Statistics show mixed results in ongoing struggle with crime
on December 28, 2009
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 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.
“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.
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.
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