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City Council candidates weigh in on how to make Richmond a safer place to live

on October 29, 2022

For Richmond resident Rasmo Moses, ‘public safety’ is the absence of litter from the street corner near his house. 

For Leslie Townsend, it is “having more options than calling a gun to the scene.”

For Kelbin Guterres, the concept means clean air and water and a protected natural environment. 

And for Josue Contreras, it’s about ensuring everybody feels safe walking down the street. 

For the seven candidates running for the three available City Council seats in the election next month, it is a top agenda item. Richmond has long held the reputation of being an ‘unsafe’ city, with the perception being so ingrained that a high school football team from San Francisco recently forfeited a game to avoid visiting.

“Historically we’ve been a very violent community,” explained Sam Vaughn, program manager of Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety. But over the last 30 some years, things have improved. The number of reported violent crimes in the city has fallen from a peak of 2,863 in 1993 to just over a thousand in 2020, FBI data shows.

It is also true that Richmond’s violent crime figure has gradually increased in recent years, from 843 in 2014 to 1,074 in 2020. The city’s 2019 crime rate of 931 per 100,000 people, was higher than that of similar size Bay Area cities such as Vallejo and Concord, while being lower than that of  larger Oakland.

I haven’t seen such low staffing levels in 25 years of service in Richmond

Police chief bisa french

The council candidates are determined to address public safety concerns in Richmond and they each have different ideas on how to do it. But the one solution that every candidate proposed in interviews with Richmond Confidential was adequate staffing of relevant city departments, especially the police. 

At the Oct. 25 City Council meeting, Richmond police Chief Bisa French raised the issue of understaffing in her department. 

“I haven’t seen such low staffing levels in 25 years of service in Richmond,” she said. 

In the 2020-21 fiscal year, the city of 110,000 people was serviced by a police department of 122 sworn officers, which is 60 fewer than in 2014-15. 

Oscar Garcia, one of three candidates running in District 3, said his focus would be retention and recruitment of police officers and firefighters. For recruitment, he suggested tapping into Richmond’s “huge young population” and making these careers attractive by offering incentives like hiring bonuses.

“As far as retention is concerned, I will put a lot of effort into thanking our officers for working in very difficult environments. At present, they are underappreciated and undervalued,” Garcia said.

Echoing the sentiment, his opponent Courtland ‘Corky’ Booze said, “I want the police to know they’re definitely wanted in the city of Richmond and they need to be respected.”

He criticized the City Council’s decision in 2021 to reduce the police budget by $3 million and permanently cut 12 vacant positions. Booze said he would listen to department heads on what they need and act on that.

For candidate Doria Robinson, also running in District 3, it’s not just about the number of police officers in the city — “It’s about who we have policing and whether they actually care for people in the community.” Robinson said there has been a “distinct lack of support” from the police for people of color in Richmond. 

She advocated the “community policing” model championed by former police Chief Chris Magnus, who served in the position from 2006 to 2016. The policing strategy is centered on the development of good relations between the police and the community. 

Other candidates — Andrew Butt, Cesar Zepeda, Oscar Garcia and Soheila Bana — also suggested that greater emphasis be put on community policing.

“It can help reestablish the trust between police and community by giving people the chance to come and meet their police,” said Cesar Zepeda, who is one of two candidates in District 2. He referenced ‘Coffee with a Cop’ events that used to take place before the pandemic.

Zepeda added that more community events also could help people get to know their neighbors and look out for each other’s safety. 

Andrew Butt, also running in District 2, said Richmond should bring in new programs to address the root causes of crime such as unemployment and drug addiction.

“Richmond needs to have better options for people,” he said. “We need to provide more things for people to do. If you keep people busy doing positive things, they’re less likely to do destructive things.”

Public safety goes beyond reducing crime rates, as Soheila Bana, one of two District 4 candidates, emphasized. Earlier this year, she established the West Contra Costa Fire Safe Council to prepare for wildfires and raise awareness about them in the region.  

Additionally, Bana said she would push for an emergency room or well-equipped ambulance in Richmond to address the inadequacy of health services in the region. 

Jamin Pursell, who also is a candidate in District 4, said the city needs to set up its own mental health services department in consultation with the county to address 911 calls for non-violent mental health crises. This will reduce the burden on the police department, he said. 

The election, in which the three council seats and the mayor’s post are up for grabs, will be held on Nov. 8. 

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