Welcome Contact Me Legislation Media Coverage Platform Voting Record E-Forum Biography
Media Coverage
Confronting The Killings
April 29, 2001

April 29, 2001
Section: News
Edition: Final
Page: A01
John Simerman Times Staff Writer

RICHMOND A 12-year-old boy one-ups the wrong kid and gets shot to death near a city park. A 15-year-old hops in the wrong car in the middle of a turf war and takes a fatal bullet to the head. A woman allegedly stabs her boyfriend in the heart over a fast food order. He brought home the wrong combo.

The motives for murder in Richmond, the mistakes that get people killed, come in numbing variety. At times so random, they explain little by themselves, but together they illustrate why the city's streak of deadly violence proves so stubborn.

And so hard, it seems, for a community to confront.

The number of killings crept quietly into the dozens last year until a spate of teen deaths altered the mood across the city's urban core.

December's open-air shootings of four young black men senseless and in quick succession revived fear, criticism of police and an aching recognition by some residents that the city again had fed its reputation for bloodshed.

"We were getting so close to having success with the homicide rate coming down," said Bob Sutcliffe, a member of the city's police commission. "Now we've ripped the Band-Aid off and we're bleeding again."

The renewed calls to action by churches and community and city leaders in the wake of December's deaths have become a fresh endurance test for a city that groped through some of California's worst crack-induced violence in the early '90s.

Police have responded with stepped-up enforcement in the city's troubled south side, sweeping hot spots and drawing approval from embattled neighbors. Labor and church leaders have committed to help set a more aggressive agenda for social change in the city. And students from Richmond's two high schools, riled by the deaths of their peers, have launched a broad youth anti-violence campaign.

There is promise in the early going. But such efforts have proven hard to sustain in the past.

"We respond well to crisis," said A.J. Jelani, who runs a youth program in central Richmond. "When you haven't had a war in awhile, you tend to put your gun down and relax."

No simple trends

Two years ago, the city seemed to have a handle on the killings.

Homicides had fallen from 62 in 1991 to 18 in 1998. The drop, far swifter than the one seen nationally, outpaced even the big cities that bore the brunt of the crack epidemic's early days.

Police here drew widespread praise for a unique federally funded community policing program aimed at attacking the roots of homicide. One study conducted for the federal Department of Justice credited the effort with driving down the homicide rate in Richmond faster than in nearly any other California city.

But in the past two years, Richmond's numbers have rebounded.

Thirty-one people died violently in 1999; 29 the following year. Four of every five victims were black males, three-quarters of them shot with handguns.

The homicide rate alone resisted the steady downward march of other violent crimes in the city.

A Times analysis of homicide numbers from Richmond and other California cities shows:

The city's per-capita homicide rate ranked second in California among cities with 10 or more homicides in 1999, the most recent statewide data available. In 1995, Richmond ranked seventh.

Richmond's per-capita murder rate in 1999 was more than five times the state rate and more than double that of any other Bay Area city, including Oakland. While Oakland homicides rose more than 30 percent in 2000, Richmond's per-capita rate remained higher.

A closer look shows that 30 percent of the killings in Contra Costa County during the past decade have happened in an area of Richmond with only 3 percent of the county's population.

The same area, just three square miles, also accounts for nearly 70 percent of Richmond homicides, and at least as much of the city's skewed reputation for violence, frustrated residents say.

"I realize that in a place like Richmond, if you're not in a bad personal relationship and you're not selling drugs, the chances of your getting involved in a homicide are about as much as they are in Mill Valley," said Councilman Tom Butt. "I'm more concerned about what other people think."

At stake is a rosy picture for the city of 99,000 in the midst of a building boom. With nearly $1 billion in planned new development, including major overhauls for some of the city's bleakest blocks, there is long-standing concern that the emerging Richmond will suffer from outsiders' perceptions.

"We have 32 miles of shoreline, we've got BART, the freeways it's all meaningless if people don't feel safe traveling, shopping and living in Richmond," said Sutcliffe, who has criticized the city's recent policing efforts.

But the changing nature of Richmond's killing has added its own complications.

In some ways, the city's deadliest days in the early '90s were more explicable. Largely the product of street-corner drug warfare, murder was driven by economics, then retaliation. One murder begot three.

