State highways saw more than 400 incidents last year. Police are still trying to understand why
It was a few minutes after 11pm on 27 October 2021 when Ramon Price Sr received a call from a number he recognized as the county coroner’s office.
Price’s oldest son, Ramon Price Jr, had been shot while driving his white Chevrolet Malibu on a stretch of Oakland freeway, the office said. The 27-year-old had died at the scene.
They had spoken just hours before. Price Jr had called from the mechanic shop working on his car, annoyed by a delay. Hearing the frustration in his son’s voice, Price had offered to handle the issue the next day. Father and son said they loved each other and hung up the phone. The elder Price settled in for an evening of television with his wife, and his son began his drive home.
The shooting that killed Price Jr that night was one of at least 411 that took place on California highways in 2021, according to data the Guardian obtained from the California highway patrol (CHP).
The number caps a stunning rise in gun violence incidents on the state’s major roads in recent years. In 2020, CHP recorded 397 shootings on California highways. In 2019, there were 210 such shootings – nearly 200 fewer, the agency reported to the legislative analyst office (LAO), a bipartisan committee that advises California’s lawmakers, at the time.
Of the shootings CHP logged in 2021, 26 were fatal, according to the agency. The majority of them, 121, took place in the San Francisco Bay Area. Still, other regions across the state registered a significant number of incidents that year as well: 99 in CHP’s Los Angeles patrol division, 75 in the San Bernardino division, and 46 in the Central Valley division.
CHP said it attributed about one-quarter of incidents in 2021 to road rage, and about 3% have been confirmed as gang-related. But there has not been enough research by the state into highway shootings to have a full understanding of why they are on the rise, according to LAO.
The rise comes as gun violence overall has increased significantly across the country. In 2020, the last year for which data is available, the US saw a 30% increase in homicides, most of them with guns, according to FBI data. California recorded 2,202 homicides in 2020, a 31% increase from the year before, according to the Guardian’s analysis of state homicide data.
And the increase in highway violence isn’t limited to California. Illinois, for example, saw 147 highway shootings in 2020, nearly triple the number in 2019, according to Illinois state police. In 2021, the number of highway shootings in Illinois rose again, to 310, with shootings on expressways in the Chicago area driving the increase.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, law enforcement, gun violence prevention workers and victims say a confluence of factors has caused people to take their conflicts from neighborhoods on to highways. Those concerns include stress, disruption and economic losses amid the pandemic, a dissolution of unspoken street rules and a growing realization among shooters that highway crimes are hard to solve.
“The freeway isn’t the problem, it’s the lack of respect and value for life in people’s minds and hearts,” said Price. “Because of that, nowhere is safe.”
Price works as a counselor in an Oakland funeral home and is a longtime gun violence prevention advocate. Growing up, he was too occupied with Oakland’s streets to be a good dad, he said, having started selling drugs as a teenager after living with people who used drugs around him as a child. But he had turned his life around, gotten married and hadn’t participated in the underground economy for nearly 20 years.
His oldest son’s death wasn’t the first time his family was harmed by gun violence. In February 2012, Price’s 17-year-old son Lamont Price was shot and killed in Oakland, and in April 2019, his four-year-old grandson, Na’vaun Lamarii Price Jackson, accidentally shot himself in the head with an unsecured gun but survived.
The nature of gun violence in Oakland had changed in recent years, Price said. “There’s no rules or loyalty any more. Any argument can lead to death. People don’t know how to agree to disagree and instead it escalates.”
Julius Thibodeaux, a violence interrupter with Movement for Life, a non-profit organization in Sacramento, California, agrees the increase in highway shootings stems from a larger cultural shift wherein past rules of engagement among shooters – such as not shooting at someone in public, where people who aren’t involved in the conflict can be hit – have been tossed aside.
Originally from the Bay Area, Thibodeaux said he once was one of the young people who was contributing to gun violence in the region. But after a more than two-decade prison stint, he’s now working with the people who are feeding the cycle of violence.
“We’ve always said [shootings] were ‘on sight’,” but that came with clauses and amendments,” he said, meaning that shooters would avoid opening fire if targets were with their children, parents or girlfriends. “Now we see young people being more ruthless, careless and more desperate.”
At the same time, violence in general sharply increased in the first year of the pandemic and remained high in 2021, Thibodeaux noted, fueled by job losses, trauma and the shuttering of schools and community centers. “There was so much more stress, anxiety and trauma on top of adverse childhood experiences that were already there at high levels,” he said about the increase. “These things are being exacerbated by the pandemic and these are the results.”
These changes in community violence are now manifesting on the state’s highways, which have long been an attractive venue for shooters, said Joshua Jackson, the assistant special agent in charge of the US Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms,Tobacco and Explosives’ (ATF) San Francisco field division.
Charges in highway shootings are rare. By the time investigators arrive at a highway crime scene there’s often little evidence to collect. The foundations of shooting investigations – street surveillance video, bullet casings and eyewitness statements – are usually unavailable when bullets are flying from cars traveling at over 60 miles an hour on busy highways. Casings can be destroyed by tires or caught in their treads, witnesses are more difficult to track and there are far fewer surveillance cameras on the highway.
“Shooting on the freeway is an easy way for someone to attack their rival and then get on to the streets to evade law enforcement,” said Jackson.
He attributes the Bay Area’s particularly striking numbers to the way violent feuds typically play out in the region. Rather than large, traditional gangs, the Bay Area mostly has fragmented cliques of people who live or grew up in the same neighborhood or apartment complex. “These groups are less organized and there are more of them, so that means more rivalries and conflicts spilling from communities on to highways.
