustice to overcome,” McLaughlin said. “I feel very confident that we are going to show what an urban area struggling with violence can do.”
She said the police department is shifting its tactics as well, with two cops on a walking beat and a new bike patrol. Community policing is at the heart of the police department’s crime fighting strategy, said police spokeswoman Sgt. Bisa French. Officers work beats for at least a year, and during that time attend community events and meetings so residents who live on their beat can get to know them. The police department’s three substations are also a part of a community policing strategy, as they allow officers to spend more time in their assigned neighborhoods, French said.
Yet Garcia, one of the outreach workers, cited the police’s inability to connect with the community as part of the cycle of violence. Young people would welcome a police presence if they felt that the police were there to protect them. According to Garcia, young people often carry guns because they are afraid they will become victims if they don’t have a weapon. “These kids are asking for boundaries,” Garcia said. “If there is a presence out there, they know that they are safe.”
Garcia also challenged McLaughlin’s optimistic point of view, criticizing the district attorney for failing to pursue and prosecute homicide cases in Richmond. “Everybody knows who these individuals are,” Garcia said. “They feel they can get away with it.”
Children growing up witnessing violence are more likely be violent, a heartbreaking cycle that outreach workers see every day. “I see a lot of young men out there that are good kids. They have a heart, they have emotions, they have families, they love people,” Vaughn said. “But they really have seen the wrong things; people have told them they wrong things. They’ve dealt with pain that…a 12 and a 13 and a 14-year-old should never have to see.”
Focusing on young people is Richmond’s best hope, according to Krisberg. “Long-term, if you really want to reduce violence in Richmond, you have to focus on the young people, the children,” Krisberg said. “There must be a prevention component and a law-enforcement only approach is not going to do the trick.”