Now, police say, the motives for gunfire often are more petty, and the city's homicide problem is harder to pin down.

"There isn't a nice cozy trend," said Richmond police Lt. Lori Ritter. "The only thing that's really consistent is that the majority were guns."

December's teen shootings illustrate the point. Three of the victims Clifford "Buddy" Jones, 18; Teonnie Tamarlo Johnson, 15; and Johnny Jones, 14 died on the city's south side.

The fourth, 16-year-old Lamar Preston, was shot in San Pablo, stumbled onto the Richmond High School campus and fell dead in front of classmates and teachers. Three of the boys were "wrong-place, wrong-time" victims, police say not gang members, just within range of gangland urges.

"None of them were really living the (gang) life," Ritter said. "They may have had some peripheral associations, but nothing that should have warranted a death sentence."

Some criminologists say Richmond may simply be ahead of a broader curve. Statewide, preliminary homicide data for 2000 shows an increase of 3.9 percent in larger cities.

Oakland also has seen a bounce in homicide. And the steady declines in killing that began about 1993 in big cities nationwide have slowed.

"We know what drove the downward trend: vigorous efforts of getting the guns away from these kids and the fact the drug markets shrunk," said Alfred Blumstein, a criminology professor at Carnegie Mello University. "The story of the leveling out is that you stopped what was stoppable. There's a lot that's not readily stoppable."

Feds offer assistance

The question of whether local police actually could prevent homicide, rather than simply react to it, was at the heart of an innovative federal grant that Richmond won in 1995, following a four-year killing rampage and a longer period of arctic relations between police and the community.

From 1991 to 1994, 220 people were killed in the city, many of them in quick, retaliatory strikes that left police with the law enforcement equivalent of whiplash.

Schoolteachers ran duck-and-cover drills to help children survive drive-by shootings, not earthquakes. Six people were shot, stabbed or beaten on a normal day.

Nearly 100 Richmond officers more than half the sworn force were assaulted in 1992, and again in 1993. Two were killed.

Overmatched, police called in the California Highway Patrol in a desperate bid for control. During 22 weeks in 1994, they swarmed drug hot spots and towed stolen or unregistered cars to keep drive-by shooters off the roads.

New police Chief Bill Lansdowne pushed the ideals of community policing, handing more crime prevention responsibilities to beat officers. Those officers would spend more time on the street and at community meetings, helping to resolve neighborhood crime problems, ferret out information on violent crimes and hopefully break down a thick barrier of suspicion and mistrust.

Noting those efforts and the city's brutal murder rate, federal officials chose Richmond to craft a pilot program aimed at homicide a violent extreme long considered immune to intervention. The idea was to create a nationwide model that other departments could follow.

"It was breaking new ground," said Luke Galant, a senior adviser with the Bureau of Justice Assistance, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Historically, police would do a lot of hand-wringing with homicide. I'm not aware of other departments that were undertaking major felony initiatives using community policing approaches."

The $350,000 initiative had many facets, most of them centered on young males with guns, the source credited with a big rise in inner-city killings nationwide.

Police rounded up and monitored school truants. They held community forums and worked with probation and housing authority officials to identify problem tenants. They solicited battered women's groups for training in recognizing dangerous domestic violence situations, another source of homicides.

The grant also funded new equipment and bolstered youth programs run through the Police Activities League, among other programs.

During the course of the grant, the number of homicides in the city fell to the lowest level in more than a decade, as did the murder rates of many California cities. But, according to one study, Richmond's successes outdid nearly all of them.

The Philadelphia-based Crime and Justice Research Institute, which studied the program and analyzed state homicide data through 1998, found that Richmond's shift in policing strategies was a key factor in reducing the murder rate.

"What happened in Richmond is fairly unique," said Michael White, co-author of the federally funded study. "The reason there was buy-in and it lasted was that Lansdowne was so good at what he did. He sold it to his department: We're going to change how we do things and if you don't like it, tough.'"

Lansdowne left in 1999 to head the San Jose Police Department, and the grant ran its course. Although several of the programs remain, others have been recast or shelved for various reasons.

Police acknowledge they have been unable to sustain the anti-homicide effort through manpower struggles and leadership changes on the force and in the community. As homicide numbers fell nationwide, federal officials turned their attention elsewhere. The grant program never became anyone's model.

