On a warm night in May, 2010, four men tinkered with a car near the corner of Truman Street and Silver Avenue. Like all the blocks in North Richmond, the nights are dark. Street lights are far apart. The glow is dim.
A red minivan with dark windows rolled south on Truman Street.
Witnesses recalled hearing dozens of shots. When the fusillade ceased, the smell of cordite and rubber lingered. All four men had been shot.
With this act, 2010 became yet another year in which the homicide rate in North Richmond would be as high per capita as any community in the state, even the country. Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department—which found the suspect van days later, but not the killers—said it was the deadliest single attack since the late 1990s.
From 2005 to 2010, at least 28 homicides occurred in the county area of North Richmond alone, an area with a population that has averaged about 2,300 people. In four of the six years, there were five homicides, while in 2009 there were two and in 2010 there were six.
With 2011 half over, there have been three so far.
Using the FBI’s standard for homicide measurement, five homicides in one year in an area this size equal a rate of 217 killings per 100,0000 people.
To put this in perspective, the city of Richmond, which has just over 100,000 residents, has averaged about 34 homicides a year during the last decade, a time during which it has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in California, according to FBI statistics.
Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, was declared the world’s “murder capital” in 2009 by the Citizen’s Council for Public Security, a nongovernmental organization, with a rate of 130 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Caracas, Venezuela, and New Orleans followed, with 96 and 95 homicides per 100,000 people, respectively.
This means that North Richmond’s per capita rate of 217 homicides per 100,000 is more than six times higher than the city of Richmond, and nearly twice that of Ciudad Juarez, the focal point of a long drug war.
That death toll ignores assault victims like Kamari Ridgle, who was 15 years old when he was shot 22 times in broad daylight while walking near the corner of Silver Avenue and Fourth Street in May 2010.
Ridgle’s injuries: A mangled arm. A shattered elbow. Bullet scars and surgical cuts cover his torso. He uses a colostomy bag to replace his shredded intestines, and his legs have badly atrophied. One bullet tore through his spine.
Somehow, Ridgle survived, although he is now a paraplegic. His story was covered only with a several-sentence news brief in area newspapers.
Complicating the numbers is the fact that in 2009-10 alone, seven more people were killed in a nearby area a few blocks across which is commonly viewed as part of the North Richmond neighborhood.
But since the killings took place south of Chesley Avenue or on Brookside Drive between the railroad tracks, both on the other side of the arbitrary city boundaries, the deaths counted toward the overall Richmond city total instead of North Richmond’s unincorporated community.
These political boundaries divide not only public safety and other resources, but also the statistics, blunting what would be even more troubling numbers indicating that the North Richmond community has been one of the most murderous square miles of turf in the United States.
“There’s a mentality, a weariness. It’s like Gaza or some war zone out here,” said Saleem Bey, who has also worked as a supervisor in the Lots of Crops urban farming program, where he worked with and mentored Ervin Coley III, the 21-year-old gunned down in late March, and a half dozen other local youths. “This is life in a war zone, and the kids are numb, like they’re dead to the stress, before they have even become adults.”
Joe McCoy also senses the emotional impact of a life steadily menaced by fear.
McCoy, who grew up in North Richmond during the 1970s and 1980s, now works in the community as an agent for the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a city of Richmond-funded agency that aims to reduce violence by mediating neighborhood disputes.
“The kids here live in a different reality,” McCoy said. “They don’t feel safe, they don’t even know what it is to feel safe. They don’t feel safe in their own neighborhood, and they definitely don’t feel safe going to outside neighborhoods, whether it’s going to school, going to the mall, whatever.”
Since April 2009, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s department has increased patrols in North Richmond from three deputies to six.
Law enforcement experts, including area commander Lt. Mark Williams, have credited the increase in part for a modest reduction in crime, although Williams asserts that while crime is down overall, homicides are not.
In 2010, the first year of increased patrols, was also the deadliest year since at least 2004, with six killings. Six months into 2011, there have been three killings, and only by luck were at least three other young men injured and not killed in drive-bys.
Williams is still hopeful that the increased law enforcement presence will continue to drive down crime.
“With double the police staff out there, we can spend much more time building relationships in the community, building trust,” Williams said. “We are able to address violent crime and quality of life with more focus.”
