Despite recent violence, city’s downward crime trend continues

Richmond police investigate fatal shooting on Chanslor Avenue
Photo credit: Richmond Police Department

The recent spate of shootings in Richmond has prompted concerns about the state of public safety in the city, but data continues to show a downward crime trend, Richmond police Chief Allwyn Brown said.

Data comparing 2018 to 2017 show overall crime down 6 percent, violent crime down 12 percent, and property crime down 5 percent, Chief Brown told Richmond City Council during a law enforcement budget presentation Tuesday. By the same measure, there was a 14 percent reduction in ShotSpotter gunshot detection activations, which correlates with a 13 percent reduction in 911 calls about shootings, and firearm assaults on people decreased 19 percent, Brown said.

While there have been eight homicides so far this year, that rate is in line with a steady decline in average annual homicides over four decades. In the 1980s, there was an average of 24 homicides annually. That increased to 38 annually in the 1990s, when the city experienced a high of 62 homicides in 1991. In the 2000s, the average was 34, and in the current decade it is down to 16, although there were 21 homicides in 2015 and 25 in 2016.

“Richmond has been plagued with gang violence for decades,” Brown said. “The promising news is that has been trending down and we want to continue to trend down going forward.”

Over the last five-plus years: 88 percent of homicide victims in Richmond have been males (68 percent black and 22 percent Latino); 39 of the 101 victims were between ages 18 and 25, and a majority of the suspects were between those same ages; just over half of cases happened during nighttime hours; in 88 percent of cases a firearm was used, according to city documents.

One unfortunate current trend involves the city’s homeless population. Of 26 homicides in 2018-2019, 15 percent involved transients, RPD states. “Tribal dynamics” in encampments can “trigger rivalries” that result in conflict, RPD states.

Gang activity, however, continues to be a main driver of killings in Richmond. It’s an especially challenging issue, as gang violence can be sparked “by the slightest perceived insult,” according to the police chief’s report.

“Current conflicts carry the residue of past lives lost to gun violence – people murdered on all side of rivalries, some affecting generations spanning several decades,” the report states.

RPD says its ability to enforce and reduce gang violence and crime have evolved with the help of community policing strategies, enhanced law enforcement technologies, enrichment programs for youth and focused, multi-agency criminal investigations targeting active groups or gangs. RPD cited several gang operations, such as the Manor Boyz gang crackdown and “Operation Stop Swerving,” for not only leading to multiple arrests and weapons seizures, but resulting in relatively quiet periods in the city for gang violence.

The aim is to intervene at the first sign that gang tensions flare, with RPD’s Special Investigations Section working in partnership with groups such as Project Ceasefire, the FBI Safe Streets Task Force, Homeland Security Investigations and other law enforcement agencies.

Brown said RPD is also trying to address the cycle of domestic violence before it becomes deadly, partly through a program implemented in recent years called the Lethality Assessment Protocol (LAP), which aims to educate victims and connect them with support and safety planning services.

While the city is currently trying to solve a more than $7 million deficit for next fiscal year that could lead to reduced services, Brown made the case for maintaining staffing and programs in order to continue positive crime reduction trends.

He told council he wants RPD to maintain a focus on community engagement strategies, including programs such as the Community Safety Academy, where residents experience police life and become public safety ambassadors in their neighborhoods. Other programs he touted were the Pound the Beat program that gets officers out of their cars and into purposeful engagement with residents in neighborhoods, as well as the Park Ranger Program, which provides security in open space areas. He also wants to maintain youth-centered strategies such as the Police Explorer Program, Richmond Police Activities League, RYSE Youth Center and its School Resource Officer program.