Historically, street homicides in Richmond and Oakland have been out of control. Without fail, both California cities ranked near the top on annual "Most Dangerous Cities" lists throughout the 1990s and well into the millennium.
Yet while gun killings in Oakland have continued to soar, they are way down in Richmond. There were 18 homicides in Richmond in 2012. That's still a lot for a city with about 100,000 people. But that's half as many ¿as the city averaged in previous years. How did Richmond achieve substantial reductions in gun killings? What can Richmond teach cities like Oakland?
It's not about fancy crime-fighting strategies or magic formulas.
The key lesson is, nothing changes without an unwavering commitment on the part of a broad cross section of the community to end the violence.
To understand the confluence of forces that got Richmond to where it is now, you have to go back to June 2005. The year before, the city had 35 killings. More than half of the people who died were African-American boys and men in their early 20s. On average, every 10 days, someone was shot and killed.
The Rev. Andre Shumake, a longtime Richmond activist, decided something had to be done. Shumake and other members of Richmond's clergy helped organize a "Black-on-Black Crime Summit." The theme was simple. "We want them to live." About 200 people from across Richmond -- clergy, police, city officials, media and neighborhood groups -- attended the daylong conference at a local middle school to talk about solutions to youth violence.
I covered the event for the Contra Costa Times, one of the event sponsors.
The organizers promised to work on a campaign to reduce homicides to zero in three years. It was wildly optimistic. All the more so when eight people were killed during the first 19 days of that very same month. But the Black-on-Black Crime Summit was the beginning of a communitywide mobilization around violence prevention that has endured to this day.
Later that month, hundreds of people packed a City Council meeting demanding that then-Mayor Irma Anderson and council members take action. Then, a tent city movement emerged where clergy and others camped out near the scenes of killings for more than a month to keep the spotlight on the homicide epidemic. Ministers continue to walk the streets of violent neighborhoods preaching messages of peace.
"All that laid the foundation," says Shumake, who credits Richmond's success in reducing gun homicides to the police department, the city, clergy, the community and the media all working together.
In October 2007, Richmond launched the Office of Neighborhood Safety, a city department.
The agency's sole mission is to identify the people -- most of them between 16 and 30 years old -- who are responsible for most of the gun violence in Richmond and to get them to stop shooting. Says director DeVone Boggan, "We don't focus on hot spots, we focus on hot people."
ONS has outreach workers who try to mediate conflicts before they erupt into shooting.
The most innovative and controversial program is a fellowship where those enrolled earn up to $500 per month as an incentive to achieve certain goals, whether it's getting their GED, going through drug treatment or attending career training.
Boggan has raised the money for fellowships from private donations. Yet some complain that people are getting paid -- basically to persuade them not to shoot other people.
Regardless of ONS' unorthodox strategy, killings in the city have declined overall since its inception.
The agency has a symbiotic, sometimes tense, relationship with the Richmond Police Department. In order to maintain trust with the men it serves, ONS can't be seen as being too cozy with the police. Some in the RPD have accused the agency of refusing to cooperate in criminal investigations.
Boggan and police Chief Chris Magnus acknowledge that the relationship between the two city departments has at times been difficult. But both acknowledge the other's key role in reducing violence.
Magnus came to Richmond in late 2006 from Fargo, N.D. At the time, some questioned what he could possibly know about policing a city like Richmond with major urban problems.
Magnus revamped the department from top to bottom. He focused on building relationships with the community, making officers and supervisors accountable for reducing crime as well as blight in their geographic zones, and using CompStat data for smarter deployment of officers. Since Magnus arrived, the city has hired 50 more police officers.
He is cautiously optimistic about Richmond's gains.
"It's a work in progress, " Magnus says. "It's very fragile."
Richmond might not have achieved zero homicides, but it's at least headed in the right direction.