January 22, 2021

‘A father, a brother, a son’: Inside the rise in gun violence in California’s Bay Area

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/dec/01/gun-violence-california-richmond-oakland-covid-19

When Anthony Ramsey walked out of his mother Carrolle’s home late in the afternoon of 2 April the pair gave each other a quick goodbye.

Ramsey, a 43-year-old father of four and football coach to several youth league players, had been living with Carrolle in Richmond, California, for about a year. By 9pm, he hadn’t returned, but she didn’t worry too much. Maybe he went to visit his children who live about 45 minutes away, she thought.

Around 11, her sister woke her in bed to tell her that police were at the front door. Ramsey had been fatally shot a few blocks from her home earlier that evening, one of the officers said. Carrolle fell to the floor.

“My son was living right so you don’t prepare for the shock of him being murdered,” Carrolle told the Guardian earlier this month. “It was just me and him for years until I had my daughter at 35. Even now I wait for him to come in the door.”

Ramsey was Richmond’s first homicide victim of 2020. Since his death, 17 other people have been killed in the city, just one more than had been killed by this point last year. In neighboring Oakland, 101 people have already been murdered in 2020, 27 more than the total number of homicides in the city in 2019. Most of these killings involved guns, making 2020 a worrying and unprecedented period for gun violence in California’s Bay Area.

Dinari Ramsey, 15, and his brother DeNeal Ramsey, 13. In April, their father, Anthony Ramsey, was shot and killed by an unknown suspect.



Dinari Ramsey, 15, and his brother DeNeal Ramsey, 13. In April, their father, Anthony Ramsey, was shot and killed by an unknown suspect. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian

It’s a national trend. From Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Vallejo, California, in cities big and small, incidents of fatal and non-fatal gun violence are rising.

Experts say that it is too early to draw a definitive connection between the uptick and the tumultuous events of a historic year – the pandemic, the mass protests against police killings and racial injustice, the tense run-up to the presidential election. But community advocates in Richmond and Oakland agree that the loss of safe havens like schools and community centers plays a role in the rise of shootings among young Black and brown residents. And the strategies violence interrupters, police and non-profit service providers have successfully used to drive gun violence down – like targeted interventions and court-approved search warrants – have been reduced, disrupted and slowed by Covid-19.

The Bay Area had seen a considerable decline in deadly shootings in the past decade. Gun homicide rates fell in cities across the region, across all racial groups. The city of Richmond saw a 67% drop in gun homicide rates between 2007 and 2017, according to a 2019 Guardian analysis of homicide data. In Oakland there was a 44% decline.

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The reasons for the decline were multifold, but prime among them were innovative, community-led approaches to reducing gun violence. Both Richmond and Oakland became national models for such efforts from hospital-based violence intervention and crisis responses that operate without law enforcement to programs such as Operation Ceasefire, a violence reduction program that saw police and civilian organizations partnered to reach the small population of people that are involved in the majority of a city’s gun violence.

In both cities, 2020 started peacefully, too. But shooting incidents began creeping upward in the spring. After Ramsey was shot, a 37-year-old mother was killed at a Richmond homeless encampment, three people were wounded in a drive-by shooting, the rapper Tay Way was shot alongside two others at a corner store, and 22-year-old Erick Galeana was killed on an early-September afternoon while riding in a car with a friend.

Sgt Aaron Pomeroy, the head of the Richmond police department’s homicide department, said he first noticed a rise in shootings in early April. He chalked the earliest fatalities up to “pandemic fever”. Homicides in Richmond continued to rise and peaked in July, August and September, according to Richmond’s monthly crime report. More incidents without clear motives started coming through the office, Pomeroy said, and the department’s clearance rate began to dip.

By late summer, street-level violence and acts of retaliation increased as well. In the days after Galeana was killed, there were two more fatal shootings: one the next day in Richmond and the other less than a week later in San Pablo, a bordering city. Three 17-year-olds were arrested in connection with the Richmond shooting and two young adults were arrested in connection with the second incident.

