A Small City’s Big Problem

Distrustful of police, fearing retaliation, witnesses to Richmond's violent crimes keep quiet, and assailants get away with murder.

Here’s how people get away with the ultimate crime: Just before 4 a.m. on December 28, 2005, someone in a house on Sixth Street in south Richmond heard a man outside beg, “Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me.” That witness heard five shots, and later that day the victim was pronounced dead.

When Michael Rood, a Richmond homicide detective, arrived on the scene ninety minutes later, the witness — whose gender Rood won’t reveal — described the shooters and said they’d been in the neighborhood before, but wouldn’t cop to knowing them. “It’s pretty apparent that the witness knew who the responsible people were,” he says.

Rood’s source clammed up and refused to accompany him to the station to make a statement. One year later, the killers remain at large. Without that testimony, the detective says, the case will join Richmond’s crowded backlog of unsolved murders. “You can’t force people to talk to you,” Rood notes.

Such is the saga of Richmond, pegged by a recent study as the nation’s eleventh most dangerous city and California’s third, based on FBI crime stats. These grim rankings are made grimmer by the fact that few of the killers are brought to justice. From 2003 through 2005 Richmond police recorded 113 homicides, of which they cleared only 34, according to state justice department figures. “Cleared” means either that the suspect was arrested and charged with a crime by the district attorney, or police knew who did it but couldn’t make an arrest because the alleged culprit was dead, or had fled the jurisdiction. Of those 113 killings, only twenty resulted in a murder charge by the district attorney, notes Lieutenant Shawn Pickett, head of Richmond’s homicide division. During the same three-year period, the city had just six murder convictions.

Homicide clearances in this city of around 102,000 have lagged badly in recent years, especially 2004 and 2005. In ’05, Richmond accounted for forty of Contra Costa County’s eighty murders, and cleared only 15 percent of its share, while the remainder of the county cleared nearly half. Sergeant Steve Harris and his fellow officers know where the disparities lie. “Absolutely, without question, witnesses,” he says.

The homicide detectives offer exasperating examples. A man is shot and killed in his car, but the friend in the passenger seat won’t talk; no arrest. Two men are gunned down in a park in broad daylight with thirty people present. No one talks; case still open. Detective Aaron Mandell recalls a July incident in which someone in a passing car opened fire on a crowded parking lot, killing two people and wounding three others. Witnesses described the event, Mandell says, but wouldn’t identify the shooters. “This happened right in front of them,” he says. “For that to have gone down at that time of day in that place, the chances that nobody saw anything are just about nothing.”

Eyewitnesses do call in tips, but anonymous tips can’t justify an arrest, detectives say, and they are worthless in court. “If people would come forward and testify, we would solve most of our murders,” Harris says. “And I mean all the way to conviction.”

Eyewitness testimony usually makes for a superior case, concurs Harold Jewett, a deputy district attorney for the county. So long as people testify truthfully, he says, “the biggest hurdle to the administration of justice has been met — or jumped.”

Jewett thinks detectives have a tougher time finding cooperative witnesses in Richmond than in other parts of the county. In Antioch, for instance, police solved six of the city’s ten homicides in 2005, and eighteen of its 38 forcible rapes. Richmond cops cleared just nine of forty homicides and eight of 35 rapes. Not that the witness problem is limited to Richmond. “It’s a problem in LA,” says George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine. “It’s a problem in Pittsburgh. It’s a problem anywhere you want to mention.”

Reluctance to testify, Tita adds, is particularly strong in minority communities or those with a strong gang presence, where people distrust police and fear retaliation. “People ain’t gonna put their life on the line, their family’s life on the line, just because they witness the killing of someone they don’t even know,” concurs Freddie Jackson, an ex-convict turned activist who helped organize Richmond’s recent tent-city campaign, an extended campout in crime hot spots that aimed to deter violence.

Richmond detectives differ on the seriousness of the retaliation threat. Rarely is a witness murdered, Mandell says, but intimidation is common. “I’ve done it myself when I was up in jail and people were about to testify on me,” admits Jackson, who guesses he’s spent 15 of his 42 years behind bars. “It was enough for me to make a phone call to make sure that they didn’t go to court. This is a very small town.”

The criminal dynamic adds to the problem. Most homicides occur at times and in places where the only other people around are involved in drug dealing or prostitution, homicide detective Eric Smith says: “If there were a murder in the Broadway Mall in Walnut Creek, you’d get a hundred witnesses. But when you have a murder at three in the morning in a bad part of town when the only people out are crackheads and thieves, you’re not going to get very good witnesses.”

Sometimes the desire for street justice keeps witnesses silent. On September 23, 2006, more than two hundred people attended a service at the Wilson and Kratzer funeral home for 25-year-old Sedrick Mills, allegedly killed by his cousin twelve days earlier. Someone walked in and shot Mills’ uncle — the alleged killer’s father — in the face before fleeing. But when Detective Darrell Graham arrived to investigate, nobody, not even the victim, would talk. Given the lack of physical evidence, Graham insists his hands are tied. “They all know who did it,” he says, “but they’ll work it out among themselves before they get the police involved.”

Jackson, who attended the funeral, notes that even law-abiding residents distrust the police. “It’s a cultural thing,” he says. “You got to realize, this is the way we been brought up. You don’t tell on nobody.”

“It’s like a dog seeing the dog-pound truck,” adds Garland Harper, whose own son was murdered last April. “That’s how you raised in the ghetto, to see the police as the enemy.”

The cops understand that residents of Richmond’s high-crime areas distrust them. “People don’t feel that the police are there to help stop the violence,” says Lieutenant Mark Gagan, who has been with the department for twelve years. “They are an occupation force.”

Yet without residents’ help, the crime problem is intractable. Some police credit Chief Chris Magnus, who took over last February, for improving the situation somewhat. Last June, Magnus juggled assignments so that officers work the same beat every shift. That has helped build community ties, Gagan says: “We’ve had murders where an officer who is on his day off got a phone call from someone who says, ‘Hey, this guy did that murder and he’s over at this house.'”

Lieutenant Pickett, who took over Homicide in June 2006, says detectives have been given more latitude to collaborate and follow leads. The unit fared better on clearances this past year — of the forty homicides logged by mid-December, fifteen have resulted in a murder charge by the DA.

Pickett adds that his unit is getting better at working with witnesses. He cites a recent case where two men drove by and shot at three teens riding bikes. An officer saw it and called for backup. After a chase, the suspects crashed their car and ran, but police caught them. Both were in their early twenties, and had been implicated in multiple homicides and shootings. Although detectives can’t prove it, Pickett says he considers one a “serial killer.”

At first the teens — two brothers and their cousin — refused to take the stand. But detectives brought the family to the station and asked what protections they needed. In the end, the department paid to move the immediate family out of the area. The teens testified in a preliminary hearing, and the shooter is now en route to Superior Court, where he is expected to get a minimum of seven years in prison. His companion faces a similar sentence. “This was really a ground-breaking case because not only did we get this individual off the street, we also got the trust of this family,” Pickett says.

The department, he adds, used its funds for witness protection three other times last year. Sometimes all it took was to put someone up in a hotel room until things cooled down on the street. “It actually works,” the lieutenant says. “And that’s your best advertisement: word of mouth.”

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