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Richmond Mulls Gun-Death Measure

Council members in the Bay Area city consider declaring a state of emergency to help win government aid to stem rampant shootings.

June 22, 2005|John Geluardi and Lee Romney | Special to The Times

RICHMOND, Calif. — At a packed hearing Tuesday night, council members of this bayside community of 100,000 considered declaring a state of emergency in hopes that it would bolster their demands for state and federal aid to stem a wave of gun violence sweeping the city.

Officials were also expected to approve $1.9 million in local expenditures to put more police officers on the street, mount hidden cameras in neighborhoods plagued by drug dealers, and seek injunctions against gang members.

Richmond, northeast of San Francisco, has been hammered by gun violence for years and recently was ranked by a Kansas-based research firm as the most dangerous city of its size in California and the 12th most dangerous in the nation.

The proposed state of emergency comes on the heels of 22 shootings in the last two weeks that left 8 people dead. Seventeen have been slain in Richmond this year.

The standing-room-only crowd filled the council chambers and the overflow of 200 to 300 more community members packed into a tent set up in a parking lot. The vast majority of those in attendance were in favor of the resolution, many carrying placards that said, "How many more must die?"

The Rev. Andre Shumake, minister of North Richmond Mission Baptist Church, urged the council to pass the resolution. "If we don't do something now, [the killings are] going to continue," he said. "There are too many African Americans and Latinos dying. And if you don't think there's an emergency, just contact the families."

A regional crime prevention effort that included federal and state participation succeeded in reducing Richmond's homicide rate in the late 1990s, said Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, who is leading the push for the declaration and other measures. The killings had fallen from a peak of more than 60 deaths a year in the early '90s to 35 last year. But the deaths are mounting once again.

"My job is to be an advocate for my people," said Viramontes, who served as executive director of the now-disbanded East Bay Public Safety Corridor Partnership.

"If I don't see the federal government paying attention anymore, and I see our state government neglecting us, then this [state of emergency] is an opportunity to get us back to the table, so we can make our case to them," she said.

The city recently dug out from an unexpected $35-million budget deficit, only to confront and eliminate a $21-million deficit in the current fiscal year. As a result, the police department is operating with 50 fewer sworn officers than the city charter permits.

A California Department of Justice spokesman could not yet comment on what a state of emergency would accomplish. But he said the attorney general "is prepared to do whatever this office can to help law enforcement and other officials combat this problem."

Backing Viramontes and Councilman John Marquez were plenty of community members who have lost family members and believe drastic measures are needed to get guns off the street.

The mother and sister of slaying victim James O'Dowd III flew from their home in Colorado to support the state of emergency resolution and seek information about O'Dowd's death. Police said he was thrown out of a car with his throat cut on a busy Richmond street on June 11.

"I'm here to encourage anybody who has any information to let somebody know what happened to my baby," said Patricia O'Dowd, the victim's mother. "He was only 24 years old and he didn't deserve to be stabbed in the throat and thrown out of a car like he was a piece of garbage."

A growing number of innocent bystanders have been exposed to turf, gun and drug violence, city officials and police said. In an incident last month, more than 100 shots were fired near a church , Viramontes said. Two worshipers were wounded.

But some officials -- while supportive of local spending on law enforcement -- oppose the state of emergency as an image-killer that would cement Richmond's reputation as a crisis zone just as it is climbing out of an unprecedented fiscal crisis.

"Such a declaration is just words, not action," Mayor Irma Anderson said in an interview before the council meeting, advocating instead for long-term job growth planning.

"This resolution could have a major negative impact on the city's property values and just create unnecessary hysteria and fear in the community," she said.

Crime suppression, she added, "can easily cross the line to oppression and we've been there and done that."

The contentious move toward a state of emergency comes as Richmond prepares to celebrate its centennial this summer under the slogan "City of Pride and Purpose."

It also comes amid mounting desperation that the violence that has plagued some neighborhoods for years is spiraling out of control.

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