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'Our children are dying': Richmond on track to end year with a 17-year high in number of homicides

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Richmond is on track to finish 2021 with the most homicides recorded by city law enforcement officials in 17 years.

The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is counting 90 homicides so far this year, the most of any year since there were 95 slayings in 2004.

Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Learned Barry, a veteran homicide prosecutor, noted that the city has seen 24 more homicides this year than in 2020, and he drew a comparison to a 10-year stretch in the 1980s and 1990s, when Richmond had 100 or more murders every year.

“We have a problem again,” Barry said. “That becomes the No. 1 problem for the city.”

The ages of the city’s homicide victims and perpetrators have been getting younger and younger, authorities say. Other trends in this year’s murder cases are more drive-by shootings carried out by groups of young people, an increased use of assault-style rifles, and more cases of gunmen indiscriminately spraying bullets into crowds.

In the past three years, at least 98 children under age 18 have been shot in the city, leaving 14 of them dead.

“We’ve got to stop this because our children are dying,” said Tracey Scott, one of many community advocates to speak up during a recent meeting aimed at stemming the city’s gun violence.

The total number of killings this year in Richmond is 99, but that includes cases that the authorities don’t count as murders, like self-defense deaths and accidental shootings.

Everyone agrees that the numbers are unacceptable, but solutions are hard to come by. Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith and other city officials, along with community advocates, believe mentoring of young people is a crucial piece of the crime-prevention puzzle.

Grassroots groups in the city that do just that are hoping to receive some of the $1.5 million in federal funding that the city has earmarked for violence prevention. A steering committee is being formed to decide how to dole out the money.

“We need everyone to come together,” said Smith, who became the city’s police chief in July 2020, during a recent interview at police headquarters. “Our youths are the ones committing the majority of the homicides and shootings. Our youth are the ones being victimized as a result of this gun violence. It’s our youth that we have to talk to.”

Law enforcement officials and community leaders all agree that much of the violence stems from disagreements on social media, and Smith believes the isolation of the pandemic has only increased people’s dependence on those platforms, both in Richmond and nationwide.

“A lot of these conflicts are pushed by social media,” Smith said. “It’s not gasoline onto the fire; it’s like dynamite onto the fire. We can trace back the roots of some of these killings to that.”

Demetrius Williams, who grew up in Mosby Court, has been hosting community events in Mosby Court this year with his friends Von Johnson and Kevin Harris. In a recent interview, they explained the difference between two people having an argument in person and a dispute that humiliates someone on social media, especially when members of the opposite sex are seeing it.

“If something happens and they’ve got that phone out, you’ve got 100,000 views,” Williams said. “You’ve got everybody in the city laughing at you, your friends laughing at you, your enemies laughing at you. Your momma, your aunties — everybody done seen it.”

Once that happens, the ego takes over and young people too often believe they have no option but to retaliate. “They feel like their choice is to be hard,” Harris said.

On April 27, several young men, wearing masks that fully covered their faces, walked into The Belt Atlantic apartment community in South Richmond and at least three of them started shooting while a large group of people were outside enjoying the evening. Another group of people returned fire.

The gunfire killed a woman and her 3-month-old daughter and wounded three other bystanders, including an 11-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl. At least five men, ages 18 to 22 at the time, were arrested in the attack. Authorities believe an argument on social media led to the gunfire.

After the shootings, Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch and others formed The Trauma Healing Response Network, a collective of volunteers, mental health professionals and others that meets regularly to assess the needs of residents of The Belt Atlantic. The name of the network recently has been changed to the Hill Family Healing Team in honor of Sharnez “Shy-Shy” Hill and her daughter Neziah Hill, who were killed in the shooting.

“The number of shootings where shots are fired indiscriminately into crowded areas has been noteworthy this year,” said Richmond prosecutor Brooke Pettit, a supervisor of murder cases. She noted that the four gunmen in The Belt Atlantic case had three handguns and a semiautomatic rifle between them.

“Somehow they’re getting ahold of these big guns,” said Barry, the longtime murder prosecutor, adding that at least one assault-style rifle was used in each of this year’s fatal drive-by shootings.

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At least nine people under age 18 have been charged in homicide cases this year, compared to a combined total of five for 2019 and 2020, according to police statistics.

“We’re seeing an increased number of juvenile and teenage offenders,” Pettit said. “The number is certainly up of these incidents where we’re having multiple offenders riding in a car somewhere together to commit a crime. Instead of having one trial per killing, we’re having three or four because they’re working in groups.”

For example, city prosecutors have 13 defendants facing trial who represent three carloads of suspects who carried out three killings, Barry said.

All told, city prosecutors have a bigger backlog of murder cases set for trial than they have had in decades, with 70 cases pending. Those include cases stemming from killings committed in previous years.

The Richmond Police Department’s staffing levels have dropped so low that most officers feel unsafe on the job, said Brendan Leavy, president of the Richmond Coalition of Police, a local police organization that represents about half of the city’s sworn officers.

