Spike in homicides adds to unfinished agenda awaiting Magnus successor
on December 9, 2015
It wasn’t quite dark in central Richmond, a little before 5 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving.
A 13-year-old girl was walking down a flight of stairs, two people were driving north in a white sedan on Carlson Boulevard “when they shot into the direction of the Pullman Townhouses, and kept on driving,” police said.
The 13-year-old was shot in the leg, just above the knee. Police said the girl, treated and released at a local hospital, “was not the intended target, but unfortunately, she was in the immediate area.”
Police are chasing two suspects, possibly juveniles. They issued the standard public plea for information, but no immediate arrests were made.
And so, one more entry on the already daunting agenda Richmond Police Chief Chris Magnus leaves behind as he departs to become police chief in Tucson, Arizona.
His first day in Tucson comes after the New Year, and his last few weeks in Richmond promise to be filled with praise for a man recognized as one of the nation’s most successful law enforcement leaders.
He and his fellow officers made dramatic progress in the 10 years Magnus ran the notorious Richmond PD, reducing violent crime and improving relations with city residents.
“Our relationships with the community are stronger than they’ve ever been,” Magnus said.
He gave due credit to the officers in his command.
“I think we have about as much talent as I’ve ever seen in any police department,” he said.
That talent promises to be tested.
During his farewell press conference, Magnus noted that a drive-by shooting just the night before had seriously injured a man and a 5-year-old boy. Police say a Pontiac sedan pulled up next to their car on South 37th Street and multiple assailants opened fire. The man drove himself and his passenger to Kaiser Medical Center in critical condition, though they are expected to survive. Again, no suspects were named.
Earlier this month, two young men were killed and a woman was wounded in another drive-by. That one happened at a busy intersection, rattling scores of people. Police said they have few leads to go on except for witness reports of a grey Infiniti sedan leaving the scene.
Richmond Police say out of the 19 homicides so far in Richmond in 2015, only seven have been solved and charged. The cases have chilling similarities, one after the other, since an epidemic of gun violence began to roll through Richmond, reaching a peak of 47 homicides in 2007, the year after Magnus had arrived from the relatively peaceful city of Fargo, N.D.
Having long ago silenced critics who had said he wasn’t up to the Richmond job, Magnus, 55, is best known as the openly gay, recently wed police chief photographed holding a “Black Lives Matter” protest sign in uniform. He prefers to be known for his record in office.
Now, the record includes a disturbing upturn in Richmond homicides. The numbers are rising for the first time in four years, amidst a rash of drive-by shootings claiming young victims, leaving few suspects or leads for detectives to pursue.
There is still heartbreaking violence in Richmond that disrupts everyday life.
A Kennedy High School football game was stopped four minutes short because of gunplay just beyond the schoolyard, later found to have wounded three young men. Kennedy players said they were disappointed to have been denied the chance to try and win the game in those final minutes. They were declared the losers when the game was halted with Lincoln HS of San Francisco leading 39-26.
“I wanted to keep playing. I felt that we could have come back and won, and there was a lot of time left on the clock,” senior receiver Kyree Jackson said.
DeWanda Joseph grew up on the south side of Richmond. She remembers an earlier time, when “the cowboys” roamed the streets.
It was about the kindest nickname used on the street for an all-white group of violence-prone Richmond police officers who worked at night in the 1980s. Their motto was to act first, ask questions later.
There was “a lot of activity” in Joseph’s neighborhood, she said, and the police were there often. “They came with hands on guns and ready to put a stop to what was going on,” she said. “They were rude and negative towards people in the neighborhood.”
Joseph said high levels of street violence and a militant police presence were fixtures of everyday life in Richmond.
Now, she’s a community organizer with a much different outlook on the police. She said that after reforms instituted during the Magnus era, police today “come in more and engage with people, they seem to be trying to come to a resolve as opposed to just policing.”
“They recognize our faces. They know who they work for. They began to be more conscious of people, more open to our neighborhoods,” she said.
The change was no accident.
Before, the Richmond Police Department divided the city into five sections and moved officers around frequently. In fact, some officers changed beats day to day, Capt. Bisa French said.
