|More Planning, Less Politics
April 7, 2006
Chip Johnson sounds off in today’s San Francisco Chronicle about the stampede for violence prevention dollars from the City treasury:
Richmond, where crime has become generational and sons often follow fathers into gangs or prison, is looking beyond the Police Department to solve crime by attacking it at its root.
Mayor Irma Anderson plans to establish an Office of Violence Prevention, and she's looking for a team of consultants to help organize it.
The idea is to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the city's network of social services and come up with a plan to fill in any gaps, said Anderson, who proposed the plan to the City Council in December.
This isn't the first time Richmond has brought in consultants to review its chronic crime problem. It wasn't that long ago that Anderson brought in Dr. Protho Stith, a sociologist at Harvard University, to identify the high risk factors associated with violence.
"Those factors include a lack of role models in communities, poverty, education, substance abuse, domestic violence, poor conflict resolution skills and accessibility to guns, and they all exist right here," Anderson said.
For all of the mayor's good intentions, she could have saved the city a bunch of money and simply asked any one of the kids over at Kennedy or Richmond high schools, where kids from the city's toughest neighborhoods attend school.
No one needs to tell them that Richmond has the dubious distinction of being the most dangerous city in the state -- and 11th among 369 cities nationwide -- in a study by Morgan Quitno Press, a research group in Lawrence, Kan. In compiling the study, the researchers examined the rate of homicides, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and motor vehicle thefts.
The city's homicide rate rose 14 percent last year to 40, and it saw more aggravated assaults, robberies and other violent crimes, too. The city has recorded seven homicides so far this year.
And much like other cities with seemingly intractable crime, Richmond's problem tends to revolve around geographic and generational crime, city officials said. Long-simmering turf battles among gangs, and the occasional intergenerational beef between kids from families with long-simmering feuds, lead to a disproportionate amount of street violence.
"We see groups of young men who live in different parts of the city, and there is a territorial element and a strong tie to drugs, but it's also about pride," said Police Chief Chris Magnus. "What we see more than anything else ... is settling on a gun as a way to get respect.
"It's what we see over and over again as we investigate these killings: What was the motive again?" Magnus said. "I was dissed."
And that, he said, sets the cycle in motion.
"When there is one killing, there are inevitably retaliatory acts of violence," he said.
The problem runs so deep that members of the city's Latino gangs refused to attend a gang summit in October if it were held in an area controlled by a rival gang. They came to the table only after Anderson assured them that the meeting would be held on neutral ground.
It seems Richmond faces an uphill battle trying to strike at the root of a problem so firmly established within the culture of some quarters. But the chief is cautiously optimistic about the violence prevention plan, but says it will be effective only if it's developed -- and implemented -- by someone with a proven track record and who operates beyond the reach of city politics.
That's a pretty tall order in Richmond, especially during an election year.
The one thing Magnus doesn't want to see is a rush to establish another agency -- or a council proposal for yet another recreation center, or midnight basketball league, or any of the countless other short-term solutions -- before the city can determine which programs work, which ones don't and just what's needed to weave a comprehensive safety net for the city's poorest residents.
"We know that some of these programs work, but the ones that are most effective are not short-term, and that's a hard sell in a community that wants to see the killings stop right now," Magnus said. "It's pivotal that the person or group that gets the position understands that it involves job training, job availability and that public health issues that can start as early as prenatal care."
By the same token, the chief said he hopes people are not pinning their hopes that any program -- or even a series of them -- will turn around a hardened criminal. Some people are beyond help, and scarce resources are best used helping those who can be turned around.
"We're kidding ourselves if we think all the guys in prison are going to get out and follow the straight and narrow," he said.
If the City Council can put aside politics and get this done without patronage or preference other than qualification, it could serve as an important diagnostic tool for the city and its continued law enforcement efforts.
Delivering targeted social services to families is an idea well worth exploring, but the value of the work will begin with the credibility of the council's process for selecting someone to lead the effort.
Chip Johnson's column appears on Mondays and Fridays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.