San Francisco Bay Area freeways have become a common venue for gun violence. Experts point to gang conflicts and displacement
Demarcus Doss and his girlfriend, Joanna Oller, were stuck in rush-hour traffic on the Interstate 80 highway in Richmond, California, when the dark gray Dodge Charger that had been ominously following them pulled into the exit lane alongside their minivan. A man was leaning waist-deep out of the back driver’s side window, a black semi-automatic pistol in hand.
Boxed in on all sides by bumper-to-bumper traffic, there was little Doss could doto avoid the barrage of gunfire. As bullets ripped through the passenger door and window, Doss reached over to shield Oller from the attack. He was hit by multiple bullets and died from his injuries. Oller suffered a gunshot wound to her hand, but survived the ordeal.Series link
This brazen afternoon killing in March 2017 was one of 189 freeway shootings that took place in the San Francisco Bay Area between November 2015, when the California highway patrol began keeping track, and April 2019. The number of freeway shootings has increased on nearly every major highway in the region, law enforcement officials say, from San Jose to Silicon Valley, Oakland and San Francisco.
The Bay Area has seen a sharp decline in gun homicides in the past decade, even as inequality and poverty have been on the rise, but highways are one of the few areas where gun violence is up.
Bay Area law enforcement and elected officials do not have an iron-clad explanation of why freeways have become a more common venue for gun violence, but they point to a series of factors, including gang conflicts and the displacement of longtime residents from cities like Oakland, where the average cost of rent has exceeded many working-class families’ budgets.
Gun violence has become “more transitory and regional” in recent years, said Mary Knox, the deputy district attorney for Contra Costa county, much like the lives of people who have been displaced from the Bay Area’s gentrifying urban core to far-flung suburbs and now rely on highways to get around.
Law enforcement has responded to the new threats to highway safety with the “Freeway Security Network” – a surveillance system complete with ShotSpotter microphones and high-resolution cameras. Community members, violence interrupters and some local officials argue, however, that the surveillance efforts may help clear cases, but do little to prevent them.
‘Never seen before’
Over the past 30 years, Knox has prosecuted hundreds of felony assault and murder casesin east Contra Costa county, an area encompassing a string of suburbs and cities that have rapidly grown over the past two decades. But she said the increased number of highway shootings beginning in roughly 2014 was something she’d never seen before.
The US is a country of highways and other cities have had similar upticks. Chicago highways have seen more than 40 shootings since 2016 and Memphis witnessed over 30 of them just this year. Illinois authorities say many of the shootings in Chicago are gang-related, while officials in Memphis point to road rage as the cause of most of these incidents.
In the Bay Area,the shootings occur day and night, with some of the deadliest incidents taking place during rush hour. Most of them aren’t fatal, but between 2015 and 2019 at least 88 people have sustained serious injuries. As with most other homicides in the area, the victims are disproportionately black and Latino. Law enforcement have made 35 arrests over the same time period.
The shootings have been most concentrated on East Bay routes connecting the cities of Oakland and Richmond to suburbs in Contra Costa and Solano counties. These include the Interstate 80, a colossal eight-lane traffic artery linking San Francisco and Oakland to the state capital Sacramento. Upward of 290,000 cars drive along some stretches of the I-80 each day, according to the state department of transportation. State Route 4, another frequent venue of highway shootings, winds through the East Bay hills connecting cities like Bay Point, Pittsburg and Antioch.
It was in Antioch that one of the more shocking highway gunfights had its start. According to Antioch police records, Jonathan Thomas and Dwayne Anderson were cruising the streets of the city on 15 May 2016, looking for another man, Kawan Hardy.
Theyfound Hardy along with several other men playing dice in the parking lot of a Quik Stop gas station and allegedly opened fire on the group with an AK-47 rifle. Somehow, no one was hit.
Hardy escaped on foot, but two of the other men he was with, Karmani Ely and Jainagil Moore, fled in a small Saturn car on to Highway 4. Thomas and Anderson pursued them in a Jaguar SUV and quickly caught up to the slower, older vehicle. The two cars swerved in and out of traffic at high speed when, according to several witnesses who were driving the road that day, Thomas stood out of the sunroof of the speeding Jaguar with the AK-47 at his hip. He fired round after round at the fleeing Saturn across several lanes of traffic. From the window of the Saturn, Moore fired back with a pistol.
The roving gun battle lasted several minutes, coming to a halt when the Jaguar got a flat tire.
Police arrested Thomas and Anderson shortly after. They were charged with attempted murder.
Police declined to comment on the case, because the proceedings are ongoing.But according to court records, the alleged shooters are affiliated with Antioch’s Broad Day Killers gang, and they may have been motivated to retaliate against other alleged gang members for a previous shooting in a complex and ongoing feud.Line break
Law enforcement officials, including Knox, say gang activities are behind many of the highway shootings in the Bay. “Historically, gang violence would stay in neighborhoods. It was geographically insular,” said Knox.