“We saw individuals who were killed and then retaliatory shootings and/or murders,” Pomeroy said. “We put in a lot of hard work to reduce crime and I still don’t think we’ve been able to figure out the root cause of the increase.”

Once shooting numbers rose, Pomeroy said, investigations into the killings slowed. From the offices that handle forensic analyses and search warrants to the cellphone companies that turn over records, staffers couldn’t keep up amid the volume of cases and remote work because of the pandemic.

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Oakland was witnessing a similar rise. When the first coronavirus lockdowns were put in place, there had been just eight murders. Police said the city was on course to see record low shootings. But toward the end of the summer and into the fall, shootings exploded. Incidents included the murder of a 17-year-old football player, a non-fatal shooting of a mother and her seven-year-old daughter. And in late August, as Quennell Harris Jr was driving a friend who had just been shot to the hospital, a car pulled up alongside his car and opened fire.

Harris Jr, a 29-year-old father of three, was fatally struck. His father, Quennell Harris Sr, remembers his son as being a “rare young kid”.

“He was the life of our family,” Harris Sr said of his first-born. “Quennell’s laugh and charisma made him a kid that could change my day even if I was mad at him.

“I was in disbelief because he was not the type of kid to be in the streets. So him going to a party and not making it home never crossed my mind,” he continued.

The shootings became unsettling and unnerving, said Loren Taylor, a city council member representing East Oakland. “Everyone involved in public safety in the city is talking about it,” said Taylor. “More than 100 murders is a travesty for us. Even if you’re not directly impacted, having bullets flying by your house is traumatic.”

In Oakland, 101 people have already been murdered in 2020.



In Oakland, 101 people have already been murdered in 2020. Photograph: Tim Hussin/The Guardian

“I don’t know how many times I have to iterate that we are in a crisis,” one resident wrote in an email to Taylor and other city officials. “The culture on our block has become one of living in fear and residences are dealing with trauma, and we refuse to normalize this.”

Law enforcement officials across the country, including in California’s Bay Area, have pointed at changes in the criminal justice system spurred by the coronavirus crisis, such as zero-bail schedules and the delay of court dates, as playing a role in the rise in violence.

There is not yet enough data to determine whether surges in violent crime are tied to early releases from prisons and jails, a late October report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) concluded.

But in the meantime, violence prevention workers as well as Bay Area police officials point to the loss of local refuges such as schools and community centers as a likely driver of shootings among young Black and brown residents. Before the pandemic, violence interrupters could be found roaming school hallways and hospital corridors. Some promote mental healthcare, discourage gang affiliation and help young people process the trauma of gun violence exposure. And after a shooting others would connect with those who knew the victim or perpetrator to spurn retaliation and promote reconciliation.

Randy Joseph, a former staff member at the Ryse Center, a Richmond safe haven Erick Galeana frequented, wondered if Galeana might still be alive if it weren’t for the pandemic and the forced closure of some community spaces.

“I’m sad for the loss of Erick’s life. It hurts. Especially because we all saw he was trying to do better,” Joseph said. “It makes us ask: would he be alive if Covid wasn’t happening and he was at Ryse hanging out with us?”

Marissa Snoddy, the clinical director for the Ryse Center, said she started noticing more referrals from John Muir medical center, a hospital where many Richmond gunshot wound victims go, a couple of weeks into the pandemic.

She had expected an increase in gun violence with the sudden job losses and school closures, but when the calls started to come in “you’re never ready for young people losing their lives”, she said.

Her organization had to change its strategy from full conversation to just check-ins, usually over the phone or via Zoom. “Our work is so rooted in relationships we have to connect more frequently and let young folks know that we’re there for them,” she said.

Even though the frequency of these conversations has increased, ensuring that these interactions have the same effect as face-to-face interactions requires a “new skillset”, she added

“Meeting virtually takes a different energy. We just have to be more explicit about talking about their experiences because it’s not as easy to read facial cues and body language virtually.”

John Torres, the deputy director of Youth Alive!, an Oakland violence prevention non-profit, saw the rise materialize during the summer. Youth Alive! received about 17 victim referrals in July to their Khadafy Washington Project, a program that supports the families of homicide victims, Torres said. Normally they would receive closer to nine, even in a busy month.

