It may be hard to believe, but many residents of the city of Richmond now talk about rampant gun violence there as a thing of the past. Less than a decade ago, the city experienced the chaos of a violent crime wave. There were 29 murders in 2002, and that number rose to 47 in 2007 and 2009. For a city its size – just over 100,000 people – that was almost ten times the national average.
Gemikia Henderson was a sophomore at Richmond High back then. She says in 2009, she lost a number of friends within a couple of months.
“There was killings every single day,” she says. “I can say, the ones I can count right now, maybe ten friends.”
Among the friends Henderson lost was her best friend, or her “other half” as she called him.
“I was the quiet part and he was the loud, funny part,” she says. “When we got together, we were as one. We had this bond that was unbreakable until… It’s not broke now. I still have a bond with him.”
Since then, the city has made remarkable progress in stemming the tide of violence. From the peak in 2009, the number of murders dropped dramatically to 18 in 2012. So far this year, there have been four (including one at Richmond BART).
For Richard Boyd, he’s lived in Richmond’s Iron Triangle neighborhood for the past seven years – an area with a historic reputation of violence. He says the block feels completely different from when he first got there.
“My neighbor said to me the other day, ‘I haven’t sat on my porch in 30 years. This is the first time in 30 years,’” he says. “Now people don’t mind kids walking to the store. The kids are outside playing soccer in the parking lots. They’re not walking past drug dealers when they walk to school at 7am.”
As we stand outside his front door on MacDonald Avenue and First Street, he says he’s dealt with criminal elements on his block for years after he moved in.
“Daily,” he says. “Literally daily. It was either domestic violence, gunshots, stabbing, two guys fist fighting, man and wife screaming at each other. It was something all the time.”
Violent crime got so bad in the mid-2000s that the city council considered declaring a state of emergency, which would have brought assistance from other enforcement agencies on California’s dime. Some residents demanded help from the National Guard. Some organized a spontaneous camp-out called “Tent City” to take the most dangerous streets back.
Back then, no one knew what to do about the rampant crime rate, says Kimberly Aceves, co-director of the RYSE Youth Center. She says young people felt a sense of hopelessness, and everyone knew something had to change.
“In the pauses in the spikes in violence,” she says, “there was a new conversation on how do we get innovative, how do we listen to young people, how do we involve residents in the solution?”
Aceves says a new generation of leaders began to take shape. Faith-based groups expanded their service to formerly incarcerated people. And a new city manager and police chief came on board.
“Richmond has had a lot of long term challenges related to crime in general and certainly violent crime specifically,” says Chief Chris Magnus.
Since he started as chief seven years ago, he’s determined the hard-core violence stems from a relatively small group of people. He says, now, his department is focused on around 30 individuals at any given time.
“It’s not about stopping everyone on a street corner or assuming everyone who lives in a particular neighborhood is engaged in violent crime,” he says. “It’s about doing the background research and analysis to find out who really is engaged in this.”
It’s made a difference.
Between 2006 and 2012, overall crime rates dropped more than 20 percent. The murder rate fell by 60 percent. The police force is bigger, now, than when Magnus took the helm. But he says it’s just as important how those cops work in the community.
“You have to get out of your car, first and foremost,” Magnus says. “Have to be at neighborhood meetings consistently. And you have to realize you have a responsibility for that just as much as you do to respond to 911 calls, writing traffic tickets, making arrests. You have to see that as part of your job.”
He also says the police department couldn’t possibly control crime by itself.
“We have a good partner in city hall’s Office of Neighborhood Safety,” he says.
Despite Richmond’s history of bitter political conflict between progressives and conservatives, city leaders worked together to establish the Office of Neighborhood Safety, or ONS in 2007. It was the first government-run agency in the state solely established to prevent gun violence.
DeVone Boggan is the Director of ONS. He says the kids he works with are not at-risk.
“I’m talking about young men who for 16, 17, 20 years, have been exposed to the trauma of gun violence,” he says. “As a result of that exposure, have become significant perpetrators of gun violence.”
Participants are identified through street and police intelligence. They’re taught life and conflict management skills, as well as educational and employment training opportunities.
Boggan says instead of waiting for participants to seek help, the outreach workers go out directly to where the issues are.
“We’re engaging both sides of different conflicts every day that’s going on,” He says. “It’s akin to street parenting. Each of our agents consider themselves if not a surrogate parent to these kids, a surrogate aunt or uncle or street mentor to these young men.”
This kind of engagement by the ONS, along with police, community and faith-based efforts has paid off. In 2011, Richmond fell off the 10th position on the FBI’s list of most dangerous cities in the US. It had made the notorious top-10 list three times in the past five years.
Despite the safer environment, says RYSE Youth Center director Kimberly Aceves, young people still deal with violence every day.
“Homicides are down, but that doesn’t mean there are less guns on the street where young people aren’t being impacted,” she says. “It’s still a condition they still have to deal with daily. Poverty is a big piece of that.”
Indeed, Richmond’s per capita income in the 2010 census was just shy of $28,000 a year. That’s over $10,000 less than nearby Berkeley or San Francisco.
The poverty is even worse in the Iron Triangle. But it doesn’t get residents like Richard Boyd down. When he moved to town, he looked to clean up his neighborhood. He eventually became a professional organizer, and now he works with a local faith-based nonprofit that supports working-class families.
“I’m glad I live here,” says Boyd. “I’ve never lived in a warmer place. The fact I’m here forever. We decided we’re going to die here, and I’m real grateful for it.”