This year, Richmond is on track to have one of the lowest homicide rates in recent history. Fifteen people have been killed to date in 2010, according to the Richmond Police Department. There were 41 recorded homicides between January and mid-September last year.
“This is the slowest we’ve been in terms of homicides, probably since I’ve been working here for the last 12 years,” said Sgt. Bisa French, a spokesperson for the police department.
Sgt. French pointed to the department’s community policing strategy, closer cooperation with the District Attorney’s Office, and task forces initiated to target guns, gangs and parole violators as possible factors in the decline. But she cautions that there is no clear explanation. “We have our crime fighting tactics,” she said, “but also we have luck.”
Tom Butt, a Richmond City Council member, said that it’s too early to state conclusively if this is a trend, or just a better year. “We would like to think that it’s a result of the policies and the hard work that we’ve all done and that they’re bearing fruit,” he said, “but you can’t prove that.”
Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, said that it is difficult to determine what causes crime to decrease because there are so many possible factors. He said the decline in violent crime in Richmond corresponds with a downward trend throughout the state. In California, violent crime decreased by 28 percent between 1998 and 2008, the most recent year for which the FBI has published statistics.
One possible factor, according to Krisberg, is a change to the city’s overall approach to combating crime. He praised the police department’s community policing strategy, and said that Richmond has an effective police chief and a cohesive violence prevention plan.
Krisberg also said that new research suggests a correlation between immigration and lower crime rates. He said that because most immigrants have come to work, they tend to keep their heads down and avoid criminal activity. “Increasing immigration into Richmond has probably produced a safer community,” he said.
Whatever the cause, the drop in homicides is welcome news for Rev. Andre Shumake, a Baptist minister and president of the Richmond Improvement Association. He commends the work of the Richmond Police Department but said, “it’s too early to sound the trumpet. We still have a significant number of shootings that are taking place in the city.”
Of the 15 homicides to date in 2010, nearly half the victims were African-American men under the age of 30, despite the fact that they account for less than one-fifth of the population.
Another striking figure from this year’s homicide statistics is that two-thirds of the cases remain unsolved. “It erodes confidence,” said Krisberg. “If you are only going to make an arrest in a third of the cases and most of those cases will not result in a conviction, the criminal justice system is pretty much a toothless tiger.”
Rev. Shumake said that, in the past, communities hit hardest by crime viewed the police as ineffective. But he is hopeful that the relationship between the community and the city’s police will improve. “There is more of a dialogue taking place than there has been in the last ten years,” he said. “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely, because there’s a distrust of the police.”
After nine recent hires, the Richmond PD has 193 officers, making it larger than it has been in years. But more important than the number of officers is how they are deployed, said Sgt. French. “It’s just a matter of getting back to the old community policing work.”
The US Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services has funded over 13,000 grants for state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies across the nation, including Richmond’s police department. Community policing is a strategy that focuses on developing community-based solutions to crime and increasing trust in police. A key component involves keeping officers in the same neighborhoods rather than working a variety of beats throughout the city.
The strategy has been in place in Richmond for several years. In the last three years, violent crime has dropped by 33 percent, said Sgt French, although homicide rates have been erratic. In 2008, the number of homicides dropped to 27, down from 47 in the previous year, only to spike back up to 47 in 2009. With only three months left in the year, Sgt. French said the police are hoping to keep the number of homicides well below 20.
Rev. Shumake says that killings will continue in Richmond until the underlying issues that fuel the violence are addressed. He points to drugs, guns and family instability as deeper causes of violence. “When you have devastated families, you have devastated communities,” he said.
In the end, Rev. Shumake is concerned that the homicide rate statistics will give a false sense of security. He said there are still frequent shootings and that, “if the shooters’ aim had been better or more accurate we would almost have double the homicides in the city of Richmond.”