By Colleen Hayes
Alicia Rasin founded the group Citizens Against Crime to help comfort the victims of violence in Richmond. This is, after all, a city once known as the murder capital of the United States.
But in recent decades, murders in Richmond have fallen dramatically, according to data from the FBI. And despite an uptick the past few years, Richmond likely will finish 2011 with one-fourth of the killings it had in 1994.
“One murder is too many, but the homicide rate has gone down tremendously,” Rasin said. “It has a lot to do with police officers getting out of their cars and talking to people. You have to get out there and walk and talk to the young people, and that’s one thing that needs to continue.”
In 2010, Richmond, with a population of almost 206,000, had 41 murders, the FBI reported this fall. That represented a murder rate of 19.9 per 100,000 residents.
In terms of murder rates, Richmond ranked 18th last year among the 271 U.S. cities with more than 100,000 people. That may not sound like much to brag about. But it’s a big improvement from years past.
In 1994, for example, Richmond recorded 160 murders – for a homicide rate of more than 77 killings per 100,000 residents. That was the highest among the nation’s big cities.
From that peak, the number of murders in Richmond started to decline, to 71 in 2001. But then the toll jumped again. In 2004, the city registered 93 homicides, a rate of more than 47 per 100,000 population, which was among the highest murder rates in the United States that year.
“In 2004, we knew we had a problem,” said Capt. Brian Russell of the Richmond Police Department. “We expanded the homicide unit two-fold, going from eight detectives to 16.”
The officers weren’t acting alone.
“We’ve established a lot of contacts in the community to gain back trust,” Russell said. “Through these connections, more people are willing to come forward, which has led to more arrests.”
Rasin’s organization, Citizens Against Crime, has helped foster community involvement and trust. Efforts by citizens and the police have paid off: In a span of just four years (2004-08), the murder count dropped from 93 to 31.
The 31 murders in 2008 represented a homicide rate of 15.5 per 100,000 residents. In 2009, Richmond recorded 37 murders (a rate of 18.2 per 100,000); and homicides increased again slightly last year.
Through October of this year, Richmond has seen 33 murders. The 2011 total is likely to between 35 and 40.
Is Richmond witnessing an upward trend in homicides? It’s too early to say, said John Reitzel, an assistant professor of criminology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“While homicide trends, as well as other serious crimes, can be indicative of problems, year-to-year fluctuations or even a short multiyear trend upward or downward may not be indicative of anything unusual,” Reitzel said.
“One needs to look deeper into where the homicides occurred. Sometimes it’s simply random circumstances. Some might be concentrated in a particular neighborhood. Knowing where they occur and who is involved can tell us more about what type of underlying issues or causes are at play.”
Rasin is especially concerned about the underlying causes and how to address them.
“Every day I go out and walk in the areas where police officers won’t go,” Rasin said. “When you go inside and see how [they’re] living and see their parents allowing them to have a gun, have drugs, get high — that’s when I talk to them and pray with them.”
FBI data sheds light on murder rates
The Federal Bureau of Investigation has posted online crime and population data for every city in the country. That makes it possible to calculate crime rates – the number of offenses per 100,000 population.
The FBI warns against ranking cities solely on crime rates. That’s because other factors, such as poverty, can be at work.
Even so, crime rates can be a rough gauge for comparing cities. Richmond, Va., used to be at or near the top in the number of murders per 100,000 population. Now, another Richmond – a city of the same name in California – is higher.
In 2010, Richmond, Va., had a lower murder rate than such cities as Jackson, Miss.; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Rochester, N.Y.
The city with the highest murder rate last year was New Orleans, with more than 49 homicides per 100,000 population.
Still, Richmond has a long ways to go. Last year, it recorded 41 homicides, for a murder rate of 19.9 per 100,000 residents.
Compare that with Madison, Wisc. – another state capital of about the same population. Madison had just two murders last year; its homicide rate was below 1 per 100,000 population.