RICHMOND -- Just six years removed from being ranked among the nation's 10 most dangerous cities, Richmond's 2013 homicide total was its lowest in 33 years. Total reported crimes also continued a decade-long fall and were more than 40 percent lower than the 2003 total.
While the reasons for the steep decline are complex and varied, anti-crime advocates point to an event last summer that highlights just how much things have changed in a city once plagued by cycles of retaliatory street violence.
Hundreds of mourners, many of them young men with their fallen friend's face embossed on T-shirts, packed Macedonia Baptist Church in North Richmond to remember Lavonta "Macho" Crummie, a 23-year-old budding rap star who grew up in the neighborhood's notorious housing projects.
Crummie was killed in an Aug. 1 drive-by shooting in Antioch.
Mixed with the crowds and the raw emotions of that day were more than a dozen representatives from the city's Office of Neighborhood Safety, many of them ex-street toughs who now work to keep the peace. They urged Crummie's friends not to retaliate.
August was one of five months last year in which there were no killings in Richmond.
"Particularly because of who (Crummie) was, that was the kind of incident that has historically triggered waves of retaliation," said ONS Director DeVone Boggan. "The violence could have been outrageous, immediate and terrible."
Sixteen people were killed in Richmond in 2013, the lowest total since 1980 and a far cry from the 40-plus tallies of just a few years ago.
"We have a ways to go, but we're headed in the right direction," said police Chief Chris Magnus. "The reputation of Richmond as a dangerous city is not well-deserved anymore; that is becoming the Richmond of the past."
The decline in homicides and overall crime -- Richmond has not had more than 26 homicides in any year since 2009 -- can be attributed to a range of factors, law enforcement and anti-violence officials say, including better police-community relations, improved youth-outreach programs and changing demographics.
On the police side, Magnus has reformed a long-beleaguered department with an infusion of young officers, a focus on data-driven resource deployment and an emphasis on building community trust.
"We don't cast a wide net or move into hot spots like an occupying force, which fosters distrust among community partners," Magnus said. "We are surgical; we concentrate on people that need to be focused on."
At the same time, the ONS employs agents who build relationships with more than 60 young men and teens, identified through criminal records and other data as potential violent offenders. The program includes educational, counseling and job-placement support.
Operation Ceasefire, a volunteer campaign, helps give former gang members and violent offenders job training and counseling.
"We have built relationships with the people who may have otherwise perpetrated gun violence, and helped them become influential peacemakers," Boggan said.
While the drop in Richmond's violent crime is pronounced, it's also part of a larger trend.
Oakland saw a 30 percent reduction in homicides and a slight drop in overall violent crime in 2013. San Jose reported 44 killings, a drop of two from 2012, and San Francisco's homicides fell from 69 to 48. The regional trend mirrors a national one of major urban centers such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York reporting steep drops in killings, said Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley's law school.
Krisberg said Richmond benefits from a confluence of forces, including improvements in policing strategies and the ONS, along with community groups and faith leaders who conduct frequent "peace walks" in the city's most crime-plagued neighborhoods. Krisberg noted that Richmond is "not the same city it was even 10 years ago," thanks to the influx of more upper- and middle-income residents and immigrants.
The focus on offering positive outlets for at-risk youths in Richmond and elsewhere could be key to sustained crime reduction, he said.
"Part of crime reduction is not incarcerating kids in awful places where they become more violent," Krisberg said.
The 16 homicides in 2013 are the lowest total since 1980, when 15 people were killed. The lowest number on record, dating to 1971, was 12 homicides in 1973. But Richmond has about 105,000 residents today, up from just under 75,000 in 1980, according to U.S. Census data, meaning the homicide rate per capita in 2013 was the lowest in the city's recorded history.
While total violent crime dropped 4 percent in 2013, one of the few categories that rose was assaults with a firearm, which climbed from 81 to 91. The city's sophisticated ShotSpotter gunshot-detection system, which records and triangulates gunfire throughout the city, showed no significant decrease in 2013, Capt. Mark Gagan said.
While the statistics show decreases in crime, longtime residents say the decades of gunplay haven't faded from memory.
"Shootings and people dying has been a part of life out here since I can remember," said Joe Alexander, a 38-year-old who has spent most of his life in the high-crime Iron Triangle neighborhood.
Alexander is also the founder of the Facebook group R.I.P. Gone But Never Forgotten, which pays tribute to hundreds of young men killed in Richmond over the years. "I know there's less violence, but when I'm out and about, I still always stay aware of my surroundings."