Richmond is currently experiencing a significant increase in violent crime. Just over the long holiday weekend, three shootings occurred within 22 hours, leaving three dead and one wounded. The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports a three percent increase in violent crime since last year, resulting in 130 people being shot during the first half of 2017 alone (double check this). But what is causing this tragic trend?
A frequent target of finger-pointing is gang violence. Richmond Deputy Chief of Police Steve Drew has been on the force for 24 years, and has been the deputy chief for two and a half. He said gangs of today are generally not the organized operations like MS-13 that people tend to think of. “What we don’t see a lot of is tight-knit, organized, structured gang activity with a captain, two lieutenants and a bunch of field soldiers,” Drew said. “It’s been a while since we’ve made an actual gang arrest.” According to Drew, the gangs of 2017 are usually young people, as young as 10 years old and as old as 22, in loose collectives divided by neighborhoods and other alliances.
Committing a crime as an accomplice with a gang increases the length of the final sentence a convict might receive, Drew explained. However, tracking the number of gang-related incidents mostly comes from anecdotal evidence, as there is no official database of gang crimes. The word “gang,” therefore, becomes an amorphous term very fast, since everyone has a friend group that can be involved in criminal activity, which does not always constitute a “gang.”
Chief Alfred Durham presents the Department's mid-year report to the community.
Posted by Richmond Police Department on Friday, July 21, 2017
Durham addressed several problems, such as two officer-involved shooting incidents, and an increase in both violent and property crime. Children also make up an unfortunate number of people victimized by crime. Of the 28 homicides committed so far this year, (the same as last year’s total), four of the victims were children. And of the 315 aggravated assaults committed so far this year (there were 282 in total last year), 14 were under 18 years of age.
The question now becomes what to do about such a problem. One of the organizations that has stepped into the spotlight to answer this question is the Richmond YWCA. The YWCA is committed to helping women and combating racism by “breaking the cycle of poverty and violence,” said Rupa Murthy, chief development officer at the organization. The organization offers programs to help kids at various stages of development–Sprout School when they are in preschool, for example. Empower RVA Teens teaches young people constructive conflict resolution skills when they are in their teenage years. The latter has a heavy emphasis on dating violence, and what healthy relationships look like. “It’s really important to start that when they’re young,” said Murthy.
Additionally, the YWCA offers free services to survivors of domestic violence, like counseling and mental health services. The YWCA also helps victims create safety plans, and operates a 24/7 hotline for anyone who has experienced sexual assault or domestic violence at any point in their life and needs to speak with someone.
Murthy feels that the Richmond Police Department is holding up their end of the job well. “We read about it in the paper when there’s a fatality, but Richmond Police Department, they’re out there every day, boots on the ground, walking into situations that are volatile,” she said.
Murthy said the police are willing to learn more about how to improve their work, and YWCA has created an program for them that allows police to better assess someone’s condition using conversations to determine whether they are in a dangerous situation. The Richmond Police, as well as EMTs and firefighters, also participated in a “Superheroes Day,” in which they spoke with children about the importance of safety and healthy relationships.
Another local community organization that is working to combat the violence is Kinfolks RVA, a non-profit of community activists that seeks to empower communities of color in Richmond by promoting and working with local community service projects.
Currently, Kinfolks is working with the Food Justice Corridor, a non-profit which helps residents of Richmond’s community housing projects to create community gardens. Both organizations aim to eliminate food deserts through creating and maintaining community gardens, giving residents an opportunity to work on community-supporting projects that will hopefully keep them from being drawn into less wholesome pursuits.
“We use urban agriculture as a tool to do community engagement and show the communities how to transform themselves and empower them,” said Arthur Burton, founder of Kinsfolks. “You have to take ownership of the land in order to plant a garden. That’s kind of the methodology that we use around transformation; the community gardens become symbolic of us taking ownership of land.”
Crime in Richmond’s lower-income neighborhoods continues to be an issue, but the work of local organizations helps show a better path going forward. Still, with weekends like this past one, it’s clear that a lot of work still remains to be done.