Start Here: Fighting gangs and violence in Richmond

July 21st, 2011

RICHMOND, Va. — Richmond, a city once ranked as one of the deadliest in the nation has made significant progress over the past eight years. According to the Attorney General Office, in 2003 Richmond was listed as the fifth most dangerous city in the United States. During that time Richmond communities were plagued with violence, with 88 reported murders in 2003 alone. The Attorney General Office also said gang activity began to increase in 2003.

Virginia’s capital eventually caught attention from the U.S. Federal Government. In 2003, the federal government teamed up with partners on a state, local and private level to launch the Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, GRIP. Richmond was one of only four cities chosen to receive funding for the pilot program. “Richmond was chosen because we noticed it was an area of high crime and gang activity was increasing. We also noticed that there were many community organizations in place that could potentially partner with us,” said a representative from the Attorney General Office. Other cities included in the pilot program were, East Los Angeles, CAMilwaukee, WINorth Miami Beach, FL.

Richmond received a hefty $2.5 million in federal tax dollars to fight, what the Attorney General Office called “a growing gang problem.” With efforts of law enforcement on a three-tier level and cooperation from Richmond’s community, progress seemed inevitable. According to the  Attorney General Office, crime has drastically plummeted over the past eight years, moving Richmond’s crime rate from a bleak fifth place (in most dangerous U.S. cities) to now, 99th.

However, this year’s recent string of gang related murders has left residents uneasy and law enforcement concerned about Richmond’s uptick in gang violence. This is not to say that all crime in Richmond is gang-related, but to highlight that gang activity can be a breeding ground for violence. The recent slayings in Richmond show that gang rivalry can be deadly.

Just this year, Quondell K. Pringle, 21 and Dante J. Holloway, 23 were both murdered in gang relating shootings. Pringle was gunned down in April off Newbridge Road in eastern Henrico County. Holloway was found shot to death on May 3 in Powhatan County and the life of a 13-year-old Chesterfield County boy was snuffed out just weeks later.

Devin Hawkins life was cut short when he was caught in the crossfire of a deadly argument between two men in his neighborhood. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, Hawkins ran as he heard gunshots — but it was too late, as he sprinted towards his home a stray bullet pierced his back, collapsing him onto the grass of his front lawn.

Despite past progress, the fight against gang violence continues on the streets of Richmond. Rsen Ortiz, a youth pastor at Richmond Outreach Center and former gang member of a what he calls “one of the most notorious Latin street gangs in Los Angeles,” said he’s not surprised.

“Richmond is ripe for gang activity,” said Ortiz who moved to Richmond just over a decade ago with his brother to start a church. Ortiz moved to Richmond in 2003, during the peak of its violence. Ortiz said it didn’t take long for him to notice that Richmond was brewing the perfect storm, arguing that their current crime problems coupled with an increase in Hispanics migrating to the area is one reason gang activity rose.

“Richmond people aren’t familiar with (Latin people) so a lot of misconceptions happen and that’s the beginning of why gangs happen, because of misconceptions,” said Ortiz.

“People who spoke English was stealing from people who didn’t speak English, there just was a lot of division,” said Ortiz.

The Richmond Outreach Center youth pastor, partners with the GRIP program, mentoring at-risk teens and children. Ortiz’s church and outreach center is located in South Richmond, on Midlothian Turnpike.

The  Attorney General Office said Richmond is generally known for “home grown” gangs, which are territorial in nature, they form within neighborhoods or sections of a town. However the recent spike in gang activity has stemmed from an influx of national gangs.

According to reports from NBC12, a local news affiliate in Richmond, “Police say the reason there are gangs in our neighborhoods: more people are moving here, Interstate 95 serves as a corridor for smugglers, some gangs consider it a new frontier — a safe haven and others see it as territory waiting to be claimed.”

But law enforcement leaders are making sure gangs and offenders do not get comfortable. In an effort to purge violent crime in Richmond, officials launched the “Crime Sweep Program” in June. This intense initiative involves 13 local, state and federal law-enforcement agencies. According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, these officials meet every 45 days to share intelligence and strategies to reduce crime in Richmond and hopefully bring progress and peace back to the city.

Note: Upon request, quotes from the Attorney General Office do not attribute a specific person.

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