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Richmond Police Try to Combat Gun Violence Before It Happens

Capt. Mark Gagan shows a soft-point bullet in a cartridge seized by police
Capt. Mark Gagan shows a soft-point bullet in a cartridge seized by police
New strategy is starting to produce results; officers cautiously optimistic

“Do you know how much it costs to investigate a murder, just one murder?” asked Lt. Arnold Threets, head of the Richmond Police Department’s Special Investigation Division. He rattled off a list of the different players involved: the initial responders, the forensics team, the homicide detectives and the DNA technicians. “If you could get off with a shooting for under $200,000, it would be a bargain,” he said. “One shooting. One person being hit.”

Gun violence continues to be a major problem in Richmond, at an immense emotional and financial cost to the city and its residents. Nearly 80 percent of those killed this year were shot to death.

But police are cautiously optimistic that their new gun-violence reduction strategy — initiated at the beginning of the year — is starting to produce results.

At a Police Commission meeting in October, Chief Chris Magnus said violent crime in 2010 was down 11 percent compared to last year.

“The activity is noticeably down, particularly with the homicides and the shootings. It’s having a real impact,” Threets said.

The city might end up having fewer murders this year than it’s had in more than 10 years — unlike last year, which had the highest number of homicides (47) in the past decade.

This year, 18 people have been killed. The majority were young men between the ages of 18 and 24.

Threets acknowledged that just one murder was one too many, but he didn’t hide his sense of accomplishment. “I’m not going to act like 18 is not less than 50. It’s a big deal. There’s a difference.”

He said the department — and the SID in particular — has a new focus: reducing the amount of violence in Richmond. “Violent crime is totally unpredictable,” he said. The key to the new initiative is in getting a handle on the city’s known criminals. ”If you look at all the studies that have been done, there is no time of day, there is no day of the week, there is no pattern. The only pattern is the person,” he said.

“Parolees, probationers, gang members, and drug users have a higher likelihood of being victims or suspects of violent crime. So if you target them, you can indirectly impact your violence problem,” he said.

In the past, the department believed it could control the drug and violence problem mainly through joint police operations with neighboring cities and the county. Threets thinks that over-reliance on a regional approach has undermined the department’s ability to curb crime in the city. As an example, Threets cites WestNet — the West Contra Costa Narcotics Enforcement Team. “We thought we could put a couple of officers in a task force and that would be sufficient to address the problem here in Richmond,” he said. “But there is just too much activity.”

To confront the problem head-on, the department established the Special Investigation Division in June of 2008. Since then, the group has grown to 13 — including Threets, two sergeants, three gang officers, two parole officers, four narcotics officers and one officer who follows up on every gun case in the city.

With this team, Threets says he can target the groups that tend to be responsible for violent crime. But he says it can be difficult to quantify the SID’s success. “I don’t have uniformed guys out there doing their thing. We deal with the invisible problem,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many homicides or shootings I prevented this year.”

Part of the police department’s new strategy is to be more proactive in arresting gun violators. At a recent Police Commission meeting, Chief Magnus said the police and the assistant district attorney were working harder to prosecute those charged with misdemeanor gun violations. Once convicted of a misdemeanor, a second offense would be a felony. He said the department wants to get the word out that anyone with an illegal gun will eventually face imprisonment.

The department now has two assistant district attorneys working in-house. Assistant DA Kabu Adodoadji — who has been at the department since early this year — focuses specifically on gun cases. As of early October, Adodoadji had handled 38 gun cases, 27 of which had been filed for prosecution. The other 19 were open and being prosecuted.

“To have a DA embedded with us — it has a huge impact on the prosecution of cases and overall success,” Threets said. “We get more cases charged and they’re charged more aggressively.”

In the past several months, the department also hired nine officers to the force. There are now 193 sworn police officers in Richmond — just under the 2 officers per 1,000 civilians recommended by California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training.

Threets said the increased number of officers has contributed to the city’s lower violent crime rate too. “It’s not an absolute and crime doesn’t disappear just with the presence of police officers, but it helps,” he said.

Beyond the work inside the department, Threets credits Devone Boggan and the work of the Office of Neighborhood Safety with having an impact on violent crime. The ONS is an unconventional violence prevention program — separate from the police — that focuses on conflict mediation and targets youth for services.

“What I appreciate about ONS is they’re actually doing the life-skills part, and recognizing where these guys are, and teaching them how to interview, read and write,” Threets said.

Threets is optimistic that if the existing programs are sustained, “the police will continue to see success in terms of the number of people that are shot and killed in Richmond.”

But he accepts that nothing is guaranteed. “If we end up the year with 15 or 16 homicides and then next year we have 40, all that shows is that we have no control over this criminal thing and it's just all over the place,” he said.

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