In the wake of a rash of homicides, Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus on Wednesday sent out an email to community and civic leaders detailing the challenges and strategies investigators face in solving cases. The email stresses the importance of witnesses' participation, which was reportedly key in the recent capture of a man charged Tuesday with fatally shooting his neighbor in 2009 in the Iron Triangle neighborhood.
The Richmond Police Department offers a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in unsolved homicide cases, regardless of how long ago they occurred.
Here is a Magnus' email:
Dear City Council and other Richmond Community Members:
We have recently seen an increase in gun violence in Richmond -- much of it associated with gang activity, some of it simply a result of "personal beefs" between individuals. Unfortunately, gun violence frequently occurs in clusters -- in many cases because incidents of retaliation follow the initial shooting -- and are very difficult to prevent.
I am often asked how the Police Department investigates these gun violence cases, especially homicides, and why they are difficult to prevent and solve. Here are some of the strategies and tools we use, as well as some of the challenges we face:
Community Engagement: As an ongoing effort, well before a homicide or other gun crime even takes place, our patrol and School Resource Officers (SROs) are out in the community doing their best to build relationships, establish trust, make contact with neighborhood residents, and develop information about dangerous individuals who pose a threat to others. This is key to both preventing and solving crimes.
Obviously, the community quickly hears about serious crimes after they occur through the media, neighborhood blogs, and word-of-mouth. What most residents don't know are the many crimes that are prevented because beat officers and SROs develop information or engage in proactive field work, which allows them to intervene ahead of the crime. These officers will make a key arrest, confiscate a gun (our officers take an average of a gun off the street each day) or conduct "compliance checks" to assure probationers and parolees are following the rules that allow them to be back in the community.
Our personnel work closely with many community organizations that provide services, or have a mission to prevent violence. They also engage the faith community, school personnel and everyday residents to prevent and solve gun crimes whenever possible.
Partnerships with other Law Enforcement Entities: RPD personnel work with many other police, corrections and prosecution entities to address violent crime in Richmond. This includes local jurisdictions close to us like San Pablo PD, El Cerrito PD, the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department (CCSO), BART PD and others. It also includes the Contra Costa County Probation Department (especially important based on the recent realignment of California's corrections system that shifts responsibility for many offenders away from the state and to the counties instead), as well the CDCR (State Corrections) Parole Section. RPD also has a close relationship with personnel from several federal agencies, including the FBI, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), the DEA, and Customs (although we have no involvement with ICE -- the immigration section of Customs).
Lastly, we work closely with county, state, and federal prosecution agencies, including the Contra Costa District Attorney, the State Department of Justice (DOJ), and the U.S. Attorney's Office. Most of our violent crime cases, including homicides, are prosecuted (or evaluated for prosecution) under state law by the DA's Office. Certain gun crimes are referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for prosecution under federal law when more serious sentencing options are appropriate based on a pattern of ongoing violent crimes committed by the offender.
Although the media often refer to many crimes in our immediate area as having been "committed in Richmond," a great deal of our retaliatory gang violence involves young men who live or hang out in unincorporated North Richmond -- which is not part of the City. Because of this, a significant number of gun crimes associated with our larger community are the responsibility of the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department.
This means it's essential that RPD work closely with the Sheriff's Department. When a shooting occurs, it's not uncommon for the perpetrators to flee from Richmond into North Richmond, or vice versa. This complicates our ability to make arrests and close cases, but despite this reality, our officers and detectives communicate on an ongoing basis with CCSO deputies and investigators. We also work regularly with investigators from the DA's Office.
The city of Richmond contracts with the DA's Office to have two assistant DAs in our headquarters who focus exclusively on Richmond gun crimes and other criminal cases. They work with our patrol officers and detectives to give special attention to repeat violent offenders. They review cases, provide immediate feedback, answer questions and provide training for our personnel that make our officers more effective in dealing with violent crime.
The DA convenes regular meetings to discuss Richmond homicides and crime trends. These meetings involve not only RPD personnel but lead investigators from other local, state and federal jurisdictions. In addition, as a result of a new protocol put in place in August of 2011, the DAs assigned to Richmond respond to most homicide scenes to provide assistance as needed. This can help with prosecution efforts later.
