Their full-throated chants of “alive and free” rang out as they tramped through the troubled neighborhoods of Richmond last Friday.
This small group of residents calls itself Ceasefire, and they say they’ve had enough of the violence that stalks their lives. Dozens of bystanders waved, shouted in support, and honked their car horns. All in all, it was a standard Friday night for the group. Every week it has organized similar “peace walks” through some of Richmond’s most problematic neighborhoods.
“People don’t seem to be afraid like they used to be,” said Bennie Singleton, a long-time community activist who’s involved in Ceasefire. “There was a time when I wouldn’t walk down Macdonald Ave., but now I’m not afraid to walk anywhere in this city.”
Ceasefire is one of the many grassroots programs trying to curb violence in Richmond. The group works closely with the Richmond Police Department to target residents with violent records. Ceasefire offers these persons referrals to services to try and steer them away from crime. If the person doesn’t get the message, Richmond PD responds.
In dozens of cities across the country statistics indicate the approach has produced positive results.
Since Richmond’s Ceasefire was founded in 2011 homicides have dropped, although violent crime in general has been declining since 2007.
Some Ceasefire members say the program’s success is due in part to strong trust between RPD and residents. An annual survey conducted by the city council in July showed that community-police relations have improved dramatically over the past few years—between 2007 and 2012, the number of residents that ranked police services as good or excellent increased by 20 percent.
“The Richmond Police Department is very community sensitive, community-centric, and community supportive,” said Alvin Bernstine, pastor at Bethlehem missionary Baptist church, and a partner in Ceasefire.
However, some residents and activists in North Richmond feel that they’re not benefitting. Since most of North Richmond is unincorporated, it’s patrolled by the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. “The Sheriff’s office still sees North Richmond as their sort of unwanted stepchild,” said Bernstine. “Relationships are definitely strained between the Sheriff and the community.”
At a neighborhood council meeting last year, North Richmond community leaders discussed ways to improve community-police relations. Some suggested having the sheriff’s office participate in Ceasefire.
Members of the group said that the sheriff has yet to respond to those requests, making it difficult for them to operate in North Richmond.
“We don’t get a lot of the data we need,” said Tamisha Walker, a lead organizer with Ceasefire. “If a shooting happened tonight in Richmond, we would know tomorrow. If it happened in North Richmond, we probably wouldn’t know until a day or two later.”
In the past, the sheriff’s office has said budget issues prevented deputies from being a more active participant in the program. Between 2007 and 2011, funding for patrol staff was slashed by more than 25 percent at the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office. The past few years saw a slight increase in support, but the office also has more responsibilities due to prison realignment.
Lt. Jon Moreland, who heads the Sheriff’s Bay Station in West Contra Costa County, said that his office has participated in Ceasefire in the past.
He also said that the office has strong trust among many residents in North Richmond. Every month the agency provides reports to the North Richmond Municipal Advisory Council on police activity. “During these meetings members of the community are invited to express their concerns so that we, collectively, can work together on resolutions,” Moreland wrote in an email.
Still, Ceasefire organizer Walker believes that the sheriff needs to invest more heavily in community policing. And while she would like to see the office become involved in Ceasefire, she’s not certain the time is right. “We’ve had knock-down, drag-out arguments with the Richmond police during our meetings, but we always seem to bring it back,” she said. “I don’t think the Sheriff’s department is ready for that kind of community engagement.”