“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Williams continued, referring to the drop in overall crime. “And I’m optimistic about the future.”
Residents have groused about inadequate public safety staffing levels in North Richmond since WWII, when the neighborhood went from a few scattered farms to a bustling community of mostly African American shipyard workers and their families.
Later, in 1966, the issue reared its head again when, in response to local rioting, one of the grievances expressed by community members at Neighborhood House was that the county provided North Richmond with inadequate public safety resources.
The recent increase of sheriffs in North Richmond bucks the historical trend, which has generally seen North Richmond as an underserved outpost in the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s sprawling jurisdiction.
But the extra patrols came with a cost, and with questionable effectiveness, according to some community activists.
In a curious twist, the poorest community in the county helps subsidize additional positions in the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department, which has faced tight budgets for several years and which also has to serve many communities countywide other than North Richmond.
The money comes from a “mitigation fund” established in an effort led by Supervisor John Gioia to impose a fee on a county transfer station and landfill on North Richmond’s coast. The charges are based on tonnage that comes through the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill transfer station.
The money, about $600,000 annually, is overseen by a committee that includes three Richmond City Council members, three community members, and Gioia.
More than half of it goes to the sheriffs department, funding at least three deputy positions, and the other half is split between several local nonprofits, including the garden program at which Bey and Coley worked.
Money from the county’s housing authority, which operates Las Deltas, also pays for sheriff’s department staffing. Many residents are pleased to have more security, but others believe that it shouldn’t come at the cost of reducing other basic services.
“Every year we get less money for youth programming and we watch that sheriff and his $100,000 plus salary and benefits sit in his car across the street,” complained one volunteer in the youth center operated by the housing authority one afternoon last spring.
To some local leaders, the money being spent on county sheriffs’ deputies should be spent on other programs.
“It’s just stupid to think that paying $300,000 to guys who don’t know the community is going to be beneficial to our people here,” said Rev. Kenneth Davis, a North Richmond activist and strong critic of Gioia and the county government. “That money could put dozens of young men to work building and improving our little neighborhood. Now that would reduce crime.”
The persistent violence occurs against a backdrop of deep poverty, isolation, poor services and failed education.
In 2008, ESRI, a company that produces geographic information systems, did a demographic profile of North Richmond’s unincorporated county community, which comprises all but a few blocks of the neighborhood.
The data it produced painted a picture of a community that is one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden in the state.
Of 815 total household units, the median income was $27,340. The per capita income was $9,213. In Contra Costa County, the median household income is about $78,815, and the per capita income is $53,938, according to the county’s 2010 economic forecast.
Of particular importance, only 27 percent of the overall households in North Richmond were owner-occupied, and just over 10 percent were listed as vacant. Two thirds of the housing stock was constructed before 1969.
Despite the low rate of ownership, most residents of North Richmond have lived there for generations, indicating intergenerational poverty and little equity-building in the community.
Just 1.2 percent of adult residents had attained a 4-year college degree, according to the ESRI report, and 46 percent did not have even a high school diploma. Countywide, 34 percent of residents have college degrees and only 16 percent drop out of high school.
In 2008, the unemployment rate in the neighborhood was 21 percent, a figure that is almost surely higher in 2011, as unemployment has risen at the state and local level. Within Contra Costa County, the unemployment rate was 11 percent in December 2009.
And there is further evidence that some of the numbers, particularly employment and income, are even worse today.
According to “Measuring What Matters,” a report published in 2009 by a coalition of area environmental and other groups, median household income in North Richmond was listed even lower than it had been in 2008, at $24,131, the lowest of more than 20 of the most impoverished communities in the Bay Area.
More than 95 percent of residents were listed as “people of color” in the report, although the report also found that the community generally lacked ethnic or economic diversity, save for the influx of Latino immigrants over the recent decade.
Meanwhile, the intermittent gunfire and the numbing loss of life drones on. Three young men, men whose families have decades of history in North Richmond, have been cut down by gunfire this year: Ervin Coley III, 21; Jerry Owens, 22; and, most recently, Ray Hutson, 28, who was killed in a drive-by in the 100 block of Ruby Street on July 3.
No arrests have been made in any of the killings.