17 Aug Richmond Homicide Numbers Continue to Trend Downward
By Joseph Porrello
With six murders in the first seven months of this year, the city of Richmond is on track for one of its lowest homicide rates in more than 20 years.
From 1999-2018, the lowest rate of homicides in Richmond per 100,000 residents in recent years was about nine in 2017 — the only year since 1998 when it was below double digits, according to macrotrends.net, a research platform that uses FBI database information to report its statistics.
While the rate has fluctuated over the years, it has been coming down, for the most part.
“Culture doesn’t just change overnight,” said Richmond Mayor Eduardo Martinez. “It just takes time because it’s a changing of attitudes — a changing of values.”
To accelerate that change, multiple community groups have been trying to curb gun violence in Richmond since the mid-to-late 2000s, when murders were at their peak.
Dewanda Joseph grew up in Richmond and has been an activist for most of her life. She started her organization Ya-Neema Healing Circle and Support Services in response to the 2010 shooting death of her nephew Ivan Thompson in El Sobrante. Ya-Neema offers support to families struggling through the trauma of gun violence.
“I’m thankful for the activists who have stayed engaged in community after we’ve had so much trauma in our city,” said Joseph. “As we engage in our community with the youth, we give them other options to look at and help to divert them from activity that may be unsafe for them.”
Developed in 2007, the city’s Office of Neighborhood Safety also tries to limit gun violence by working both with those committing it and with victims.
“A lot of the people we work with are thinking twice about pulling the trigger to settle a dispute,” said ONS worker Joe McCoy. “The issue is that they didn’t have the services or service providers to be able to help them go from one step in life to the next step.”
Martinez says the work ONS does is crucial to the Richmond community. “I think they’re great mentors.”
According to CNN, Richmond experienced its peak in homicides in 2007 with nearly 50. That made it No. 2 in the U.S. at the time. About 50 more murders happened in 2009, prompting the city to consider bringing in the National Guard.
“I was there on the daily — like on the block when everybody was having wars — and I was meeting with individuals in the middle of the night, with shooters to try and get them to stop,” said Bay Area Peacekeepers founder Gonzalo Rucobo.
He began working in violence prevention during the 1990s following his own involvement with gangs, launching Peacekeepers in 2005.
“There’s a lot of beautiful stuff that comes out of Richmond, but there’s also some negative mindsets and ways of dealing with things in a non-constructive way,” said Rucobo. “We help them develop a decision-making process.”
Rucobo said the city’s youth programs are great but not enough. He said a number of factors have contributed to the decline in homicides. For example, the pandemic kept people inside, which meant potential shooters weren’t on the streets as much.
The cost of housing pushing some people out also played a part, according to Rucobo.
Rucobo said Richmond residents being forced out has affected the culture. “They pretty much moved the North Richmond community out to Vallejo and Antioch and Rodeo when they knocked down the projects,” he said. “There’s a lot of history there that kind of just got wiped away.”
Rucobo also said gun violence largely depends on “who’s in jail, who’s out and who’s coming home.” Some individuals stir up controversy and lead semi-organized crime groups. “If there’s not a beast in the streets training other people to be beasts, then it slows it down.”
He also said it’s important to stay in contact with families who lose loved ones to violence, as retaliation plays a large role in the number of Richmond murders. “Their son gets old enough, and someone points out, ‘Hey, that’s the one that shot your dad,’ ” said Rucobo.
“Usually, there’s a shooting and then another shooting right behind it that sets off a chain of events,” Dewanda Joseph agreed.
In August 2022, four homicides occurred in one week, while 11 murders took place within seven days in May one year prior.
Joseph believes those committing homicides have matured with age and the younger generations are making better decisions with proper community guidance. She also pointed to the work of the Richmond Police force, saying officers have become more personable and that Police Chief Bisa French “shows up pretty much everywhere.”
“We’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with detectives and investigators, and they’re open with communication,” she said. “Not everything always gets resolved, but we get to see what our justice looks like.”
But Rucobo said Richmond Police often take very long to respond, a situation French said her department is trying to rectify even with a short-handed staff.
She pointed out that an officer only has to give two weeks’ notice to quit, but a new police officer may need up to 18 months before officially starting because of training and other logistical hurdles.
Joseph and Rucobo echoed each other’s sentiment that communal events such as monthly lowrider cruises have a positive effect by bringing people together and, thus, reducing violence.
“Both of our opposite gangs are out there, Norteños and Sureños cruising and not fighting each other,” he said.
Death and imprisonment may have also lowered the number of killings. “We lost a lot of people that were active during that time, and a lot of folks were incarcerated,” said Rucobo.
“The street life is street life. It’s not going nowhere; it just evolves and tries to get smarter on how they do things,” said Rucobo. “We don’t know what the new thing is going to be…we have to adjust to what comes into play.”
In June, a search warrant led Richmond Police to find 23 pistols, 20 rifles, eight revolvers, two shotguns, a live hand grenade and large amounts of ammunition in one man’s home — illustrating guns are still widespread in the city.
Rucobo said other crimes are rising while homicide numbers fall, namely domestic violence, drug dealing and prostitution, which he said are all often slippery slopes leading to murder.
There have already been 63 sexual assaults in Richmond through July, putting it on pace for 108, which is in line with the totals from 2021 and ’22. The city is also again on pace see its number of aggravated assaults land between 800 and 900, just like the last two years.
Rucobo said now is not the time to act as if the violence in Richmond is over, but instead be just as vigilant, because people will listen more intently when they are not surrounded by murder.
“In the heat of the moment, it’s harder to penetrate and get them to listen to reason,” he said.
Joseph had a similar take.
“The brain can begin to function without the constant reminders of guns and gun violence, and funerals, and death, and rest-in-peace signs everywhere, and flowers on corners,” she said.
Both Joseph and Rucobo noted the power of adversity in changing things for the better.
“I’ve heard someone say turn your pain into power,” she said. “They are staying vigilant in seeking assistance, giving assistance and supporting one another.”
Joseph said the cohesiveness of Richmond’s people gives her hope. “The support I’ve seen from families and persons when called upon has been great,” she said. “We lack a lot of resources, but we’re also a creative community. We come together and find ways to support each other.”