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Report: Solano has highest gun homicide rate in Bay

Times-Herald - 8/22/2023

Aug. 21—Solano County residents are more likely to die in a shooting than people in any other Bay Area county, newly released data reveals.

Gun violence killed six out of every 100,000 Solano County residents every year between 2016 and 2021, according to a report issued last week by the Office of Gun Violence Prevention at the California Department of Justice. That makes Solano the fifth deadliest county in the state in terms of gun homicide rates.

The next-deadliest county in the Bay is Alameda, where about 5.5 out of every 100,000 people died in a shooting each year.

The bulk of the killings appears to have happened in Vallejo. The state data doesn't include incidents' exact locations, but maps by the nonprofit Hope and Heal Fund show that 71 of Solano County's 123 gun homicides during those five years took place within Vallejo city limits.

Complaints about Vallejo's beleaguered police force have dominated conversations around violent crime at recent public meetings. However, both the state report and an Aug. 10 report by Hope and Heal zero in on another core issue.

Access to firearms.

"Wherever there's poverty, wherever there are stressors, wherever there's the availability of guns, you're going to see death," said Refujio Rodriguez, Hope and Heal's chief strategist and equity officer.

Scarred communities

In his introduction to the state report, Attorney General Rob Bonta referred to gun violence as "a sickness that is traumatizing our communities and tearing our families apart." But he pointed out that California's gun death rate is 43% lower than the rest of the country's —a stat that he credits to the state's progressive stance on gun control.

"While California is not immune to this disease, thanks to our nation-leading, common-sense gun laws and prevention policies, we've made substantial progress," the attorney general wrote.

In Vallejo, however, the crackle of gunfire and its devastating consequences remain all too common.

As of July 17, 136 shootings had killed or injured 55 people in Vallejo since the start of the year, according to data from the Vallejo Police Department. That's an average of roughly two shootings every three days.

Ten people have died in Vallejo shootings since the start of this year.

Hope and Heal's maps show killings scattered throughout much of the city, with clusters in areas near the waterfront and north of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. But some parts of Vallejo, such as Mare Island, have had no reported homicides in the past nine years.

The state report highlighted immense racial inequalities in gun violence throughout the United States. More than half of Black male teenagers who died between 2020 and 2021 were shot to death. That's compared to just 5% of White male teens.

"At the height of a global health pandemic," the report emphasizes, "the parents of a Black teenage son in the United States were more likely to lose their child to gun homicide than to every other cause of death combined."

According to Vallejo police, 31 of the city's shooting victims this year have been Black, 11 have been Hispanic and 11 have been white.

Ending the violence

Vallejo declared a state of emergency last month over its police officer shortage. Faced with a grieving mother and other impassioned witnesses to community violence, the Vallejo City Council voted to give Interim Police Chief Jason Ta and City Manager Mike Malone broad power to make decisions related to public safety.

Ta has said that he is in talks with other law enforcement agencies about potentially bolstering VPD's force with outside help. In a bid to free up officers' time, this month Ta also presented a proposed plan to end police response to automatic alarm calls in Vallejo. This is an addition to seeking applicants to run a mental health crisis team that would reduce law enforcement's role in responding to calls related to non-violent crimes.

On top of that, the surveillance company Flock Safety is in the process of installing gunshot detection devices around Vallejo that are designed to relay audio recordings of shootings to law enforcement.

But the Department of Justice report underscored the limits of police officers' ability to interrupt the cycles of violence that lead to many shootings. An analysis of 202 police departments nationwide found that just 30% of aggravated gun assaults and 46% of firearm homicides were cleared by an arrest or other means in 2017.

Sometimes in cases where no one is arrested, the report said, "survivors or others close to them will resort to vigilante retaliation, fueling devastating cycles of shootings that can spread like a contagion through social networks."

To break vicious cycles of shootings and other attacks, the state agency advocated for investment in "community violence intervention" —a term referring to numerous resources that organizations can provide to survivors of shootings. People injured in one shooting in California are over 60 times more likely to die in a future shooting than other people. However, interventions such as therapy, conflict mediation, help navigating systems and mentorship from people with similar experiences all make survivors less likely to be shot again and less likely to shoot someone else.

These programs, according to the report, "rely on credible, authentic messengers being able to break through and engage victims of violence and others at highest risk, a population that has often been violently traumatized and alienated from criminal justice, health, mental health, victim service, and other systems and supports."

The Vallejo Police Department received $1 million in federal funding last year to start one of these programs. Project Harm-focused Outreach, Prevention and Education (HOPE) is an initiative designed to combat gang and youth violence, particularly in North and South Vallejo, and to build better relations with police.

Rodriguez, for his part, believes California also needs better systems for preventing illegal gun trafficking.

"The real question is, where are they getting these guns? And more importantly, whose role is it to ensure that these weapons are not entering these communities?" he said.

The state report found that when California authorities successfully traced seized firearms to their original dealers, about half of those dealers were located in other states.

Work is 'hardly finished'

Last week's report is the first report issued by the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which Bonta launched last year with the goal of studying the causes of shootings and collaborating with law enforcement and legislators to prevent them.

The attorney general touted California's successes at curbing gun violence compared to many other states. However, he pointed out that people everywhere in the United States are far more likely to die in a shooting than people in the vast majority of high-income countries.

As gunshots remain the leading cause of death for U.S. children between ages 1 and 17, California's progress is "hardly finished."

"The time for thoughts and prayers alone has come and gone," Bonta wrote. "Enough became enough so long ago that it's now merely a faint memory. The time for action is now."


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