Under California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act, a gang is a “ongoing organization, association, or group of three or more persons … who have a common identifying sign, symbol, or name, and whose members individually or collectively engage in or have engaged in a pattern of definable criminal activity”.
However, much like in other cities across the US, “gangs” in the Bay Area rarely resemble infamous groups like the Crips, Bloods or MS-13, but are often small groups tied together by where members live, whether a single block or a multi-unit apartment complex.
Police and district attorneys across the region sometimes refer to these groups as “non-traditional gangs”, because they have some of the standard characteristics of a gang, like a unifying symbol or name, but lack a clear power structure. The term is controversial among some violence interrupters and community activists, who worry that the label paints complex generational connections with a broad brush.
The economic and demographic forces that have transformed the Bay Area over the past decade have altered the dynamics of gun violence as well, including how gang violence plays out on the region’s streets, said Patrick Wentz, a captain with the Pittsburg police department. Now, a shooting in Richmond might be followed by a retaliatory shooting 35 miles away in Antioch.
“These are displaced Richmond gang members,” Knox said, referring to some of the fatal freeway shootings in recent years on the Highway 4 and I-80.
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Wentz noted the economic development of the area. In the early 2000s, developersbuilt thousands of new homes in east Contra Costa county cities, selling them at prices far below similar homes in San Francisco and Oakland. Many of these homes were sold to low-income buyers who borrowed from banks through subprime mortgages. When the economic crash hit in 2008, tens of thousands of people lost their homes to foreclosure and investors bought and transformed them into rental properties. Since then, many low-income people displaced from gentrifying cities like Oakland and Richmond have moved out to east Contra Costa county because of the surplus of cheaper rental homes.
“With the displacement and gentrification of a lot of East Bay cities, and cities like San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond, it’s creating this diaspora that’s being spread to the valleys up [Interstate] 80 and Highway 4,” said the Richmond city council member Demnlus Johnson.
Violent social networks that were previously rooted in small, geographically bound places have spread across multiple East Bay cities. “You’ve got people from North Richmond and Central Richmond both living in the El Pueblo projects in Pittsburg, and then you’ve got people in Richmond living in the vistas in Vallejo,” Johnson said. “When all of those people get on the freeway to come back to Richmond they’re gonna see each other.”
Knox said some of the freeway shooting cases she has prosecuted have uncovered evidence of gang members specifically talking about finding rivals on freeways and attempting to kill them there instead of on city surface streets where there could be more witnesses. “We’ve heard gang members hunting each other, following each other up on to the freeways to ‘do the dirt’,” explained Knox.
The Contra Costa county district attorney has sought to add gang enhancements on to each of the freeway shooting cases summarized in this story. The enhancements allow up to 10 years to a defendant’s sentence when applied to violent felony cases.Line break
Shane Reiss witnessed one of these targeted, gang-related shootings in early 2016. Reiss, an off-duty transit police officer, was driving on the highway when a silver Altima passed him at high speed. “I thought that was weird,” he told the Guardian.
He watched in disbelief as the car pulled parallel to another vehicle and an arm reached out of the passenger side, flashed a steel revolver and fired.
“The other car just kind of slowed down,” Reiss recalled.
Reiss dialed 911 and followed the shooters as they darted through heavy traffic. At the bottom of an off-ramp, the Altima crashed into several vehicles. Reiss approached on foot with his gun drawn as one of the suspects crawled out of the wreckage.
“I yelled at him to show me his hands,” said Reiss. An on-duty Concord police officer arrived and they cuffed the man. Two other men still in the Altima were also arrested. Police found a .357 revolver in the back seat.
The victim, Alvarro Navarro, wasn’t injured.
According to the Contra Costa district attorney, the three men who tried to shoot him, Zackery Lopez, Oscar Torres and Antonio Navarro, are alleged members of Concord’s Varrio North Side gang. Authorities believe they targeted Alvarro Navarro because he is a rival gang member of the Little Town Sureños.
“It is very common for gang members to work in concert in a case like this,” the Concord detective Mike Kindorf wrote in a report about the shooting. “It is not uncommon in a drive by shooting for someone to drive and someone to be the shooter, which I believe based on the facts of this case to be what occurred.”
A surveillance network
Law enforcement’s main response to the new threats to highway safety is the “Freeway Security Network”.
The Network was launched in 2014, and includes an array of ShotSpotter microphones that have been calibrated to detect the sound of gunshots on long stretches of highways in Contra Costa county. When the microphones pick up the sound of gunfire they automatically trigger surveillance cameras that pivot and focus on the source of gunfire.
The videos feed into a surveillance center in the Pittsburg police department, where a wall of monitors displays live scenes from I-80 and Highway 4. A large monitor with a “live earth” interface includes everything from global wind patterns to local roadway accidents.
The Freeway Security Network’s task force commander and members receive alerts whenever the system detects a gunshot, and the team can access live video and other surveillance information from their cellphones.Perhaps the most powerful feature of the surveillance center is the array of automatic license plate reader (LPR) cameras that scan the license plates of virtually every vehicle traveling the highways.
