NORTH RICHMOND -- Sheriff David Livingston and officials with the sheriff's union answered a recent report in this newspaper about the level of deadly violence and unsolved killings here with open letters to the community, complaining that a lack of cooperation by residents is partly to blame and that county elected leaders don't give the sheriff enough money to do the job.

"The Sheriff's Office deputies whose job is to provide law enforcement service to residents of North Richmond have been for years handcuffed by continued budget cuts and the lack of adequate financial support from the Board of Supervisors," wrote Ken Westermann, president of the Contra Costa Deputy Sheriff's Association, in an open letter on the union's Facebook page posted April 8.

Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston (Karl Mondon/Staff)
Contra Costa County Sheriff David Livingston (Karl Mondon/Staff)

In an interview, Westermann said people at homicide scenes frequently are hostile to deputies, and on occasion have thrown objects at officers and investigators. Since 2010, 19 people have been killed in this tiny community, according to sheriff's statistics. Sixteen were African-American males who ranged in age from 16 to 51; all were shot. In only five of the 19 killings were charges filed, and two of those cases were handled by Richmond city police.

The majority of the 1.5-square-mile neighborhood is unincorporated land, meaning it is patrolled by the Sheriff's Office, while a small sliver of the neighborhood is part of the city of Richmond and patrolled by Richmond police. With only 3,200 residents, the per-capita homicide rate in North Richmond is by far the Bay Area's highest.

Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston, who was elected in June 2010, wrote a response published on RichmondStandard.com, a website funded by Chevron Corp., defending his office's work and laying part of the blame for public safety problems on the residents of North Richmond.

"One of the biggest challenges in North Richmond is the lack of cooperation from citizens," Livingston wrote. "Some do not report crimes, and many witnesses and victims do not provide information. That makes if difficult, if not impossible, to solve crimes."

It's not the first time Livingston has penned a rebuttal to a news story in which his department's performance in North Richmond came under scrutiny. In September 2013, he responded to a critical article published by RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news site run by UC Berkeley, writing that the article "ignores and discredits the ongoing hard work and commitment of my staff and that of the residents of this unincorporated community."

Livingston went on to say that crime was down in 2013, and that "part of this success is credited to proactive community policing and the partnerships we developed."

County Supervisor John Gioia, whose district includes North Richmond, responded to sheriff union leaders' complaints that the county spends too much money on health care to the poor by pointing out that those funds have been dropping, while sheriff funding is on the rise.

According to county statistics, discretionary county general purpose revenue going to the sheriff and coroner have increased from $108.6 million to $124.5 million over the past five years. At the same time, funds for the county hospital have declined from $42 million to $27 million.

"(The union) wants the county's subsidy to the hospital to be cut more," Gioia said.

Still, the Sheriff's Office has 100 fewer deputies than it did in 2008, according to sheriff's officials, a decline Gioia attributes mostly to rising retirement costs that are eating more of the budget.

Meanwhile, a long-term vision for how to reduce the homicide rate and provide better policing in the unincorporated area remains scant. Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus has said that annexing North Richmond -- and putting it into Richmond police jurisdiction -- would improve public safety services.

North Richmond residents and clergy have led numerous anti-violence efforts, including door-to-door walks, urban gardening programs and community events, but some have complained that the sheriff's participation in these programs has been lacking.

Gioia has said he agrees that North Richmond would enjoy better public services if it were absorbed by the city. Gioia's comments drew Westermann's ire in his Facebook post.

"I find it ironic and disingenuous of Supervisor (John) Gioia to believe the residents of North Richmond would be better served by the city of Richmond, while continuing to support a county budget which does not provide adequate funding to the Sheriff's Office."

Livingston, through a spokesman, provided calendar information showing he has met with North Richmond leaders, but none of those meetings took place within the community since his 2010 election. However, Jimmy Lee, a spokesman for Livingston, said "although not on his calender, there have been many times he has visited North Richmond while in the area on business at the West County Detention Facility" in nearby Richmond.

"I think I recall once (seeing Livingston) out there, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been out there more," Gioia said.

Westermann's letter triggered a series of responses on the union's page, which has about 1,100 followers. The responses generally praised Westermann's sentiment and blamed the residents of North Richmond and the funding levels for the sheriff for the crime problem.

Aside from the political squabbling, public safety challenges remain paramount to residents, said the Rev. Andre Shumake, a longtime anti-violence activist in Richmond and North Richmond.

"That (homicide) data should signal and justify the need to do something different," Shumake said. "Obviously, what they've been doing out there in terms of providing public safety services has not worked. It's time to do something different."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/SFBaynewsrogers.