On Dec. 16, RCOP called for Smith’s resignation and announced that a survey of its rank-and-file members revealed that they have “no confidence” in the chief’s leadership.

Smith told City Council members in October that his department had 102 vacancies and an additional 70-plus officers unavailable because of medical, military or administrative leave, which means the department at the time was operating at about 75% of its authorized strength of 750 sworn officers. The number of vacancies and officers unavailable has continued to climb, RCOP said.

Leavy, a detective with the police department, said the department’s lower staffing levels mean that backup is farther away for officers who would be making traffic stops. He said he can’t definitely say the staffing shortage is resulting directly in more shootings, but noted that traffic stops are a way to seize guns and get shooters off the streets.

The two neighborhoods with the most homicides this year are Mosby Court and Whitcomb Court, with police recording six homicides in each of the public housing communities.

Back-and-forth violence between groups of people in Mosby and Creighton Court, another public housing neighborhood, has been especially persistent this year, according to Chief Smith.

One example is a drive-by shooting in November outside OMG Convenience Store on the corner of Creighton and Nine Mile roads. The gunfire wounded two men and killed 14-year-old Rah’quan “Ompa” Logan, a resident of nearby Creighton, and 9-year-old Abdul Bani-Ahmad, of western Henrico County, who was with his father and younger brother outside the family-owned convenience store, where they had stopped while running errands.

Several people had opened fire outside the store from a red SUV that later stopped near Mosby, and its four occupants could be seen on surveillance video concealing guns as they got out of the SUV, according to a police affidavit filed in court. Authorities charged an 18-year-old man and three 17-year-old boys in the shooting.

That incident prompted the Richmond Police Department to launch an operation focused specifically on combating the violence between those two neighborhoods.

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In the interview earlier this month, Chief Smith said the operation had yielded 78 felony charges, 17 misdemeanors, two warrants served and 28 guns seized. Police declined to specify what kinds of charges were placed in the cases.

Looking at the overall picture of this year’s homicides in Richmond, Pettit said: “When you look at a combination of shootings and homicides, a large number of those are groups, whether associated with specific neighborhoods or not, who are having beefs with each other and retaliating.”

Community advocates with ties to Mosby say people unfairly blame the community for problems, when the perpetrators are often from outside the neighborhood, and sometimes from outside Richmond.

Williams, the community advocate for kids and families in Mosby, said the police chief will never know the inner workings of the neighborhood.

“He’s not in it,” Williams said. “If we were sitting around, we will know what’s going on — we’ll know whose cousin did what to somebody’s cousin. They ain’t going to tell him that because he’s the police. He’s just using history: Mosby and Creighton beefing.”

Williams and his friends said it’s difficult to gauge the exact impact of their mentoring and community events at Mosby, which include a Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day and a toy giveaway on Christmas Eve. But they said they are setting an example that some young people will follow.

“They’re putting the gun down for the moment,” Williams said of those who attend the events.

Queen Richardson has been helping kids in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods consistently for about three years. She mentors young people and was providing lunches for kids when they were attending school online.

A few weeks ago, she visited a then-11-year-old boy whom she knows in Whitcomb to see how he was doing. The boy said he’d been getting good grades. Then he asked her if she wanted to see something cool.

He pulled a loaded revolver out of his pocket.

Richardson, 33, asked him what he was doing with the gun, and he said he got it to protect him and his grandmother. Richardson told him she would get him new shoes if he gave her the gun. He gave it to her, and she got him a pair of black-and-blue Air Jordans.

“A lot of the reason these kids are out here shooting and killing each other is because they don’t trust anybody,” Richardson said at a community meeting on Dec. 9 that was held to discuss gun violence and how grassroots programs can help. “They don’t trust their brother, they don’t trust their family, they don’t trust their mother. You can’t go to these communities only when it happens, thinking that you’re going to change something. Consistency is key. Being their friend. Being there when you’re not needed is the key.”

“Each group needs to come together and be on the same page and, until the city’s on the same page and we’re attacking this thing the same way, we’re going to have the same cycle over and over again,” added Richardson, drawing applause from a crowd of about 40 people at New Life Deliverance Tabernacle on Decatur Street.

The church’s pastor, Robert Winfree, hosted the meeting so that members of Richmond’s many grassroots organizations could discuss how to unite for a shared purpose of curbing gun violence. Reggie Gordon, Richmond’s deputy chief administrative officer for human services, attended and spoke to the crowd.

Speaking up at the meeting, Councilwoman Lynch mentioned the $1.5 million in federal funding that has been allotted for gun violence prevention, and asked Gordon how “microgrants” can be created to support some of the existing grassroots organizations.

“I’m a very, very strong advocate and believer that right here is where the answers are, so how do we get the funding to align with the people who are doing the work?” she said.

Gordon said the city will hire a community safety coordinator for his team who will assess what work is being done already and what roles need to be expanded. He said a steering committee will consider how best to spend the $1.5 million over a five-year period in conjunction with recommendations from the city’s Gun Violence Prevention Work Group.

Meanwhile, 13 people have been killed in Richmond so far this month, including eight people slain in an eight-day period.

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