Wentz said the LPR allows police to track down possible witnesses, aids to identify cars involved in shootings and helps the police to preserve evidence. With the ability to instantly detect a shooting, law enforcement can temporarily close a portion of a freeway and better preserve ballistics evidence.
Knox estimates that there have been 83 freeway shootings just in Contra Costa county over the past three-and-half years. She said the Freeway Security Network has been an invaluable tool to solve cases.
“We’ve gotten lots of interest from all the California highway patrol (CHP) districts in replicating this,” said Knox.Line break
Critics worry that law enforcement’s approach to the shootings is helping to spread hysteria and fuel anti-black racism in east Contra Costa county. And many community members and violence prevention workers say that although surveillance can help solve crimes after they happen, it doesn’t go far in preventing them.
“[Freeway Shootings] are a scapegoat for racial anxieties,” said the Antioch city councilmember Lamar Thorpe. “I think a lot of this hysteria has led to very racist notions about where black people live and where they’ve been pushed to.”
“I think that throughout the region there is this sense that ‘Well that’s happening cause they’re pushing all the poor blacks out there,’” he continued. “[Residents] will use phrases like ‘This is what happens with gentrification, or when you have section 8.’”
A recent investigation by the Guardian has shown that although gentrifying cities like Oakland and Richmond have seen dramatic drops in gun violence deaths, the suburban neighborhoods that people driven out of Oakland and Richmond are moving to have not seen a corresponding statistical jump in violence.
Sam Vaughn, who works with young men who are considered gang members to steer them away from crime in Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety said law enforcement’s approach is based on “quick fixes”.
“The structure of law enforcement isn’t built to prevent, it’s built to respond, it’s built to punish, it’s built to create fear and encourage others to not make the same mistake.”
Vaughn agrees that gentrification and displacement have created new patterns of violence by pushing people into distant suburbs and breaking up social networks that were previously located within one city or neighborhood. But he said it’s just one piece of a complicated problem that involves new and generational conflicts, and living in under-resourced communities.
“For the most part these young people aren’t being paid any attention until they do something, like a freeway shooting,” Vaughn said.
Vaughn says violence intervention programs like ONS, coupled with mental and emotional health services present a more holistic remedy to gun violence, on and off the freeway. He and his colleagues work with the young people who are involved in gun violence as both perpetrators and victims; he understands that the roots gobeyond gangs, and prevention efforts need to go beyond surveillance and long prison sentences.
“Those beefs arise for a number of reasons, and they last because no one is communicating.”
This is where Vaughn says community-based conflict resolution, life skills and mental healthcare can be most helpful.
“So we try to give them the healthiest advice, the most information that we can so they can make an informed and rational decision instead of just pushing the button,” Vaughn continued.
But successful responses to gun violence such as community-based intervention efforts remain focused within cities and haven’t been regionalized yet.
“There’s a slew of Richmond programming that [people] aren’t able to take advantage of cause they moved to Antioch.” said Johnson, adding that successful violence reduction programs like Richmond’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Oakland’s Operation Ceasefire may need to be scaled up to the county level to make an impact.
In November 2016, Contra Costa county’s board of supervisors announced their intention to fund a county-wide Ceasefire program which could replicate the violence prevention efforts credited with reducing gun violence in Richmond and Oakland. But the program floundered for lack of funding and coordination, leaving thousands of county residents without access to services that could reduce highway shootings.Line break
Demarcus Doss’s alleged killers might have escaped were it not for a witness who called 911 as thegray Dodge Charger sped down an offramp. A Richmond police officer followed the car to a house where Elliott Johnson, 24, of Richmond, and two 17-year-old boys, got out. All three were arrested.
Johnson and one of the juveniles, Bryan Anderson, were charged with Doss’s murder and the attempted murder of Joanna Oller. Police say a test of Anderson’s hands for gunshot residue was positive. As with other freeway shootings, prosecutors say Johnson and Anderson are gang members. Doss, however, had no gang affiliations and the exact motive for his murder remains unclear.
Since Doss’s killing, the freeway shootings show no sign of slowing. In one 10-day stretch in June, there were six freeway shootings in the region. Three took place in a 24-hour span of time on a patch of San Jose highway. One attack left 33-year old Matthew Rios dead, and in another a 12-year old girl was injured by shattered glass. On Monday, a shooter opened fire on an SUV on Interstate 880 in Oakland, injuring the driver. The stretch of highway was shut down for hours as California Highway Patrol searched for evidence on the road.
Demnlus Johnson, the Richmond city councilmember, said that surveillance is a necessary investigation tool, but if law enforcement and public officials want to see freeway shootings end, they need to combine efforts to invest in intervention and prevention among residents who are at risk of being perpetrators and victims.
“I feel as though we just displaced the problem, we didn’t solve it,” Johnson said.
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