Magnus cut back to only three sections and kept patrol officers in the same beat for at least a year so they could develop long-term relationships with residents.
Magnus instituted a departmentwide focus on “community policing”—a phrase French no longer likes to hear, preferring to refer to it simply as “doing our job,” further indication of how much the Richmond police mindset has changed.
Before Magnus came, a few designated officers focused on developing long-term relationships with residents to solve ongoing problems. Magnus got rid of these designated “community policing” positions, and tried to institute a culture where every officer was expected to take this approach.
Beyond organizational changes, Magnus helped bring the department fully into the 21st century by ensuring that every patrol officer had an email and voicemail so that residents could get in touch with them.
Those Magnus is leaving in charge said the improved relations with citizens are helping generate crime-solving tips in city previously notorious for non-collaboration and police corruption.
“That’s big,” French said. “That shows that they actually trust you and that the community actually cares.”
Richmond authorities also can rely upon much improved technology. The department’s revamped computer system is being supplemented with gunshot-detecting “Shot Spotter” alerts, and body cameras being synced with expanded video capability.
So while the agenda may be daunting, Richmond police at least seem to have the tools to cope. Still, it won’t be easy making headway.
Richmond’s 19 killings in 2015 do not reflect homicides that take place in unincorporated North Richmond, where a man was shot to death and two others were injured in a drive-by shooting last week, and another woman was shot and killed on Thanksgiving.
In 2014, there were only 11 homicides in Richmond, an historic low for the city, according to FBI data, which show a 77 percent decrease in homicides over the past decade. Experts say it’s too soon to draw conclusions, noting the statistical upturn could prove to be a blip.
Barry Krisberg, a criminologist and law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said Richmond homicides appear to be “regressing towards the mean.”
“Richmond has achieved a lower base level than in the past, and it’s going to remain at a much lower level, even though there will be fluctuations,” he said. “It’s unrealistic to think that crime will go down every year.”
Magnus said the Richmond crime trend mirrors similarly disturbing numbers in cities across the country. That’s evidence which “goes to show how fragile progress is, especially in a city like this,” he said.
French, the Richmond police captain, said the worst aspect isn’t about numbers anyway. Rather, she said, it’s about frustration, the cases with no suspects and no leads—just the victims and their families struggling to cope.
French said the recent drive-by shootings may be related, but there is not a clear pattern connecting them. In some cases, such as a recent execution-style shooting of two men in a parked car, there’s nothing whatsoever to go on—no motive, no witness, no leads.
Pockets of extreme poverty and gang activity continue to become crime scenes, defying even the best police work and city efforts to rise above Richmond’s violent reputation.
Donte Clark, a youth educator named poet laureate of Richmond in 2014, is the lead subject in the documentary film, “Romeo Is Bleeding,” which depicts youth giving a Shakespearean twist to vicious neighborhood-vs.-neighborhood gunplay in Clark’s hometown.
Incarceration and gun violence have had a lasting toll, Clark said recalling streets lively with people until so many disappeared and fear spread. Now, a skyrocketing real estate market threatens to displace longtime residents.
“Its not what it was growing up,” Clark said during an interview. “There was no way you could go through Richmond and not see anyone outside. It went from people getting killed to, ‘Where did everybody go?’”
Clark embodies the long memory of Richmond residents.
He stays away from the applause widely surrounding the Magnus police force, recalling instead family members beaten and harassed by Richmond police, and the many times he was pulled over in what he sees as clear instances of racial profiling.
Magnus himself is reluctant to celebrate Richmond’s achievements.
“I think we’re following the right playbook but I’m never going to say ‘mission accomplished’ because there’s always going to be work that needs to be done, no matter what,” he said.
Although not yet official, his current assistant chief, Allwyn Brown, will succeed him in the interim and perhaps more permanently. Magnus said Brown “really gets it.”
Sgt. Virgil Thomas said nobody plans to backslide.
“Regardless of who’s the chief, we’ll continue to move forward and solidify our place in the community and be the vanguard and on the cutting edge of what a model police department looks like,” he said.
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