Richmond shaken by
rise in violence
As Pargat Singh Baath drives through Richmond's tough Iron Triangle neighborhood, he isn't just looking for fares -- he's trying to avoid people who might shoot or rob him.
Two fellow cabbies have been shot recently, one of them killed, as the East Bay city's homicide rate spirals ominously upward. Only halfway into the year, the number of killings has nearly matched last year's total, unsettling residents and police alike.
"I'm scared always, day and night," said the 63-year-old Baath, who, like many of the other taxi drivers in Richmond, is Sikh. On a recent drive through some of the city's most crime-plagued neighborhoods, a man on a street corner called out to him menacingly while others gazed as he passed.
Baath, an independent operator, keeps his wits about him, turning down fares who call his cell phone from dangerous locations. "There," he said, pointing to a building on the 1300 block of Bissell Avenue. "No drivers go there."
Police and city leaders say the upsurge in violence in the gritty city of 102,000 is troubling. The city's homicide rate eclipses that of Oakland, which has the highest homicide rate of major cities in California.
The same factors driving Oakland's rising homicides exist in Richmond to its north: many ex-cons without jobs and a rampant drug trade.
In hopes of slowing the bloodshed, Police Chief Joseph Samuels Jr. has reactivated an elite crime-fighting unit focusing on drug dealers, loiterers and traffic scofflaws.
POLICE CHIEF CRITICIZED
But Samuels, hired in 1999 after being the top cop in Oakland, faces criticism from city and community leaders for failing to keep some of his officers in check.
This year alone, Samuels' top adviser abruptly retired after being accused of sexual harassment; a former officer was found guilty of molesting a boy; another retired amid accusations he had on-duty sex; and yet another, accused of brutality during a Cinco de Mayo fracas last year, was fired.
Police also were criticized for fatally shooting 16-year-old Robert Freeman,
a suspect in a series of robberies of pizza delivery workers, on June 12. An undercover officer posing as a delivery worker shot the teenager as he raised a fake gun at the cop, police said.
Samuels scoffs at speculation that he is in danger of losing his job and says he is working on a community policing program, involving various city agencies, to combat the violence. The chief says he is proud of the "98 percent of officers who work hard, who play by the rules and treat people right."
There have been 22 homicides so far this year, compared with 29 for all of 2002. But that is a far cry from the city's record of 61 slayings in 1991, Samuels said. The city had 18 homicides in 1998 and again in 2001.
"It wasn't too long ago when the city had 40 and 50 and even 60 homicides a year. I don't think we'll see those days again," Samuels said. "I'm fairly confident that with the strategies we have in place that it will be stabilized. "
RICHMOND'S 'RUGGED STRETCH'
But he agrees the city has "had a rugged stretch these last two months."
In May, seven people were killed, including two teenagers in the same week, prompting Samuels to reinstate the special crime-fighting team known as Narcotic Intervention Team Restoring Order, or NITRO.
On June 16, Erica Young, 16, a high school honors student from Concord, was killed in a triple shooting that also claimed the life of a Martinez man and wounded a woman who had tried to run away from alleged gunman Kimiko Kimio Wilson. Wilson, 18, of Antioch was arrested Wednesday in Humboldt County and is to be arraigned this week.
Young died on her father's 42nd birthday, hours after she sang him "Happy Birthday" on a message she left on his cell phone. "I listen to it every day," said Eric Young of Atlanta, bass player for the funk group ConFunkShun. "It gives me strength."
Young blamed the recent violence on broken families and the lack of positive role models for youth who resort to weapons to resolve problems. "They just grab guns like a video game," he said. "They treat life like it's just worthless."
AREA WITH MOST SLAYINGS
Most slayings have occurred in the Iron Triangle, a 2-square-mile area of 14,000 residents who account for about 13 percent of Richmond's population.
The Rev. Andre Shumake, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council and associate pastor at the North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church, grew up in the area and has seen his share of violence. But now Shumake is fed up.
"If we're going to stop this madness that's taking place, we have got to go to the root cause of what's causing this stuff," Shumake said. "The sad thing is, it's not a money problem. It's how the money's being allocated."
Shumake says more money should be spent in high-crime areas on programs to help at-risk youth and those on welfare or seeking jobs. "This not a complicated issue," he said. "All we have to do is to make the tough decisions,
put the money where the money should go, in order for us to get a greater return on the investment."
Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes his hometown of Richmond, says more emphasis should also be placed on prevention and after-school programs. "We have to take a long-term approach," he said.
But tensions between community leaders and police have complicated the problem.
Samuels, whose stature rose prominently last year when he became president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, has appeared in television news conferences after arrests in high-profile cases. One of them was the case of triple-shooting suspect Wilson. The other was when authorities arrested Scott Peterson in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and unborn son after their bodies washed ashore in Richmond in April.
Richmond City Councilman Tom Butt, one of Samuels' critics, says the chief's crime-prevention plan is not working despite the well-publicized arrests.
"I don't think our city and our Police Department, in particular, have done a good job getting a handle on it," Butt said. "Yes, we have made progress. Are they there yet? No, they are not."
City Manager Isiah Turner agrees, saying the majority of the City Council is "not pleased with (Samuels') performance, nor am I."
Samuels says he promises to involve the community more in crime-fighting strategies and to better communicate with city officials about officer discipline.
But such finger-pointing is far from the minds of people like Baath. Driving through the city's crime-plagued neighborhoods, he showed a reporter where Greyline Cab driver Inderjit Singh, 29, of El Sobrante was shot and wounded in the jaw July 5.
Then he pointed out where Yellow Cab driver Gurpreet Singh, 23, of Hercules was shot and killed three days earlier. The driver's slaying devastated fellow cabbies and prompted Singh's disconsolate fiancée to commit suicide in India, Baath said. A suspect in the slaying was later released for lack of evidence, police said.
As he pulled up to the Richmond BART station, Baath pointed to a driver parked there and waiting for a fare. "He was robbed eight times." That one there, two times. Some Sikh drivers have even removed their turbans and shaved their beards so as not to stand out.
Baath later drove through the Triangle Court Family Housing complex, where Wilson allegedly unleashed a flurry of bullets. At the edge of the neighborhood, Baath slowed his Ford Crown Victoria past a young woman's home, one of his regulars.
"A very nice lady," he said.