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Regional killings soar past 100, reach highest level in decade

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Killings across the Richmond region soared in 2016 to the highest level in more than a decade, with African-Americans suffering the greatest loss of life at 81 percent of all victims.

Homicides in the region’s four cities, three towns and 16 counties with a collective population of 1.26 million jumped 24 percent, from 98 in 2015 to 124 last year — the highest tally since 2005, when 132 killings occurred, according to a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis of regional homicide data.

The distressing loss of black lives continued at a disproportionately high pace in 2016, with 101 of the 124 victims, or 81.4 percent, identified as African-American.

That’s the second-highest percentage since at least 2010, when the newspaper began tracking the race of homicide victims and their assailants. The highest rate, 81.6 percent, was recorded in 2015.

The percentage of black victims leaped from 2014 to 2015 and dipped by only a fraction last year.

“An interesting contrast exists between rates of intra-race violence,” said criminologist William V. Pelfrey, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. “African-Americans are disproportionately represented — well beyond their population numbers.

“Approximately 30 percent of residents (in the Richmond region) are African-American, while black-on-black violence is much higher than one would expect,” Pelfrey added. “Latino violence appears to be low relative to their numbers in the population,” which is between 3 and 5 percent of the region’s residents.

At the region’s center, 59 African-Americans were killed in Richmond, accounting for 88 percent of the city’s 67 homicide victims in 2016.

That number includes five black lives lost in self-defense, or “justifiable,” fatal shootings, which police are not required to count under state and federal crime reporting guidelines, and a sixth suspicious shooting death that remains unresolved.

“Concentrated poverty has a direct correlation to this tragedy,” Reginald E. Gordon, director of Richmond’s Office of Community Wealth Building, an antipoverty initiative started in 2014 designed to improve access to educational and economic opportunities to city residents. “In order to address the problem, we need to learn as much as we can about the men who died.”

“I will make an assumption that if we dissected their respective life stories we would see predictable patterns like under performance in school, traumatic experiences during childhood caused by lack of resources, and the inability to find or have access to a job that paid them enough money to provide for the basic needs for themselves and their families (and) save and cover any unexpected financial challenges,” added Gordon, who before taking his current job last year spent nine years overseeing the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross.

“If this is the shared experiences of hundreds, if not thousands, of residents of Richmond, then it would be undeniable that finding solutions to these systemic and structural issues is a matter of life and death,” Gordon said.

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham said what people tend to forget is that there has been a “disinvestment” over the last 20 or 30 years in city services such as education, mental health and drug treatment that is creating dysfunction — and crime — in the community.

“There are so many broken-down systems, and a lack of support systems here for those people,” Durham said. “So guess who’s dealing with all of those people? The police.”

“You have to look at the systemic, socioeconomic issues” that can spawn violence in the community — “poverty, unemployment, underemployment and education,” Durham added. “We are overwhelmed. The police departments today across this country, to include the city of Richmond, are being asked to do too much. We’re taking on (missions) that we’re not built for, that we’re not trained for, but we have to get the job done.”

Durham also is frustrated by an alarming lack of witness and community cooperation, “especially in our poverty-stricken neighborhoods” where a code of silence stymies investigations. That’s the sad reality in up to 80 percent of the killings police investigate, the chief noted.

***

The proportion of African-Americans killed in the region’s large suburban counties of Chesterfield and Henrico dropped dramatically, from 97 percent in 2015 to 68 percent last year, but 2015’s stark numbers may have been an aberration. A total of 31 of the 32 victims killed in those localities in 2015 were black, compared with 19 of 28 victims last year.

When it comes to the homicide count, the region’s numbers usually rise or fall based on Richmond’s toll, and that was especially true last year, when the city accounted for 54 percent of the region’s killings — up from 46 percent in 2015. Richmond’s count was the highest in a decade.

With Richmond removed, killings in the region’s remaining 22 localities rose 7.5 percent, from 53 in 2015 to 57 last year. Black victims accounted for 76 percent of the people killed outside of Richmond.

“Excluding Richmond, the region had a slight homicide increase but not a significant change from last year,” Pelfrey said.

“The city of Richmond, however, experienced a marked increase. The neighborhoods that saw the greatest increase are, unfortunately, the poorest in the city and have the highest concentrations of minority residents, particularly African-Americans.”

Pelfrey said there are some cities that are “notoriously spread out,” such as Atlanta and Houston, that make it more difficult to point to isolated neighborhoods with endemic violence problems.

But in most urban settings like Richmond, including Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, St. Louis and Washington, “there are clear patterns of violence by neighborhoods,” Pelfrey said.

Richmond appeared to follow a national trend that saw a number of major U.S. cities experiencing alarming increases in killings last year.

Durham said a spike in killings and the corresponding publicity can make it appear “that we have a city that is out of control.” But upon closer examination, the large majority of cases — 56 of the killings last year — “the suspects and the victims had a relationship or affiliation,” the chief said.

“These are not random acts of violence,” Durham said. “These are adult folks who get into arguments, try to obtain a firearm or illegal drugs from their friend and something goes south. And the thing is, a lot of family members know what their loved ones are engaged in.”

Pelfrey said police in cities seeing high homicide rates, such as Chicago and St. Louis, are targeting their efforts toward intra-race violence, especially black-on-black killings.

Those homicides are overwhelmingly committed by young males with firearms, Pelfrey said, and prevention efforts revolve around embedding mature mentors “who attempt to identify brewing violence and intercede before deadly force is involved.”

“While these programs are still under development, and it is difficult to determine how many homicides they have prevented, Richmond is highly amenable to these kinds of programs given the concentrated violence in specific neighborhoods and the high number of religious and minority leaders in the city,” Pelfrey said.

