Violent crime drops in Richmond
By Karl Fischer
Contra Costa Times
Posted: 12/24/2010 02:13:59 PM PST
Art Alvarez saw his neighbor's pickup pull up to the curb one May evening in 2006.
He watched Oscar Navarro step out of the cab and bend to wipe his boots. Then he heard a crackle like fireworks from either end of the block.
Navarro dropped to the pavement, struck by a stray round in the crossfire. As sirens approached on Barrett Avenue, Alvarez never dreamed he would some day consider himself safe at home, in Richmond's Iron Triangle neighborhood.
But, four years later, that day has arrived.
"There has been a huge improvement," said Alvarez, a member of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council. "And I am happy to say that I am part of the change."
Violent crime plunged this year in Richmond, a fact not lost on flatland residents long plagued by endemic gunfire.
Causes of neighborhood violence remain, and city crime statistics tend to ping-pong from year to year. But community leaders like Alvarez have noticed steady improvement, from increased civic participation to smarter public policy that targets people and places involved.
The numbers mirror that improvement. Through the first 11 months of 2010, firearms assaults fell 27 percent in Richmond from the same period in 2009, and homicides plunged from 44 to 21.
Nearby cities also improved. Violent crime in San Francisco dropped 7 percent during the first nine months of 2010 over the same period in 2009, while Oakland homicides had fallen 17 percent as of mid-December. But firearms assaults also rose 23 percent in Oakland.
In Richmond, officials view the statistical change as evidence that the new approaches seem to help. But nobody seems in any great hurry to take credit, particularly in the police department -- where during bad years, blame falls disproportionately.
"We are gradually implementing a number of new programs, and we've made a huge effort to engage the community," police Chief Chris Magnus said. "There's no single strategy that does the trick. It's about finding the right combination."
Much went right in 2010 for police. During a time when departments across the country were cut due to budget pressures, Richmond hired. The department reached full staffing, about 200 sworn officers, for the first time in nearly a decade.
New approaches also bore early fruit. A team of detectives now works closely with the state Department of Corrections to closely track parolees, and the department restored narcotics and gang intelligence teams erased by earlier budget cuts.
A new arrangement with Contra Costa Superior Court and nonprofit youth centers helps to enforce a new daytime curfew for minors, many of whom chronically cut school and wind up as crime suspects and victims. And the Contra Costa District Attorney's Office staffs a prosecutor specifically to handle low-level gun crimes in the city, to identify potential shooters before they act.
Richmond also added gunshot detection technology to the city grid, which helps police quickly track street violence, along with monitored video cameras at historically troubled corners.
But, above all, beat officers credit the drop in violence to the evolution of the geographic, patrol-based community policing plan that began in 2006.
"I was in investigations for six years before I came back out into patrol. I hardly recognized the place," said Officer Mike Rood, rolling down Macdonald Avenue on a rainy night. "It's night and day. This is a ghost town."
Rood, a beat officer assigned to the Iron Triangle, works in a neighborhood transformed like no other.
Throughout the decade, the lower Macdonald corridor seethed with activity at all hours. Nevin Park, long an open-air drug market, now sits empty at 9 p.m.
In the past, a predictable crowd of drug dealers, prostitutes and their customers cluttered side streets, generating crime and also presenting reliable targets for drive-by shooters when disputes broke out among rival neighborhood factions.
A city redevelopment plan disrupted the urban geography in 2008 and 2009, transforming the park into an open, easy-to-police area, and surrounded its south side with senior housing. The costly change came at the urging of neighborhood leaders, energized by new willingness from beat officers and city officials to intervene.
"I noticed when I'd go down to Fourth Street Market, and the guys selling pot and cocaine would say, 'Damn, I can't do (expletive) around here. There's too many damn police around,'" Alvarez said.
Drugs still flow through the Iron Triangle, but the merchants adapted to the change by taking their business inside, or elsewhere in the city. A localized drop in street shootings became a corollary effect.
Reducing available targets helps, because the lion's share of shootings in Richmond are impulsive, officials say. Conflicts that lead to shootings often stem from disagreements related to social pecking order, violations of personal respect, and pressure to defend friends from such violations.
"What happened was, somebody's girlfriend had her car burglarized," said Sgt. Mitch Peixoto, describing a conflict last month that led to two killings in the southside neighborhood he polices. "And, rumor is, the boyfriend went out looking for someone to shoot."
The Nov. 1 death of 22-year-old Kenneth Johnson Jr. at South 21st Street and Potrero Avenue remains unsolved. But patrol officers, working with community sources, quickly assembled an unofficial account.
Members of a clique that hang out around that corner, a drug-dealing spot, reportedly committed the burglary. So the attacker, a gang member from an area east of the neighborhood, drove to the spot and let loose a volley of rounds into the crowd.
"We said 'uh-oh,'" Peixoto said, "because those groups share a border."
The department flooded the suspected instigator's neighborhood with extra officers the next two weeks, stopping more than 100 cars, confiscating six guns and nearly six pounds of marijuana. Police hoped to prevent a retaliatory attack while tensions cooled.
But the retaliatory attack arrived Nov. 17, a couple days after the extra patrol ended, when gunmen fired at the front of a smoke shop at Cutting Boulevard and South 31st Street and killed 18-year-old Aaron Wilson.
At the crime scene, police arrested another man in the group on suspicion of probation violations, a reputed "heavy hitter" -- an enforcer in the group deemed likely to retaliate in kind. Taking that person off the street, Peixoto said, will hopefully buy time for the conflict to fizzle.
"We're holding our breath, waiting to see," Peixoto said. "It's always like that."
Contact Karl Fischer at 510-262-2728. Follow him at Twitter.com/kfischer510.