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Despite deadly week, crime down overall in North Richmond

on April 5, 2011

Just days before North Richmond was rocked by three shootings in 72 hours, the community was enjoying a sustained period of calm that had residents and police feeling optimistic.

“A year ago, these streets would be hopping right now,” said Richmond Police Officer Matt Stonebraker on a warm, mid-March night, while steering his police cruiser down Seventh Street, the main causeway that links this small enclave into the larger city. “Tonight, it’s just peaceful, it’s kind of weird.”

Stonebraker and partner Anthony Diaz were patrolling on a warm night in mid-March, typically a time when the police radios squawk and the streets teem with activity. But that night North Richmond, for years one of the most violent and crime-plagued communities in California, was almost a picture of urban serenity.

There had been no homicides since May, 2010, a period of about ten months. Violent crimes—a category that includes homicide, attempted homicide, battery, assault, rape and robbery—had fallen off considerably, according to Sheriff’s Department statistics. In 2008, there were 283 violent crimes in unincorporated North Richmond, a number that fell to 181 and 152 in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

The calm proved temporary, shattered by a spate of terrifying shootings that ripped North Richmond last week, leaving two young men dead and two others injured.

On Monday, March 28, a young adult man was shot in the hip at Fifth Street and Chesley Avenue in North Richmond, according to Charline Wilson, who identified herself as the victim’s mother.

On March 29, Ervin Coley III, 21, a lifelong resident who worked as a gardener in a county-funded local agriculture project, was shot and killed at the corner of Silver Avenue and Second Street while walking from his mother’s apartment.

On March 30, 22-year-old Jerry Owens, a San Pablo resident, was killed and another young man wounded when a passing car sprayed them with gunfire as they stood in 1600 block of Third Street.

Saleem Bey, north richmond activist

Local activist and garden program supervisor Saleem Bey said North Richmond is poised to grow stronger as a community, but the death of Ervin Coley III last week was a deep wound.

Three days. Four people felled by gunfire. Two dead. The small community was again on edge.

“To see a young man who was doing so well, who everybody knew, get lost to violence has hit us hard,” said Saleem Bey, speaking of Coley’s death. Bey is a supervisor on the Contra Costa County garden project that Coley had worked on since December.

Sheriff’s officials said they have no one in custody in any of last week’s shootings, but declined to say whether they were pursuing any suspects.

“We don’t want to go to any detail in how we operated, or our response, or any motives,” said Sheriff’s spokesman Jimmy Lee. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

The investigation into all three shootings is ongoing.

Some neighborhood leaders have questioned how the department could have been not only unable to stop the third and final shooting, but to prevent the escape, given North Richmond’s small size and limited entry and exit points.

North Richmond is a small community surrounded by railroad tracks, the Richmond Parkway and the county landfill and situated near the east shore of San Pablo Bay. The southern third of the square-shaped neighborhood falls within the city of Richmond, while the homes and public housing units to the north are in unincorporated county territory. This curious quirk of political boundary means that county sheriff’s deputies and city police share safety duties.

Lee emphasized that the department has stepped up its policing efforts in reaction to last week’s violence.

“We have increased our patrols, and have a stronger presence out there and are doing what we can to avoid a repeat of last week,” Lee said.

But until last week’s chaos, the neighborhood had enjoyed an unusual period of calm. In the county area of North Richmond alone, a neighborhood that comprises about 2,500 people, there were five homicides each year from 2005 to 2008, said Lt. Mark Williams, who oversees policing operations in North Richmond, giving the community a per capita homicide rate more than four times higher than the city of Richmond during those years.

In 2009, there were only two homicides in North Richmond, and last year there were four. Last week’s violence brought this year’s total to two. In the city of Richmond, an area comprising more than 30 times the population of unincorporated North Richmond, there have been just three homicides this year.

“The numbers are what they are, and four homicides last year is not good,” Williams said. “But three of the four were in one triple homicide incident in May, and that really set us back.”

Williams attributed the last ten months of calm to a doubling of sheriff’s staff on the street since April, 2009, from three deputies to six.

“We’re definitely headed in the right direction,” Williams said during an interview in late March. “And I’m optimistic about the future.”

“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.”

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. But 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 vast territory.

workers in the garden in north richmond

Community gardens are one of the positive programs taking hold in North Richmond, but worker Ervin Coley III, left, was a recent homicide victim.

“Our staffing levels countywide have come down a bit in the last couple of years” due to budget constraints, Williams said. “But pooling some resources together in North Richmond has allowed us to increase our staff there.”

Money from the County Housing Authority, which operates the Las Deltas housing projects in North Richmond, also pays for sheriff’s department staffing.

Meanwhile, on the city side, Stonebraker and his partner, Officer Anthony Diaz, are part of a new “proactive” policing team that was launched by the department in 2009. Freed up from the constant grind of responding to distress calls, Stonebraker and Diaz spend time in North Richmond talking to residents, gathering information and being a consistent presence.

“The residents appreciate that we’re here and we have time to address their concerns,” Stonebraker said. “Community relations are pretty good here now.”

Both sides say that working relations between the agencies are strong. The day after Owens’ homicide, Sheriff’s officials went to the city’s police headquarters to meet, share information and conduct a threat assessment, said Richmond Police Capt. Mark Gagan.

“What happens in the county jurisdiction affects what happens in our city,” Gagan said. “Fortunately, we have a very close relationship with the Sheriff’s (department).”

The meeting was attended by Lt. Williams and another Sheriff’s official along with Police Chief Chris Magnus, Deputy Chief Allwyn Brown, Capt. Gagan and several other members of the command staff.

Many residents and local leaders have speculated that the violence in North Richmond last week was committed by people from rival central Richmond neighborhoods, and that retaliation is a concern.

Gagan, who supervises officers Stonebraker and Diaz as part of the Central Richmond police district, said his officers are a continuing presence in the small slice of North Richmond within city limits.

“We feel it’s very important for us to know what’s occurring and have a relationship with people in unincorporated north Richmond,” Gagan said.


  1. […] Crime had been trending steadily downward since the mitigation fund added deputies, according to Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Williams, until last week, when the community was rocked by three shootings in three days. […]

  2. […] Lieutenant Arnold Threets of Richmond PD’s Special Investigations Division, said this feud in particular is very challenging because it involves both city and county land. “One half of the problem is jurisdictionally under the control of the Sheriff’s Office and the other half of the problem is ours,” he said. (For a detailed report on the complexities of policing unincorporated North Richmond, see Robert Roger’s article here.) […]

  3. […] Richmond has the lowest per capita median income in Contra Costa County, according to Census data. Crime rates remain down from recent years, according to Sheriff’s Department statistics, but there is new unease about the prospect of […]

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