Crime rises in first quarter of 2015; police force vacancies a challenge
on April 20, 2015
Earlier this month, Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus alerted the community of a 9 to 10 percent increase in both violent and property crimes in Richmond in the first quarter of 2015, compared to the same period from 2014.
According to crime statistics released by the Richmond Police Department (RPD), there were 1,087 property crimes in the first quarter of 2015, and 981 in the same period last year. Property crimes include arson, auto burglary, residential burglary and vehicle theft.
There were 186 violent crimes in the first quarter of 2015, compared with 170 during the same period last year. “We did see a spike in the violent crimes, most concerning because those crimes are armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and strong arm robbery, so very violent crimes that affect people,” said RPD Captain Mark Gagan.
Comparing RPD crime statistics from the first quarters of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 shows that although overall crime increased in the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period of the previous year, it actually decreased compared to the same periods in 2013 and 2012.
In fact, 2014 was a banner year for crime reduction in Richmond. During the first quarter, overall crime decreased by 20.2 percent compared to the same period of 2013. By the end of the year, there had been a total of only 4,797 crimes, 13.1 percent lower than the previous year.
Six homicides were committed in the first quarter of this year: two in January, four in March. There were two homicides in the first quarters of both 2014 and 2013. But in the same period of 2012, seven homicides occurred.
Gagan said the homicide rate is not always the best indicator of crime rate change because it has “a disproportionally large impact on the community as far as fear goes.” The police department has seen periods of time when high-profile gang killings caused fear in the community despite a reduction in the overall crime rate, according to Gagan.
When violent crimes spike, police departments often investigate whether the crimes are related, such as through gang activity. “Out of the six homicides we have had so far this year, according to the homicide sergeant, one of the cases is considered gang-related,” RPD Sergeant Nicole Abetkov wrote in an email. “The other cases do not have any indication that they were gang-related.”
Devone Boggan, the director of Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), a group that works with young people in the community to reduce gun violence and related acts of retaliation, said out of the six homicides, “There are three that we believe have something to do with young men involved in gang-like lifestyles.”
Boggan said it is too early to panic about youth-related violence in Richmond for 2015 because it’s only three months into this year. And the ONS is “encouraged that there are only possibly three homicides related to the young men that we are engaging,” Boggan said, “because of what we know it could be, considering the daily conflicts that we are helping young men negotiate.”
Crime statistics show that a higher crime rate in the first quarter of a year doesn’t necessarily lead to higher rate for the whole year. The first quarter of 2013 had 1,443 crimes, while the same period of the previous year had 1,336. But by the end of 2013, there had been only 5,522 crimes committed, fewer than the 5,809 in the previous year.
According to the Facebook post by Chief Magnus announcing the crime statistics, the overall increase in the first quarter of 2015 “is a difference in the direction we’ve been headed in over the past several years, so even if this increase is only reflective of a short time period, we need to pay attention to what’s going on to make sure we reverse this trend.”
Gagan said it’s easy to show an increase or decrease in numbers but it’s difficult to find a cause. One thing that has significantly affected the police department’s “ability to maximize our efforts in reducing crime” is the lack of staffing, according to Gagan.
The RPD is experiencing the highest number of vacancies in several years, he said. The department is authorized to have 196 sworn officers, from the chief down to the patrol officers. But eight of the positions are frozen due to the city’s financial problems, according to Gagan. Of the remaining 188 positions, there are 11 vacancies. In addition, 12 police officers are on injury leave. So while the department is authorized to have 196 officers, they effectively only have 165 working right now.
Lack of staffing makes community policing more of a challenge. “Because we have numerous vacancies in patrol, we are taking officers on overtime and having them work other beats,” Gagan said, “so the familiarity that they should normally have with the location doesn’t exist when that occurs.”
Some people also think Proposition 47 has contributed to the crime spike, according to Magnus’ post. Proposition 47 was a ballot measure passed in November, 2014. Under the measure, eight property and drug felonies became misdemeanors, resulting in jail sentences of less than a year. “But given how new these changes are, as well as how little solid data we have, it’s hard to show a definitive link between the new laws and the crime increases,” Magnus said in the post.
Another factor Magnus mentioned in his post is that “the legal consequences for many types of theft (including vehicle theft) are frustratingly minimal.” According to department statistics, 311 vehicle theft crimes occurred in the first quarter of 2015, compared to 255 in the same period last year. The department has to deal with the same offenders repeatedly because the individuals they have arrested are “back on the streets in literally weeks,” according to Magnus’ post.
Gagan said it’s necessary to have interventions for young people who are showing criminal tendencies such as theft. “There needs to be mentoring programs that offer job training and opportunities to turn their lives around,” Gagan said. “That would be more effective than any type of criminal punishment or incarceration.”
Boggan agreed. “At the end of the day, we as a community have to understand that it’s these young men who are making decisions to shoot or not to shoot,” Boggan said. “It is our responsibilities as a community to understand how important it is that we find ways to give even greater resources to these young men to help them maker better decisions, particularly the ones who, given an opportunity, would make better decisions.”
Gagan said the department is also having a large recruitment campaign right now to hire more police officers. Gagan said young people who want to participate in changing law enforcement should consider becoming a police explorer who gets exposure to police officer duties, or a police cadet who assists and observes police officers in preparation for a career in law enforcement, or apply to be a police officer as a trainee.
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