Living with the sound of gunfire

Gunfire is so common in Richmond, Calif., that residents of neighborhoods like the Iron Triangle no longer call 911 at the sound of shots fired, according to the city’s police department. In response, earlier this year, the city installed the ShotSpotter system. The sensors detect and pinpoint gunfire fired to a specific address, and call police to the scene less than a minute after shots are fired.

Forty sensors were installed between Henley and 7th St. and Harnett and Bayview. Since May 18, when the system went live, police have responded to each shot fired in the area, said Lt. Mark Gagan, a spokesperson for the Richmond police department.

ShotSpotter also helps police assist gunshot victims, Gagan said. He recalled a June incident when police responding to a ShotSpotter report dispatched treatment to 33rd and Cutting Blvd. for a gunshot victim who was rapidly losing blood. No one called 911 following the shots, Gagan said, and police may not have known to respond to the scene and call for medical assistance without the sensors.

Though the system is intended to react to crimes that have already occurred, ShotSpotter is also an effective crime prevention tool, according to police department spokesperson Sgt. Bisa French.

“Now people are realizing that we have this new tool,” French said. The knowledge that police will respond to each gunshot fired, and perhaps apprehend shooters on the scene, “definitely will help us with prevention,” French said.

ShotSpotter shows, too, the exact extent to which gunfire is a fact of life in inner city neighborhoods. Shots fired are a daily occurrence, unlike crimes such as homicide. From May 18 to Nov. 31, ShotSpotter registered 1300 shots fired in the Iron Triangle. Over the same months, 26 people died from gunshot wounds, according to police department data.

Gunshots encourage the cycle of violence, even when shots don’t find their target, according to Victor Rios, an assistant professor of Sociology at UC Santa Barbara and former Richmond resident.

Rios, who studies youth violence in Oakland, recalled an incident in that city when he was talking to a group of young men at a park who suddenly came under gunfire. The group scattered quickly, and neither Rios nor the young men were hit. But the incident made the teenagers think that they also needed a weapon, Rios said.

“After the gunshots, they were in a constant state of paranoia for the next several days,” Rios recalled. “It developed a sense of needing to get a gun to protect themselves.”

Controlling retaliatory violence is one goal of the Office of Neighborhood Safety, formed by Richmond in 2007 in response to the ongoing problem of gun-related violence in the city. The Beyond Violence Initiative directs gunshot victims away from retaliation by providing them with social services while they are still in the hospital, said DeVone Boggan, the director of ONS. BVI hopes to steer young people towards jobs and counseling and away from thoughts of revenge as they recover from their injuries.

ONS is tasked specifically with reducing gun violence in young people aged 16-24 in Richmond, and directs several preventative programs. Much of their programming is aimed at identifying “known trigger pullers” and offering them social services through outreach workers, Boggan said.

“I don’t know if ShotSpotter is an effective crime prevention tool,” Boggan said, noting that ShotSpotter is activated only after a crime has occurred.

Boggan questioned the city’s commitment to preventing, rather than responding to, gun violence. Over the two years of the agency’s existence, ONS has seen $600,000 cut from their operating budget, Boggan said.

“Folks are talking about how crime is down. That may be so, but homicides are up,” he said. Richmond’s homicides rose from 27 in 2008 to 47 in 2009, according to the police department.

“We must have a sense of urgency,” Boggan said. “How you spend your money, how you spend your time is how you show what your priorities are about.”

If the police department wants to make violence prevention a priority, then they will focus their efforts on establishing working relationships with the communities who live with gunfire as a fact of life, said Rev. Andre Shumake. Shumake is the president of the Richmond Improvement Association, a faith-based organization focused on violence prevention.

“The only way [ShotSpotter] can have a real impact is if they are able to begin apprehending people as a result of what they see,” Shumake said.

ShotSpotter has the potential to build trust between the police and the community, Shumake said. Residents of areas like the Iron Triangle need tangible evidence of the police department’s efforts to control crime, he added. Such evidence may encourage residents to offer information to police and help to solve crimes, Shumake said, noting that like law enforcement, residents want gun violence to end.

“It is foolish for anyone to think that they would want to live with that kind of fear,” Shumake said.

The effects of living with the sound of gunfire do not fade quickly, Richmond residents said. UCSB professor Rios recalled painful effects of repeated gunfire on his own life, when he lived in Richmond Annex from 2004-2006 with his wife and their twin daughters, who were toddlers at the time. “As a family, we were in fear,” Rios said. “We knew that at any moment the gunfire could be on our block.”

Another Richmond resident who knows this fear is Che Soto-Vigil, a staff member at the RYSE Center, a community center for city youth aged 14-21, and a safe haven for teenagers who contend with street violence in their neighborhoods.

“It gives me pause to make sure I stay indoors because you don’t always know where they are going to land,” said Soto-Vigil of hearing gunfire.

Soto-Vigil oversees the RYSE Center’s culture keepers, youth leaders who make sure that people who come to the center are acting in accordance with the center’s mission and goals.

Several culture keepers share their feelings about hearing shots fired in the audio clips below this story.

Note: An earlier version of this article first appeared at



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