Anti-violence forum draws Richmond leaders, raises concerns
on June 28, 2011
Richmond has seen a dramatic decrease in deadly gun violence in recent years, but anti-violence advocates and city officials believe only a sustained, multi-partner commitment to violence prevention and intervention in the coming years can make these gains permanent.
According to public safety leaders, Richmond has what it takes.
“In Richmond, we have so many assets in place already,” said Lynette Gibson-McElhaney, Executive Director of Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, before ticking off local strengths including a professional city government, engaged citizenry and robust local public, private and religious institutions.
That and other conclusions were discussed at Monday night’s anti-violence forum titled “Collaborating to Eliminate Gun Violence in Richmond.” The forum was hosted by the city’s Human Rights Commission, and featured an assessment from leaders of Richmond’s Operation CEASEFIRE program. Operation Cease-Fire is a gun-violence prevention and intervention program targeting gun crimes and violent offenders through a strategic partnership between local and county agencies and community leaders. Key elements include direct, intensive communication with potentially violent offenders and providing them clear alternatives to continued violence.
Among the participants who gathered in the city council chambers were Police Chief Chris Magnus, local pastors Alvin Bernstein and Henry Washington, Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston, and Office of Neighborhood Safety Director Devone Boggan. More than 100 residents were also in attendance.
Magnus outlined Richmond’s significant drop in deadly violence in recent years. He noted that homicides in Richmond plummeted from 47 in 2009 to 21 last year. At near the halfway point of this year, only 12 people have been slain in the city. But, Magnus said, the numbers are still unacceptable.
Homicides, Magnus said, “are not indicative of a healthy community,” and later quoted local Civil Rights icon Fred Jackson in urging all residents to follow their moral compasses in working to quell violence in Richmond.
Operation CEASEFIRE was initiated in Boston in the mid-1990s and has become a nationally-recognized model for reducing youth violence. Stewart Wakeling of the Public Health Institute in Oakland said more than 50 cities nationwide were following principles of the CEASEFIRE program, which focuses on providing direct intervention and services, including mental health and job training, aimed at young men and boys in high crime neighborhoods. The goal is to be preventative – to stop gun crime before it occurs.
The evidence is overwhelming, Wakeling said. “You can reduce violence without sending more young men to prison,” Wakeling said.
But there were some criticisms Monday, both from panelists and residents. Fred Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said the CEASEFIRE approach doesn’t do enough to address the root causes of violence and fails to provide independent oversight of law enforcement agencies.
“We are not even asking how do the guns get into this community,” Muhammad said. “We must go to the source.”
Residents also said political divisions continue to hindering anti-violence efforts, particularly in North Richmond, a high-crime community with an arbitrary boundary dividing it between the city and unincorporated county territory.
“Any anti-violence approach has to include making North Richmond part of Richmond (city), it can’t be divided from the rest of us,” said resident Juana Ankles, who addressed the panel during the public comment period.
Boggan alluded to the regionalism that occurs in Richmond’s streets, particularly between north, south and central Richmond, and said it was a challenge he faces daily in anti-violence efforts.
“Individuals from one part of town feel very unsafe going to another part of town for services,” Boggan said. “We have to be creative in how we get around that.”
But virtually everyone agreed that a key to success was continuing to keep Richmond’s diverse institutions and communities working together. Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, Councilman Jeff Ritterman, and North Richmond Neighborhood House Director Barbara Becnel were among the local leaders who sat in the audience.
Rev. Bernstein quoted acclaimed African American author Ralph Ellison: “There’s no limit to what we can accomplish, in no one cares who gets the credit.”
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