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Three decades of killings in Fresno County. Here's what the majority had in common

Police Chief Jerry Dyer on stopping gang paybacks

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer talks about how his department planned to combat gang-related violence in summer 2017. "Once we do learn there is a potential for retaliation and who may be involved, we target those individual gangs."
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Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer talks about how his department planned to combat gang-related violence in summer 2017. "Once we do learn there is a potential for retaliation and who may be involved, we target those individual gangs."

Last year was a bloody one for homicides in Fresno County, with 85 cases making 2017 the deadliest in more than 20 years.

But it’s a far cry from the days of the early 1990s when competition for dominance of the crack cocaine trade fueled battles between rival gangs, including four straight years with more than 100 homicides in the county. Still, of more than 2,300 homicides that took place in Fresno County over the last three decades, more than 900 victims knew who their killers were.

The details are among crime figures released this week by the state Department of Justice showing that from 1987 through 2017, Fresno County suffered nearly 2,300 homicides. The deadliest year was 1993, when 127 people were killed.

The figures include data for number of homicides investigated by each of the police agencies and the sheriff’s department in Fresno County as well as California’s other 57 counties. They include information on the ethnicity, age and gender of each victim; the type of weapon used in their killing; and their relationship to their attacker, if it was ever determined.

The largest number of homicide victims in Fresno County since 1987 have been Hispanic or Latino. But African-American residents have been slain at a disproportionately higher rate than the portion of the population that they represent.

The countywide surge in murders during the 1990s was driven primarily by crime in the city of Fresno. It was a time that was referred to by police officers as “the wild, wild West” in the city, Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer recalled.

“The violence in Fresno in the late 1980s and early 1990s was fueled by the crack cocaine epidemic,” said Dyer, who joined the force as an officer in 1979. “There were a lot of street dealers selling crack cocaine, African-American gangs were fighting with each other to control the sales, and there were people who were addicts who were willing to do anything including armed robbery to get money for their fix.”

It didn’t help, Dyer said, that the Fresno Police Department was “severely under-resourced.”

“We went years without hiring police officers. We were under siege,” he said. “It was best described as the wild, wild West. … Fresno is a much different city today.”

In 1993, when Fresno’s population was about 389,000, there were 87 homicides in the city. That works out to a homicide rate of 2.2 murders per 10,000 residents. Last year, with a population of just under 534,000, there were 56 homicides, or about 1.04 murders per 10,000 residents in Fresno.

Ethnic disparities of victims

Of the 2,290 Fresno County homicides investigated since 1987, 454 of the victims were identified as black – about 20 out of every 100 victims. That is more than triple the proportion of African Americans among the county’s population, which is 6 percent or six out of every 100 county residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

More than half of the county’s homicide victims, or 54 percent, are Hispanic or Latino, compared to the 53 percent that Hispanics represent in the overall population. Whites, in the meantime, now make up just under half of the county’s population, but were fewer than 17 percent of the homicide victims over the three-decade period.

(The term “Hispanic” describes cultural origins tracing to a Spanish-speaking country rather than race. People of Hispanic origin may identify as white, black, or other races.)

Hispanics were also the most frequent victims of homicide in neighboring central San Joaquin Valley counties, amounting to 52 percent of victims in Madera County, 59 percent in Kings County and 73 percent in Tulare County.

Dyer said he believes the disproportionate number of black homicide victims is symptomatic of other issues facing the African-American community. “There is a lack of guidance from male role models in the lives of many of the youth who come from neighborhoods of color,” he said. “There may be no father at home, or the father may be a gang member, and the lifestyle they gravitate to is what they see: a brother, father or uncle in jail, selling drugs, selling women, driving nice cars.

“Or they may be intimidated into becoming a gang member,” Dyer added. “There are neighborhoods in the city where gang membership flourishes at a young age. And there is often a lack of a positive role model who can show them a better way.”

Friends, relatives, or strangers?

For more than 800 homicides since 1987, police don’t know whether the victim had any relationship with his or her assailant. More than 470 victims were strangers to their attackers. Another 90 were gang members – although gang members have only been tracked as a victim category since 1992.

More often than not, however, victims knew their attackers in some fashion – immediate or extended family, in-laws, boyfriends or girlfriends, friends, neighbors or acquaintances.

Over each of the past 31 years, people aged 18 to 30 made up the largest segment of homicide victims in Fresno County, amounting to more than 1,050 deaths, followed by nearly 350 adults between the ages of 31 and 50. About 250 victims were under the age of 18, including 78 children age 5 and younger.

Whether known or strangers, guns were far and away the most prevalent weapon used in homicides over the three decades. More than 1,500 of the victims in Fresno County were killed by firearms – handguns, rifles, shotguns or other guns. Among the 90 slayings designated by investigators as gang killings, all but 12 involved guns. For the 477 people who were killed by strangers, almost 350 died by a gun.

When and where people died

Sunday was the most common day for homicides in Fresno County over the 31-year period, with 454 happening on that day compared to 373 on Saturdays. While the data doesn’t include the time of day or night when the incidents happened, Sunday homicides include violence in the wee hours following Saturday nights.

And almost 950 of the killings happened in a residential setting. Of those, 508 took place at the victim’s home; 181 happened in a home shared by the victim and killer; and 68 happened in the assailant’s residence. Almost 190 took place at a home that belonged to neither the victim nor the attacker.

Almost 650 of the cases took place on a highway or freeway or on a public street or sidewalk. Nearly 160 victims were killed in a car, while about 50 others died at a park or other public use area.

Dyer said he believes improved technology has helped police keep gun violence, particularly gang violence, at much lower levels than in the mid-1990s. Of 56 homicides in the city of Fresno last year, 29 were attributable to gangs, Dyer said.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer introduces the Shotspotter Technology Flex Gunshot Detection System in 2015.

“New technology is critical for us,” he said. “We have video policing cameras that are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week in our real-time crime center; we have gunshot detection through ShotSpotter that lets us respond immediately to gunfire in our city; and we can collect shell casings at a scene and run them through a national ballistics information network that can tie together shootings using the same gun or to a gun that we recover.”

The use of historical data is also used to help police find patterns and establish strategies for where and when to deploy officers. “We use predictive analytics,” Dyer said. “We say if it’s predictable, it’s preventable.”

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews
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