Police change tactics

Lately, some neighborhood activists have blamed police for the rebound in homicides, saying the department has let its community policing efforts dither.

Following high-profile homicides last year, police Chief Joseph Samuels drew from his community officer ranks to help field special enforcement strike teams that conducted intensive sweeps in troubled neighborhoods. Samuels tapped community substations for bodies and later rearranged the ranks, moving some community officers out of areas where they had become neighborhood favorites.

Residents balked, questioning changes to a program they saw as effective and time-tested.

Samuels defends his efforts, saying he is pushing to expand community policing to include all officers. Samuels said he arrived in October 1999 to find a department that had grown to accept mediocrity.

"I recall a staff meeting after one homicide and a comment was, That's just Richmond.' My immediate reaction was, if that's just Richmond, what does that say about us?" Samuels said. "We have to represent crime in Richmond as being out of character, not out of control."

Police Capt. Doug Seiberling, a 31-year veteran who helped oversee the federal initiative, said police deserve credit for the drop in violent crime. But he said it's shortsighted to judge a few years of homicide data, given the slide in other violent crimes and the change since the early '90s.

"When you're getting homicides at that level, it's about taking back the hill," Seiberling said. "Now the thrust is, How do we hold that?' Sometimes homicides are that kind of creature where it gets away from you a little bit."

Criminologists say it's too simplistic to saddle local police with much credit or blame for swings in homicide.

Tougher gun laws, changes in drug markets and the economy may be greater factors, said Dan Macallair, vice president of the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

Macallair noted that many high-crime neighborhoods in Oakland, San Francisco and East Palo Alto have seen heavy gentrification, thinning the concentration of poverty, and crime.

In Richmond, he said, "Things have remained relatively the same. You have people living in very desperate situations."

Jelani, the youth program director, said it's no surprise the city's lethal violence found a second wind. He looks at the killers and victims of the city's most violent period, and he sees their younger brothers and cousins grow into their guns.

He also sees a community caught napping.

"Everybody that had something to do with straightening this thing out the last time has to get back again and double their effort. Once the killing starts, it's perpetual."

The trouble, he said, is "someone gets killed at XYZ block and that whole block shuts down. The locks go up. Nobody wants to talk."

When Jennifer Ecker's boyfriend, Matthew Thompkins III, died last August, apparently beaten to death with a rock near the Easter Hill housing project, she said her thoughts were far from helping police find a suspect.

"I didn't want (police) coming here," said Ecker, 25. "Even if I was to find the person who did it, they come kill me and what good is that? I don't trust them, period. I just hope they find (suspects) on their own."

In some parts of the city, where generations have lived in the same homes next to one another, the relations and the reluctance to speak are deeply ingrained. Central Richmond is thick with second- and third-generation families, many of them related by blood, marriage or children out of wedlock.

"My mom and I get into discussions all the time: How much do you let go, how much do you not see?" said Michael Seals, president of the Cortez/Stege Neighborhood Council. "She has this old Christian mentality of Let it alone. Be quiet. God'll take care of the devil.'"

Involving residents

Samuels, the police chief, said he wants to see neighborhood groups take a more active role in identifying problem spots. Up until now, community policing in the city has been a one-way affair, he said.

"The officer would stand up at a neighborhood meeting and report the crime statistics and what he did about a problem and the community would say OK, thank you very much, here are some other problems. Go do something about it,'" Samuels said.

Samuels said he has secured grant money for neighborhood groups that craft their own anti-violence programs.

"I'm not challenging the community. I'm inviting the community. They should be able to define problems and priorities, then design remedies," he said.

To residents such as Seals, Richmond is a city that grows silent from apprehension, not apathy.

It is a silence, some residents say, that can grow and gather force, clearing the streets for more bloodshed and leaving the city open to an image that violence colors daily life in Richmond, from hills to shore.

"The average person is just going to think we're inundated with murder. I live here, and I don't have that fear. I'm not a threat to anybody's turf," said Mildred Carlton, who moved to the Iron Triangle neighborhood in 1980 and refuses to leave.

"But I do feel consciousness of crime, and I'm infuriated by it. I'm outraged by it," she said. "We shouldn't accept what's here. It ought not be here."