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Spate of city gang violence has deep roots

on April 12, 2011

Police are saying that some of the violence that has been brewing in the city recently, which has left three dead and four wounded over the last two weeks, seems to be part of an escalating feud between gangs in North and Central Richmond.

Pastor Henry Washington of the Garden of Peace Church agrees. “Central and north are at odds, and as a matter as fact, the whole city is a powder keg right now,” he said.

The origins of the longstanding feud—believed to have begun approximately eight years ago—have almost become lore in Richmond. “There’s a famous story about young man who had a car accident with another young man,” said Washington. “The car that was wrecked the worst had the nice rims and the candy paint.”

The driver of the wrecked car, “kind of squashed it and said ‘You gonna owe me for a paint job.’ I don’t think it was 1,000 bucks. From there one fella reneged on the paint job, and we lost half a dozen lives, just in response to a car accident,” said Washington.

Lt. Arnold Threets, head of Richmond Police’s Special Investigations Division, agreed that the 2003 car accident marked the start of the feud. “Prior to that there wasn’t this real conflict between both sides,” said Threets. Before 2003, gang-activity and affiliation in Richmond was more localized; small groups operating block by block, representing their street corners, said Threets.

“You had 4th and Nevin, 5th and Barrett, 7th and Penn, you had guys at 16th and Chanslor. You had people all over who really weren’t all one group,” said Threets.

But the car accident and the dispute over payment galvanized the loosely-affiliated groups into two distinctive gangs: Deep-C in Central Richmond’s Iron Triangle and Project Trojans in North Richmond. Police currently believe that retaliatory attacks between these two groups are responsible for the late March shootings that killed 23-year-old Joshua McClain in San Francisco; and 21-year-old Ervin Coley III and 22-year-old Jerry Owens in unincorporated North Richmond.

Threets says the 2003 car accident that sparked the feud isn’t what’s fueling today’s violence. Most people today just remember the story as a legend. “Now if you ask a subject on the street today about that accident he may or may not remember why they are fighting or what’s that about,” said Threets.

Shootings are instead often the result of tit-for-tat attacks or, “based on some perceived disrespect or some incident that occurred that affected him,” said Threets.

Sometimes shootings will occur based on stolen girlfriends, unpaid debts, or false rumors about who was responsible for previous shootings. “The information on the street won’t be accurate to what occurred, but it’s relevant … because on the street, perception is reality,” said Threets. “If I believe that this gang is the reason that my loved one or partner was murdered, then whether the evidence supports that or not, I’m going to retaliate against the people that I believe did it.”

The targets of retaliatory attacks do not necessarily have to be gang members or in any way connected to the previous incident; the gang may be more interested in avenging themselves on any young male they can find on the opposing gang’s turf than on attacking a particular person. (Read more about retaliatory attacks by clicking here.)

Understanding all the dynamics of the ongoing feud can be difficult admits Threets, who leads a team of detectives and gang specialists who work behind the scenes conducting surveillance and intelligence operations.  “A lot of it’s talk and it’s guesswork,” he said.

Threets says a big challenge in preventing gang violence and retaliatory attacks is that there are many possible shooters, so you can’t solve the problem by making a single arrest. “Sometimes you can take off a key person and it will calm everything down, but not the case here. It’s focused deterrence; you’re trying to prevent something from occurring. You know retaliation is coming; you’re just trying to prevent it,” said Threets.

Making matters more complicated, police now have to monitor a larger area for gang-related activity. Members of Deep-C, traditionally a Central Richmond gang, have been migrating into South Richmond.

Police believe that the transformation of the city’s Iron Triangle through redevelopment, improved policing, increased community involvement, and the work of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, has restricted gang activity in Central Richmond and pushed it into other areas.

While addressing the city’s police commissioners at their monthly meeting last Wednesday, Police Chief Chris Magnus said, “When we clean up a particular housing complex or are particularly effective in dealing with violence in a neighborhood … some of the individuals who are involved in this retaliatory violence choose to move or hang out in areas where we struggle more in terms of community involvement or where the physical environment makes it easier for them to operate with impunity.”

At the meeting Richmond Police Captain Mark Gagan said people verified as Deep-C gang members are congregating more and more in locations on the south side like the Hartnett Apartments and the Pullman Point apartment complex. Gagan also said that many individuals who are on parole for prior gun offenses and narcotics offenses are paroled to addresses in those housing complexes.

Magnus highlighted the Pullman apartments in particular, saying that management has “fallen into disarray” and that individuals from other neighborhoods have found “safe haven” there.

Nevertheless police have noted a few successes in past weeks. Threets said his team—working with the county police—conducted searches of individuals on probation and parole who are believed to be affiliated to the gangs involved in the ongoing feud. Threets said police arrested a few individuals found violating the terms of their parole or probation.

Threets also commended the work of the Office of Neighborhood Safety. The ONS is a city organization that targets known criminals and gang members for services in an effort to draw them away from illicit lifestyles. The team of workers also fan out in the community immediately after shootings—like those in North Richmond—to ease tensions and prevent retaliatory attacks from occurring.

“We are not going to the hospitals, they are, and they cool people down, and they get to the hospitals and go out here into the streets and do their peacekeeper thing, and it works, it has an impact,” Threets said.

Of the ongoing feud, Pastor Washington expresses deep disappointment with Richmond’s younger generation. He says young people haven’t sought the tutelage of their elders about an ethical code. “What we have now are these kids that are retaliating over things that make no sense,” he said.

“They’re showing poor judgment of course by killing, but the second part is by killing for the smallest of reasons: over girlfriends, and over small debts, and over things that you just don’t take a fella’s life about. And this is momentum that we are trying to change,” said Washington. “Let us think about taking a life. It is not ok.”


  1. Andres Soto on April 12, 2011 at 5:26 pm

    These folks have been shooting each other since at least the 1970s. It was the importation of cocaine, turned into crack, as part of the Reagan foreign policy and the gun manufacturers conversion from revolvers to semi-autos, is when the lethal violence escalated, not only in Richmond, but around the country. The self-hate was already there.

  2. […] Police have said that retaliation attacks between the neighborhoods have been known to target any young man found on the street at a given moment, and that the victims do not necessarily have ties to gang activity. Many of the mourners were overcome with emotion. (photo by Robert Rogers) […]

  3. nojustice on April 15, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    What’s the deal with the police and investigation tactics out here? You can’t go off of what happened decades ago. Gotta get in the trenches brainstorm new ways of getting to the bottom of this shit before the whole Richmond becomes extinct due to violence.

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