Torres lamented the drastic reduction in in-person contact with families of murder victims. Although violence interrupters still show up to shooting scenes – sometimes they even supply masks, gloves and hand sanitizer to residents – the majority of staff’s interactions with families is done virtually. Torres worried that these new practices can “stunt community healing”.

“Unless it’s an emergency we’ve been virtual,” Torres said “It would be great to be more visible but at the same time we can’t respond how we did pre-Covid. We still need to build our operation back up and there’s no easy fix.”

Oakland police lieutenant Frederick Shavies, too, said that the absence of routines like in-person schooling has contributed to the recent loss of life in the city. Shavies, who is the head of OPD’s homicide division, pointed to a late August murder of a young man who was home from college because of the pandemic and fatally shot while attending a friend’s party.

“It’s extremely troubling because [if] there wasn’t a pandemic, some of these young people may still be alive,” Shavies said. “When I look downstream: the lack of structure from schools closing is definitely a factor.”

Captain Tony Jones, who leads OPD’s Ceasefire strategy, pointed at the loss of in-person communication as a key factor in the city’s surge in shootings. OPD has not held a “call-in,”– a meeting between someone at risk of being involved with gun violence, law enforcement, faith leaders, and service providers – since February.

“For the last seven years we’ve done direct communication to people who are shooting or being shot at to steer them away from that life,” Jones said. “And now we haven’t been able to do that.”

For shooting victims’ families, 2020 has been a particularly difficult year to mourn in.

YouthAlive!’s Jasmine Hardison helps family members of homicide victims in the first days as members of what she calls “a fucked-up club”.

She is dispatched to help families in the days following a shooting with everything from retrieving personal items from police to picking out caskets. She started helping families independently after her son David McDaniel was murdered in Oakland in July 2016, and joined Youth Alive! four weeks ago.

“I just helped a family at the same funeral home where I had my son’s funeral.” Hardison said. “Mothers are scrambling and holding each other up. I’ve walked in those shoes so I can help them with getting their loved ones’ arrangements together and at the same time keep my son’s legacy alive.”

LaJoya Juniel-Parker, Quennell Harris Jr’s mother, works as a financial counselor in the emergency department of Highland hospital, where many of Oakland’s gunshot victims receive treatment and in some cases take their last breath. Though she has had a front-row seat to the recent rise in gun violence, losing her oldest son made her see the numbers that make headlines in a new light.

The burial is over,” she said. “Now comes the hardest part because every day we’re fighting through the pain.”

“I don’t know how I’m gonna feel once I accept the loss,” she continued. “For now, I’m still numb. And I feel guilty no matter what I do.

“I don’t think there will ever be closure, even if the person is caught and goes to jail. We can’t get our son back so there’s no justice,” she said.

“I love Oakland but now that we’ve lost a son, I hate it. I’m scared for the rest of my family,” Harris Sr said.

Anthony Ramsey’s mother, Carrolle, his younger sister, Carleena Henderson, and his nephew Jeffery Stephens III.



Anthony Ramsey’s mother, Carrolle, his younger sister, Carleena Henderson, and his nephew Jeffery Stephens III. Photograph: Marissa Leshnov/The Guardian

For Anthony Ramsey’s family closure remains elusive. Because of pandemic restrictions, Ramsey’s sister Carleena Henderson only saw her brother briefly in the weeks before his murder.

“Those quick moments were the last time I saw him,” Henderson added.

When Ramsey died one month into the pandemic, the family “didn’t get to have a proper homegoing. We couldn’t even have a proper celebration with just 10 people only at the funeral,” said Tisha Harvey, the mother of two of Ramsey’s sons.

And the family still doesn’t know who is behind Ramsey’s death. “I’ve been on the police department like white on rice because my son is always asking me about their dad’s case,” Harvey continued. “This was a father, a brother, a son and cousin. I have to have my kids see me trying. We can’t sit back and just let this go.”