Crime Scene Investigations and Evidence Processing: Our department has 13 officers specifically trained as Crime Scene Investigators (CSIs). These personnel are available 24/7 and respond to the scene of all homicides and many other violent crimes. CSIs have many important responsibilities. They document the physical nature and characteristics of crime scenes, which is painstaking and can be quite time-consuming. This typically involves taking photographs, collecting ballistic evidence (bullet casings, unexpended rounds, etc.), gathering other evidence (clothing, items left behind by the offender), taking latent prints when appropriate, and working closely with the other investigators at the scene.
Processing crime scenes and evidence is very little like what's portrayed on television. Evidence handling at a crime scene is complex. For example, people sometimes wonder why the body of the deceased isn't moved or taken away from the scene of a homicide more quickly. They may perceive this as disrespect or lack of caring by the officers. What they don't realize is that a detailed inspection of the deceased at the scene -- including the position of the body, bullet entry and exit wounds, condition of the deceased's clothing and many other factors -- can be key to solving a case later on. It is a lengthy process. In addition, it usually takes time for the County Coroner to respond to homicide scenes to do their job.
The Department's CSIs pay close attention to ballistic evidence at the scene. There may be numerous bullet casings, and even unexpended rounds, spread around a wide area that need to be collected. In some cases, a gun may be located -- occasionally one that belonged to the victim.
RPD pays the CCSO Crime Lab to process many of these items and to enter/check firearms evidence in IBIS -- the federal Integrated Ballistics Identification System. The IBIS system records the distinctive pattern left on bullet evidence, which can then later be matched to the exact gun that fired it, in much the same way as fingerprints can be matched to the person who left them behind. Due to the volume of cases handled by the CCSO Crime Lab, IBIS comparisons can take as much as six months to complete. To expedite our comparisons, we have contracted with a forensic expert to prioritize Richmond cases for a quicker turnaround.
We hear a lot about DNA evidence through the media. On television, DNA processing of evidence occurs in minutes and is usually matched right away to a known criminal -- facilitating an immediate arrest. In reality, many DNA cases take months to be processed. There is not necessarily a match to anyone -- since the DNA database is limited to persons who have DNA samples taken from them at the time of a previous arrest or who are in the database for other reasons. DNA analysis is extremely expensive for the submitting agency.
Crime labs are overwhelmed with evidence from Richmond and other cities in the county. One of the frustrations for our investigators is the time it takes to get lab results. Physical evidence can be one of the strongest parts of a criminal case, yet it is not uncommon for months to pass before analysis results related to key pieces of evidence comes back to investigators. This can delay the ability to link a suspect to a crime, assuming a suspect has been identified.
Witnesses: One of the first things police officers try to do when they respond to the scene of a homicide or serious shooting is to identify and speak to witnesses. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult parts of the investigation. In many, many cases -- particularly those involving gang-related violence -- witnesses are unwilling to come forward or talk with the police, even when they have seen or know something about the crime. This is often because of the brutality and brazenness of shootings -- which frequently occur in places open to public view. It is also common in cases, where gang dynamics are at play, for rivals to know one another, while neighborhood residents may be totally unfamiliar with who these actors are. Offenders generally subscribe to a strict street code that discourage cooperation with legitimate entities, such as police and government.
There are many reasons witnesses -- and even surviving victims in many cases -- choose not to work with the police. Some of these reasons include: fear of retaliation, perception that there is no point of getting involved "since the system doesn't work anyway," distrust of the police and other authorities, friendship or family ties to the perpetrators, cultural or language barriers, bad personal or family experience(s) with the criminal justice system, current arrest warrants or other charges pending against them, they are on parole or probation, they are not confident what they saw or heard, or they will "handle it themselves" (perpetuating the cycle of violence).
We are sometimes asked, "Why do you have so many officers at a serious crime scene?" In addition to securing the crime scene perimeter (which can be challenging depending on the size of the scene), the main reason for the large number of officers and detectives is to make every possible effort to identify and speak to witnesses. Homicides and other shootings are very complicated investigations that involve piecing together many facts from different sources that we address with a "team" approach in order to increase our accuracy and efficiency.
