By Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus,
Dear Mayor, City Council Members, and City Manager. I have received a number of inquiries about why homicides and shootings have increased over the past year and the question that is also almost always asked is, “Does the Police Department have a plan?”
Although my days remaining as Richmond’s Police Chief are few [Magnus’ final day with RPD is Jan. 8 and he will then head to his new job as chief of the Tucson Police Department], I’ll do my best to answer both these questions . . . and then I have a question for you. Why have shootings and homicides gone up? Most of Richmond’s homicides involve disputes, grudges, and perceived slights between a relatively small group of individuals. To call this “gang activity” is overly simplistic. Richmond “gangs” are more like loosely affiliated individuals, often from the same neighborhoods, who hang out together or who seek the perceived protection that their affiliation with each other brings. A subset of these individuals have significant criminal backgrounds, often including weapons charges, robberies, and assaults of various kinds.
Other individuals associated with gang activity are simply young men from a particular area who have little else going for them: they’ve dropped out or been expelled from school; they lack job skills and are chronically unemployed; they often have substance abuse/addiction issues; they suffer from PTSD and/or have anger issues; and they see little or no future for themselves. Sadly, many of the underlying conditions that have led to these affiliations—hopelessness, poverty, fear—have not changed, and in some ways have gotten worse. Richmond gang affiliations and activities are challenging to track because they are extremely fluid and highly unpredictable. Incidents occur continuously between individuals that cause tempers to flare. These incidents are often magnified and shared at lightning speed through social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Even relationships between individuals from the same neighborhood can radically change based on perceived slights or peer pressure from others.
In some cases, incarcerated individuals or gang members who no longer live in Richmond have significant impact on others. Some gang members of key players become known as “shot callers,” since they have influence on others and can direct violent assaults, including retaliation shootings—even from far outside of the city. Individuals may be affiliated with one group for a period of time and then quickly shift loyalties, sometimes to another group of individuals, well outside of their home neighborhood. In addition, even when arrests are made for various gang-related crimes and individuals go to prison or jail for a period of time, younger people from these same neighborhoods are quick to fill their shoes and establish their own reputations.
Just trying to keep track of these individuals as well as who they hang out with is very demanding and complex work. Many of the shootings in Richmond break down into one of several categories. Some are driven by gang-related criminal enterprises related to drug sales, human trafficking, and robberies. Others are driven by personal grudges, family feuds, and disputes. A third category of shootings is typically associated with retaliation for shootings associated with one of the first two categories. Retaliatory shootings are especially complicated. They are often fueled by anger or grief. As a result, they are frequently imprecise. In some instances, a retaliatory shooting will simply be directed towards “anyone who looks a certain way or who is seen in a particular area.” These shootings are often intended to send a message of fear as opposed to killing any particular person or persons. Retaliatory shootings can sometimes result in the injury or death or individuals who have nothing to do with any street-set or gang activity, but who are simply in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”
Does the Police Department “have a plan” to deal with this kind of violence? Yes we do, but it is challenging to maintain, multifaceted, and dependent on a larger level of community engagement and commitment. Some of the key pieces of this plan include:
The Richmond community would do well to understand that there is no one formula or approach that in and of itself will end gang shootings and homicides. Unfortunately, there are folks who believe that directing resources towards one strategy, to the exclusion of others, will solve the problem. Most people knowledgeable about Richmond’s history when it comes to violent crime acknowledge there is a subset of individuals involved in serious violent crime who either won’t or can’t participate in outreach/rehabilitation efforts. It’s a sad reality that based on their past life experiences, criminal involvement, or underlying personality disorders, these individuals will not respond to efforts to help them or take advantage of opportunities to change the course of their lives. The best we can do is keep these individuals from hurting others—and typically that’s accomplished by locking them up, even as we acknowledge this won’t rehabilitate them. This reality-based perspective is unappealing to some members of the community who refuse to believe that anyone is beyond redemption. These folks subscribe to the view that enforcement is never the best option for dealing with any person, regardless of how heinous and repetitive their crimes might be. They believe that investing in police enforcement efforts (which indeed is costly) is money ill-spent and that the arrest and prosecution of particularly dangerous individuals is an example of misplaced priorities. They embrace the philosophy of “community policing”, but oppose resourcing the police to make strong criminal cases, arrests, and put certain individuals in jail. I understand their perspective, but I believe it is naïve and shortsighted.