***

Once again, the proportion of black homicide victims in the Richmond region last year greatly surpassed state and national percentages, which stood at 64 percent and 52 percent, respectively, of total reported homicides.

Just over 7,000 of the nation’s 13,455 homicide victims in 2015 were black, according to FBI crime data for the most recent year available. And 243 of the 382 people killed in Virginia in 2016 were black, state figures show.

Blacks represent about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 19 percent of Virginia’s residents.

The exceptionally high rate of black victims is one side of a deadly equation that includes an equally disproportionate number of black offenders.

Of the 112 homicide suspects identified by police so far in last year’s regional killings, 102 are African-American, or 91 percent of the total. That’s up from 88 percent in 2015.

In Richmond, 95 percent are black, down from 97 percent in 2015, the data show.

The Black Lives Matter movement continued to command attention both locally and nationwide with protests and demonstrations related to a number of police-involved killings of black men by white police officers that in some cases sparked outrage.

There were two fatal police shootings in the region last year, but neither involved circumstances that drew activists’ attention.

An Illinois man, James Brown III, 34, was fatally shot by state police March 31 at the Greyhound bus station in Richmond after Brown suddenly and without warning shot and killed Trooper Chad P. Dermyer during a training exercise at the station.

After Brown, who was black, fired, two troopers — one white, one black — returned fire, killing him. The Richmond commonwealth’s attorney found no racial component to Brown’s killing and ruled that Brown was the unprovoked aggressor who initiated the fatal force against Dermyer.

A Hopewell man, Boyd Keith Ballard, 61, was shot and killed March 20 in Hopewell by a city officer after he charged the officer with a knife. Hopewell’s chief prosecutor determined that it was a clear-cut case of “suicide by cop.”

The shooting, which was recorded on a police body camera, occurred after officers were called to a Ballard family member’s apartment after Ballard used a knife to wound his daughter’s boyfriend during an argument. Both Ballard and the officer were white.

***

Of the localities surrounding Richmond, Henrico recorded the greatest number of homicides with 18, a 50 percent jump over 2015’s 12 killings.

That includes two homicides that were ruled self-defense killings that are not required to be officially counted under state crime reporting guidelines. Fourteen of Henrico’s homicide victims were black, three white and one a native of India.

Henrico’s total of 18 killings is the county’s highest death toll since 2007, when 17 were recorded. Henrico averaged 12.7 homicides annually from 2008 to 2015.

Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel Jr. said he was concerned about the rise in violent crimes across the country.

“No community is immune from it,” he said, adding that last year’s rise in killings in Henrico “is something we are addressing.”

Chesterfield recorded 10 homicides last year, the same as in 2015. Five victims were black, four white and one a native of India.

Behind Henrico, Petersburg had the highest number of killings outside of Richmond at 11 — all of whom were black. But Petersburg’s death toll dropped 31 percent from 2015.

“For the most part, it’s people resorting to shooting each other over disputes,” Petersburg Police Chief William Rohde said of the city’s homicides last year.

“That would be the biggest common denominator we had. They may not have been close friends, but it appears that (each of the victims) were familiar with the person who killed them.”

Arguments over drugs, gambling or “ongoing bad feelings” led to nearly all the deaths, Rohde said.

Although last year’s homicide count was relatively high, Rohde noted it was lower than the preceding two years, when the city recorded 16 and 14 killings in 2015 and 2014, respectively.

Hopewell, with five killings, and Hanover County, with four, ranked fifth and sixth regionally in total homicides last year.

Three of Hopewell’s killings remain unsolved, but Police Chief John Keohane said detectives have viable suspects in each case.

Police believe one involved a robbery that went bad, and the other two stemmed from disagreements, including a shooting that left a patron of Destiny’s nightclub dead outside the business.

City authorities have since closed down the club, which Keohane said catered to the “criminal element,” including people affiliated with gangs in Petersburg.

***

Until last year, the region’s death toll had remained below 100 for eight straight years, based on regional figures compiled by The Times-Dispatch. And despite last year’s sizable jump in bloodshed, 10 of the region’s 23 localities were homicide-free in 2015, and six others saw reductions.

Firearm killings remained by far the principal cause of homicides across the region in 2016, with 103 of the 124 victims killed using guns, or 83 percent.

Nine were fatally stabbed; eight suffered blunt-force trauma or were beaten; three were asphyxiated; and one was killed by a vehicle.

Of the homicides in which police have determined or released a motive, 28 were killed in arguments or altercations; 22 in robberies; 18 during domestic incidents; and nine in drug-related incidents.

Six died in acts of retaliation; five from physical abuse or neglect; four in murder-suicides; three were innocent bystanders; and two were ruled to be justifiable police killings.

In addition, seven deaths, all by gunfire, were ruled to be acts of self-defense. That was the highest number since the newspaper began recording regional homicide data a decade ago.

The number of females slain — 21 — was the second-highest count since 2008. In 2014, 22 were killed. But as a percentage of total victims, females represented 17 percent of last year’s killings.

The highest proportion of female victims — 26 percent — was recorded in 2008.

So far, 86 of the 124 killings have been cleared by arrest, death of the suspects or by other circumstances, for a regional clearance rate of 69 percent.

Of the homicides with known suspects, 65 involved blacks killing other blacks and seven involved whites killing other whites.

Four involved blacks killing whites, and one involved one black and one white suspect killing a black.

One Asian was identified as killing a black, one Latino was charged with killing another Latino, and two blacks were charged with separately killing two natives of India.

mbowes@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6450

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