City eyes possible turning point
on March 11, 2010
The new year began ominously, marked by some particularly audacious crimes. But residents, city leaders and police are now focused on what they regard as glimmers of hope.
“I’m very encouraged by how the faith-based community has really responded to this situation,” Councilman Nat Bates said at a recent anti-violence community rally. “When they respond in force, they bring with them a large, influential community of people.”
Seven homicides were recorded in Richmond through March 1, the same number over the same period as last year. There were a total of 47 homicides in 2009. While that total is not a shocking one in a city that routinely suffers more than 40 killings per year, it is persistently high in the eyes of many residents and leaders.
Seven homicides were also recorded during the first two months of 2008. In 2007, four homicides were recorded over the same period, a year that saw 46 homicides in all.
The last deadly day in Richmond was Feb. 10, when Sharonda Thomas and a male acquaintance were hit by gunfire while sitting in a parked car on the 900 block of Seventh Street in broad daylight. The man survived, but Thomas, 23, was the sixth homicide victim of the year.
The six-month old fetus she carried was homicide no. 7.
But it was an act of violence that resulted in no deaths that spurred the most energetic response. A Feb. 14 shooting inside New Gethsemane Church – during Sunday prayer service – left two wounded and the community shaken.
Rev. Kamal Hassan of Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church said the shooting at New Gethsemane had to serve as a turning point.
“We had to speak out as a community against that type of behavior,” Hassan said late last month.
While the local activism has ratcheted up, police still search for cause to bring gunmen up on charges. Two juveniles were arrested days after the church shooting, but released for lack of evidence, said Sgt. Bisa French. French added that investigators still suspect the two boys, ages 15 and 16, were involved in the crime.
An 18-year-old man was arrested March 9 on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon and other charges. He is the only one of three suspected gunmen now in custody.
But Sgt. French noted that grassroots anti-violence efforts in the community, a community where fear of retaliation limits the information police get from witnesses, is a hopeful sign.
“We are very encouraged by the outpouring we’re seeing from the community,” French said.
There was a marked improvement in crime prevention in 2008, when the city saw its homicide total nearly halved – to 27 total – and its overall crime down about 12 percent. But 2009 was a bit of a step back by some measures.
Barry Krisberg, a fellow at UC Berkeley Law School and an expert on urban crime, recently told North Gate Radio that Richmond’s struggles with crime are deeply-entrenched and will take extended time to improve.
“Richmond has had a serious violence problem for many years.” Krisberg said. “Unlike other cities, Richmond is still characterized by really compacted poverty, (and) what we see is that violence rises when you have concentrated poverty.”
Krisberg added that the work to reduce crime begins with young residents and consists of education, recreation and other social components.
“Long term, if you want to address the issue of violence in Richmond, you have to focus on the young people, the children. There must be a prevention component,” he said.
The police department runs a Police Activities League that reaches hundreds of youths. Other programs, including RichmondWorks, provide jobs and internships for young people in the city. But nearly everyone involved in the programs concedes that more must be done.
There is genuine enthusiasm that the recent two-week schedule of peace events organized by dozens of area congregations may mark a turning point.
The hope among many activists is that the deaths of Sharonda Thomas and her unborn baby will be the last for an extended period.
“The place where we can make the biggest gains and the biggest difference on preventing and reducing crime is with the residents of the neighborhoods of Richmond,” said Police Captain Allwyn Brown, who attended the March 6 peace rally at City Hall. “People want to step up and take an active role … This is the beginning of some positive momentum.”
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