Time is of the essence in these cases. If witnesses are not contacted as soon as possible, it may be impossible to identify or locate them later on. You may have heard of, or watched the TV show "The First 48" -- which portrays how critical it is to gather evidence and identify witnesses during the first 48 hours following the crime. When it comes to engaging with witnesses, however, the process would better be called "The First 48 Minutes." The more time that passes following a homicide or serious shooting, the more difficult it is to identify and locate witnesses.
When investigators fail to locate helpful witnesses initially, they make every effort to continue this process in the weeks and months that follow the crime. Sometimes, important leads come from informants (also known as "Confidential Informants" or "CIs"). Sometimes information comes from neighbors or other eyewitnesses close to the scene of the crime who may need persuasion or reassurance over time to get involved. Sometimes information comes from a family member or associate of the suspect(s) who develop a motivation to work with the police. There are cases, however, where no one comes forward and no one can be identified to interview. This is a problem because eyewitnesses are equally as valuable as physical evidence in shooting cases.
A major problem we face in dealing with witnesses is that they are not always reliable. Sometimes a witness has such a lengthy criminal record and/or such questionable motivation, there is little chance a prosecutor can put them on the stand to testify, for fear they might actually jeopardize the case. Another problem can be locating witnesses later on (for preliminary exams or trial, for example) because individuals may leave the area, become uncooperative, or generally make themselves as scarce as possible to avoid testifying.
On TV and in the movies, witnesses not associated with the suspect or victim almost always seem to pick the suspect(s) out of a photo or police lineup. In reality, witnesses may only catch a fleeting glance of a suspect; it may be dark; clothing worn by the suspect(s) may make it difficult to see them; and things often happen incredibly fast during the commission of a crime. Eyewitness testimony is not always reliable, so investigators and prosecutors have to be very careful about how this evidence is developed and used.
On a positive note, because of the relationships many of our officers have developed with the community, it is not uncommon for beat officers and SROs to be told about the "word on the street" going around about a particular shooting. This information may not be enough to make a solid case against a suspect, but it can provide us with a starting point for further investigation.
Who decides about charging a suspect? If a suspect is actually identified and there is probable cause for an arrest, a state or federal prosecutor must still make a decision about whether there is enough evidence to obtain a signed warrant from a judge and ultimately to try the case in court.
Many people believe the police make charging decisions that involve suspects, but this is not how the system works. Charges against suspects have to be made by prosecutors -- and prosecutors base their charging decisions on multiple factors. It is not uncommon for a district attorney or federal prosecutor to send a case back to detectives requesting "more information or follow-up" before they will move forward with prosecution.
In some instances, it is simply not possible for detectives to obtain additional information, so a case may be stalled for months or even years. This is often extremely disappointing to family members or friends of the victim, who may believe a case is "going nowhere" because the police and/or prosecutors "simply don't care." This is simply not true. Nothing makes officers and detectives more frustrated than "knowing" who committed a crime, yet not having sufficient evidence to get a suspect charged and tried in court. This is not an uncommon occurrence in Richmond homicide cases.
Prosecutors are legally and morally obligated to not file charges against a suspect unless they believe they can convince a jury of 12, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the suspect's guilt. People often ask why charges aren't filed in an effort to make a suspect go to trial, even if the prosecutor knows the trial will end in an acquittal. The reason for this is that such conduct could be construed as malicious prosecution.
Resources: Almost every police agency believes it needs more resources to solve (and of course, prevent) homicides and other serious gun crimes. The plain truth, however, is that the need for additional resources (especially personnel) is much greater in Richmond than many other communities, simply because of the amount of gang violence and the overall challenges of crime in the city.
When I ask members of the public how many sworn police officers we have in Richmond, I get answers like "1,000", or "500." We actually have 195 sworn personnel, which includes everyone from the newest recruit (who may still need to go through a Basic Police Academy or be partnered up with a training officer for on-the-job training) all the way up to me -- the Chief. About 90 of our personnel are patrol officers (about another 20 are supervisors: patrol sergeants and lieutenants) -- and about between 15-30 of these personnel are on duty at any given time patrolling the entire city. The remainder of our sworn staff are detectives, officers assigned to special details like the Regulatory Unit or Recruiting and Training, as well as Administrative personnel. In addition, most people do not realize that we always have personnel on leave days, vacation, going through mandatory training, recovering from injuries or on long-term disability, and otherwise away from the job for a myriad of reasons.
