The text message Kathi Bliss received from a family member on the night of 18 April 2013 included just one line: “Something bad happened.”
A strange feeling rushed over her. “My kids are dead,” she thought.
She was right. Bliss’ teenage son and daughter, Airian Holly, 16, and Mercedes Williams, 19, had been shot to death while visiting family in Richmond in the California Bay Area.
Bliss, who was raised in Richmond, made her way over to the neighborhood where her two teenagers were hanging out earlier in the day. She was met with a busy crime scene, and a cold response from police personnel on the scene.
“The police didn’t mess around at all or tell me things lightly to ease me into this,” Bliss recalled this month. “They simply said, ‘Neither of your children made it.’ I was by myself and obviously broke down, but the feelings that I got from the police as I was standing that they were just very, very cold.”
Bliss’ experience is a common one among family members of gun violence victims in the United States. Law enforcement procedures at homicide scenes often mean the work of comforting distraught families falls through the cracks. The disconnect between families and police departments frequently widens as investigations drag on and detectives pick up new cases.
Bliss recalled how during one phone call a new detective on her case had no idea who her kids were. “I was a million per cent discouraged that they had no idea who I was talking about and had to look it up,” Bliss said.
With police practices under scrutiny across the country following the death of George Floyd, there’s a growing chorus demanding attention for the ways police interact with family members of homicide victims. In Richmond, 63-year-old DeWanda Joseph is determined to change the relations between detectives and community members.
Joseph facilitates conversations between grieving families and law enforcement, in an effort to rebuild the trust that has been eroded by decades of cold cases and police mistreatment in the community. A longtime violence preventionist, she visits the scenes of homicides across the city, offering support to often heartbroken family and friends. In the weeks following a shooting, she helps families connect with therapists and navigate the state’s victims’ compensation system.
“Sometimes police will give a detective’s number and tell them to call victims of violent crime service. But people are in hysterics, they’re not gonna hear all that,” Joseph said. “No one’s doing paperwork after their child gets murdered.”
Richmond has dealt with a steady stream of gun violence in past decades. Gun homicides reached a high in 2006, when the city registered 47 victims, and has fallen steadily since. These incidents have left behind hundreds of families in mourning, many of whom are still waiting to learn who murdered their sons, daughters and cousins.
Joseph’s own family has been affected by the violence. Her nephew was murdered in 2010, just when the city began Richmond Ceasefire, an interfaith gun violence prevention effort that is also used in cities including Oakland, Chicago and Philadelphia. She started going to crime scenes as a first aid rapid responder after seeing the toll her nephew’s death had on her family members and quickly became an integral part of Richmond’s larger violence prevention community. In 2017, she started the Ya-Neema Healing Circle, and began creating spaces for families affected by gun violence to collectively grieve and support one another.
Joseph’s newest initiative is to coordinate conversations between grieving families and law enforcement officials about the ways the departments can better serve families who are still seeking answers. One such video conference in August included Kathi Bliss, as well as Alicia Hill, whose 21-year-old son Richard Doss was shot and killed while driving in his car on a busy Richmond street in June 2018.
Without any breaks in the case, Hill is trying to gather tips via a Facebook page, making her one of many parents to use the platform as an avenue to keep their children’s names alive as news coverage and investigators move on.
“I put a lot of faith in the detectives. At the beginning I felt that they were there to help solve my son’s case,” Hill told the Guardian. “But as time went by I feel like they haven’t been pushing as hard as they should.”
Police are offering a $10,000 reward for information in Doss’ murder, and there is some footage captured by a city bus camera of a car that police believe was involved in the shooting. But no suspects have been arrested in the case.sonos sonos One (Gen 2) - Voice Controlled Smart Speaker with Amazon Alexa Built-in - Black read more
Hill hopes a new line of communication with law enforcement will bring a renewed focus on her son’s case. “Creating that bond with detectives means a lot. It shows that they care too and they’ll go hard for my son,” Hill said.
Richmond’s clearance rate for homicide investigations in 2019 was 31.3% compared to statewide average of 64.6%, according to California’s department of justice. Thirteen people have been killed in the city this year, and seven of those cases have been solved. Sergeant Aaron Pomeroy with Richmond police’s criminal investigations homicide unit told family members on the call that the clearance rate can be partially explained by the loss of administrative staff, and the reduction of 10 to four detectives and a single crime scene investigator, who are inheriting dozens of unsolved cases.
“It comes down to a personnel issue. We’re on-call 24/7, 365 unless we’re on vacation,” Pomeroy said. “There are times when you want to go have a sit down with the family, but we can’t because our caseload makes it difficult to have that connection when we’re moving on to the next case.
“It becomes a balancing act. I don’t think we would ever purposefully not keep in contact but I can see how the family can get that impression,” echoed the detective Aaron Mandel, who’s been a homicide detective in Richmond for seven years. “It’s not from a lack of caring, I don’t want families to feel forgotten or passed by.”
While Joseph acknowledged the struggles of homicide investigators she said that law enforcement’s responsibility to be responsive to the families they serve can’t fall to the wayside even with the dwindling manpower.
Senika Levias said she experienced the same deep depression and disconcerting initial police encounters following the August 2015 murder of her 21-year-old daughter A’Tierra Westbrook as others on the call. But in her daughter’s case, police did arrest suspects.
Levias said the first time she was interviewed by police she felt she was treated more like a suspect than the mother of a murdered child. But in the year and a half that the Solano county sheriff’s department investigated her daughter’s homicide she developed a relationship with the personnel, one that she hopes other families can experience as well.
“The sergeant and detective would just respond and listen to me. And if I couldn’t get in contact with them I would speak to Debbie, the administrative assistant in the homicide division.” Levias recalled. “If I was crying, she was crying. She had a lot of empathy.”
That’s how we built rapport: just being human,” Levias continued. “They were in constant communication even when they couldn’t tell me everything about the investigation.”
To try to recreate parts of Levias’ experience in Richmond, Joseph is urging officers and detectives to give department chaplains a more active role in communicating with families. Chaplain Cynthia Hayden has shown up to the scenes of violent crimes such as homicides – including that of Bliss’ children – and sexual assaults for more than a decade, comforting victims and families while uniformed officers and detectives manage the crime scene.
“I act as a liaison between the police department and the families, explaining to them why the body is out laying out there and all the police are doing,” Hayden said.
Deploying Hayden and her nine chaplain colleagues to help families navigate local services or deliver updates, and – in many cases – explain the reasons behind delays in communication to long suffering parents and spouses, could go a long way, Johnson and Hayden argue.
“It’s not really justice, it’s just showing the families that they’re not alone in this, that people do care,” Hayden continued. “It can still have a huge impact. It shows that somebody cares enough to ask, Hey, how are you doing? Is there anything you need? Have you eaten?”
Joseph says Richmond’s police department and the community it serves have to get past the fear and distrust. “I don’t know if it will be in my lifetime, but it needs to happen and that’s why I won’t stop.”
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