Yet, while it is true that there is a group of individuals heavily involved in violence who will not respond to outreach, there is no question that the majority of high-risk gang-involved individuals could benefit from, and potentially would change the direction of their lives as a result of, caring, supportive services. Many of us believe that a smart direction for Richmond and similar communities involves investing in programs and services like “Operation Ceasefire—Alive and Free”, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS), Men and Women of Purpose, and other similar initiatives. Each of these programs has relevancy and the ability to be effective with different subsets of Richmond’s population of individuals at high risk for gang violence/gun crimes. None of them have a monopoly on any one particular strategy or approach that works for everyone or that “works the best.” In general terms, these programs provide outreach, engagement strategies, opportunities for healing, mentoring, and support, and a range of resources and services that can help high-risk individuals take an alternative path towards a better, safer future. Unfortunately, what all of these programs have in common is that they are SIGNIFICANTLY UNDER-FUNDED AND UNDER-RESOURCED.
Take the Ceasefire program, for example. Over the past several years, this collaboration of service providers, community activists, faith-based leaders, community residents, and representatives from law enforcement have attempted to do outreach with no real funding of any kind, other than their own very limited resources. In other words, there efforts are mostly volunteered. Sure it would be nice to do regular call-ins involving at-risk individuals, respond quickly to violent crime incidents, build and maintain strong relationships with individuals who are trying to turn their lives around, but how is that possible without funding? Richmond PD attempted to help address this situation—at least on a short-term basis—through a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Justice a year ago. The grant would have directed monies entirely to our community partners, who desperately need the support to do their part of the work. Instead, as is so often the case, other larger communities nearby received the grant funding. In the meantime, it is hard to imagine how Ceasefire and our other violence reduction volunteers can continue their efforts without getting burned out, demoralized, and overwhelmed.
As we rounded out 2014, there was widespread celebration and excitement that Richmond had made it through an entire year with one of the lowest criminal homicide numbers (11) in decades. Many of us cautioned that while this was extremely positive, progress could not be sustained without a significant commitment to the multiple strategies needed to reduce violent crime and save lives.
It was disappointing to see that during the last City Council elections, little to no discussion took place that even dealt with these challenges. In fact, over the last several years, programs like Ceasefire have been largely ignored when it comes to financial support. Service providers doing critical prevention work with young people—which is proven to reduce violent crime—such as the RYSE Center and the Richmond Police Activities League (RPAL), have been lauded extensively for their efforts, but significantly under-resourced. The Richmond Police Department has received national attention for its community policing, community engagement, and violence reduction efforts. We know our strategies work, but they require adequate staffing and other financial resources. The department’s sworn and professional personnel have been gradually—almost insidiously—trimmed back over the last several years. This has made it more difficult to do prevention work, to respond nimbly to escalating levels of violence, and to maintain the progress that has been achieved in the past. The department’s overtime budget has been roundly publicized and criticized, but it reflects and inevitability that comes with chronic understaffing. Most officers, dispatchers, and other PD staff don’t even want overtime anymore; they want time with their families and a return to a rationale work schedule. Despite this, little discussion within City government or at the community level has occurred that reflects public safety as a top priority or “public health epidemic.” That discussion only seems to happen when people get scared, see changing trends in violent crime, or suddenly wake up to the reality that violent crime and gang activity doesn’t just “disappear,” but instead requires a significant “all hands on deck” ongoing commitment of resources.
This leads me to my question for you: I am leaving my position as Police Chief for Richmond to take on a new set of challenges in another community. I believe I have put in place a strong team of personnel within RPD over the past 10 years who are ready to tackle violence in Richmond in a smart, creative, collaborative, and effective manner. Will my team—and our other community partners—be adequately resourced to do this work? If not, do not be surprised if the trends we all see as so disturbing continue or even worsen. Violence reduction is not magic. We know what works, but we cannot accomplish it without a sense of urgency and commitment from our elected leadership, City management, and local residents. My last day as Police Chief is Jan. 8. After that, Interim Chief Allwyn Brown or “AB” as he is known to many, takes over. I have tremendous confidence in him and the rest of my team. These are police leaders who have dedicated their entire professional careers to Richmond and who want to achieve sustainable reductions in crime overall, but especially violent crime. I hope you will give them the support they need.
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