There are approximately a dozen investigators available to handle homicides, although about half of them are primarily assigned to work robberies. Homicides tend to come in groups, so the reality is that these personnel can be spread very thin. Homicide investigators may be called out day or night, 7 days a week, and then work long, long hours to follow-up on a murder or serious shooting in that key period following the crime(s).
Thanks to the support of the City Council and the City Manager, RPD has been fortunate that our overall staffing levels have increased over the past 7 years. Despite these increases, however, we are still staffed below what a city with our level of crime ideally needs.
Our department utilizes a variety of technologies to assist us with the investigation of violent crime, including Crime Lab services (which come with a hefty price tag through the Sheriff's Department), Closed Circuit TV (also expensive and complicated to operate, maintain, and monitor), ShotSpotter (which triangulates gunfire to provide the location and type of gun being fired -- but it can't help with the fact that shooters generally don't stick around for the police!), and license plate readers (LPRs). Residents often assume these technologies are available and functioning throughout the entire city, but because of cost, they are mostly limited to neighborhoods with higher levels of violent crime. This is frustrating to many members of the public and police officers alike, who wish there was a camera or a gunshot sensor available and operating in every area where crimes occur.
The Department also relies on our crime analysis resources, including our ability to track field contacts, provide timely crime data to our personnel, and conduct meaningful analysis of crime trends. We have one Crime Analyst who works behind the scenes with our officers and detectives to track serious crimes, including gang activity. This has to be done carefully and accurately to protect people's rights and to be most effective
Thanks to recent action by the City Council, the Department is contracting for a service known as "Predictive Policing," which is being successfully used in other cities, such as Los Angeles and New York City, to utilize complex algorithms in predicting where future crimes are likely to occur so greater resources can be placed in these locations. It sounds like science fiction, but this process has a track record of proven positive results.
Ceasefire: The Richmond Police Department is part of the Ceasefire -- Lifelines to Healing working group and overall effort. The Ceasefire program cannot prevent all homicides, but it is recognized as a "best practice" around the country to reduce shootings. The Ceasefire program involves police detectives and other key individuals identifying persons involved in, or at high risk for committing, gun violence. These individuals are then "called in" to participate in a discussion about the law enforcement consequences (greater police attention, enhanced prosecution efforts, etc.) for continuing to commit shootings. They also hear an important message from the community, which is that people care about them and that a support system exists to help them turn their lives around. This effort involves community groups, service providers, the faith community, formerly incarcerated individuals, and many others.
There are no instant or magical outcomes associated with the Ceasefire program, but real prevention and long-term successes are hard to measure and difficult to achieve. This program requires the persistent dedication and commitment of many people and groups. It also requires sufficient funding and resources to provide effective interventions. To provide sustainable interventions, shooters who want to make major life changes often need life-skills training, employment, mental health and substance abuse services, anger management and conflict resolution skills, education, and other assistance. Few of these services are available to the degree they are needed in our community, despite the best efforts of many groups and people.
No Giving Up: Here's one especially important thing I'd like people to know about our homicide investigations: We don't give up. Homicide cases are never closed. Even when evidence is very limited and no witnesses have come forward; even when we have exhausted all leads -- unsolved homicide cases remain open in case information or evidence is developed later (sometimes years later) that helps us solve a case and charge a suspect.
A good example of this is a 2009 homicide case that our investigators just made an arrest on. We know how important this kind of closure is to victims' families and friends. It's also important to our personnel, who have often spent several thousand hours investigating a case. Our personnel are invested in these cases.
Another important thing to keep in mind: The Department offers a standing $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons who committed any homicide -- even a homicide many years ago. Lesser rewards may be available for critical information that helps us with other serious shooting cases.
I hope this information has helped explain the ongoing work and challenges faced by the police (and others) in addressing the problem of gun violence in our community. This work is difficult and there are many obstacles to achieving success. We are fortunate to have considerable support, and an ongoing commitment for this work, from our City Council and other regional elected leaders. We also have a caring group of residents who are highly invested in this effort. That said, nothing is easy -- and our needs remain considerable. I appreciate your time in learning more about these issues and your willingness to partner with us as we move forward.
Chief of Police