One response that’s being introduced is more surveillance technology. In 2017, during another troubling spate of highway shootings, Contra Costa county built an elaborate surveillance system on the local highways that were seeing the most shootings in an effort to get a handle on the problem. The county, east of Oakland, deployed license plate readers and ShotSpotter microphones paired with cameras that turn based on where gunshots are coming from, all of which feed data into a large surveillance center manned by the Pittsburg police department.
It’s hard to know how much of an impact this network is having on highway arrests, charges and convictions because law enforcement at the state, local and federal level does not distinguish them from other homicides in their clearance data. Still, local law enforcement argues that this network provides invaluable information to CHP.
“All these tools have been extremely valuable in aiding in investigations,” said Capt Patrick Wentz of the Pittsburg police, who oversees the freeway security network. “There’s also a public sentiment around this, the public wanting law enforcement to use all the technologies available.”
Amid the rise in shootings, mayors and law enforcement leadership in other Bay Area cities, including Oakland, are calling for similar technology.
The California governor, too, has vowed action. In his 2022 budget proposal, Gavin Newsom proposed more than $10m over the next three years to support CHP’s recently formed highway violence taskforce, which collects data on shootings and increases patrols in the areas that see the most incidents. Newsom also announced a pilot program that will bring 200 CCTV cameras to highways in four California counties, including on the stretch of freeway where Ramon Price Jr was killed.
The Oakland police and Alameda county sheriff’s departments have long called for more freeway surveillance and hope the new technology will allow their staff to better assist CHP in investigating shootings, the law enforcement agencies said.
However, addressing the shootings will also require the state to spend money beyond CHP and surveillance, on initiatives aimed at stopping people from pulling their guns out in the first place, victims, law enforcement and violence prevention workers say.
Such efforts have proven successful in California in the past. Before the pandemic, gun violence in the Bay Area had been on the decline. From 2007 to 2017, homicides in the 12 counties that make up the region decreased by 30%. The reasons behind this drop are complex, but the deployment of community-led violence prevention strategies appears to have had a significant impact, experts, officials and organizers have said. These groups often comprise formerly incarcerated people who work with young people involved in shootings to connect them with job and educational opportunities, mentorship, and mental health care services.
Some of the programs have struggled during the pandemic. In-person interactions between violence interrupters and those driving local violence, which were cornerstones of the programs, were nearly impossible early in the emergency. But as pandemic restrictions have loosened and cities are trying to retool their public safety approaches, many including police leadership and officials at all levels are seeing these programs as crucial to addressing gun violence on and off of highways.
“We share the same roads, grocery stores and community centers. So it will take all of us – law enforcement, community and religious leaders and politicians, to address this issue surgically,” Jackson said.
Newsom announced in May 2020 that $200m of the state’s budget would go toward grants for violence intervention programs such as Movement for Life to train more people and build more relationships with those most at risk of being shot or shooting someone else. Nearly $160m in grants have been awarded to nearly 80 organizations across California so far.
“Shooting on the freeway brings a more dangerous dynamic to gun violence,” Thibodeaux said. “I’m all for deterrence by CHP but when it comes to addressing this issue, there has to be a mentorship and mental health approach that comes into play if we want sustained results.”
In the meantime, for many families who have seen their relatives killed on California roadways, answers often remain elusive. Price is one of the few family members to see someone arrested for the killing of their loved one.
In February, authorities charged Larry Coney, an acquaintance with whom Price Jr had fallen out and traded disses via music videos posted to Instagram, with murder. Coney has pleaded not guilty.
Price doesn’t plan to attend any of Coney’s pre-trial hearings. “I don’t want to just sit through the court hearings,” he said.
Instead, he’ll hold tight to memories of the young man he describes as a loving, devoted son who wanted to spend as much time with his father as he could. “My son would call me at work just to ask me if I ate. Then he would pop up at my job with lunch,” he recalled.
“Since my son died it’s been up and down with a lot of crying and a lot of pain sometimes. I’m gonna mourn him ’til I take my last breath.”
Christina Hughes is still waiting for an arrest in the death of her daughter more than a year ago. Hughes’s 16-year-old, Zoey, was shot while driving on an Oakland freeway on 18 May 2021. CHP says that the homicide case remains an open and active investigation.
Zoey and a group of young partygoers had been on their way from San Francisco to the East Bay after a birthday celebration when shooters pulled up alongside the bus and began firing. At least 70 rounds of ammunition were fired on the stretch of freeway, an offramp and then on the street. At the end of the ambush, two teen girls, Zoey and 19-year-old Alayasia Thurston, were dead.
Hughes was jostled awake at home by a phone call three hours later.
“I fell to my knees and prayed that she was just in surgery,” Hughes recalled. But 20 minutes after Hughes arrived at the hospital – the sun was rising by then – hospital staff came in to tell Christina that her oldest child had died from gunshot wounds.
Hughes remembers her daughter as “spoiled and sassy, but very loving”. She was a typical teen who would go stay at a friend’s house when she was frustrated with her mom, Hughes said, but always called a couple of days later crying about how much she missed Hughes and Zoey’s toddler brother, Donovan, whom she affectionately called “Fatty”.
“I was young when I had her so we grew up together,” Hughes said. “Whenever I was away from her all I wanted was to get back to her. Zoey was my heartbeat, she was my everything.”
She added: “I’ll never move forward. That was my 16-year-old child and she can’t be replaced. It will never be OK or on my back burner. I will do whatever I need to do to keep her name alive because this can’t be the way this ends.
“Donovan remembers her and he asks if we can go pick her up,” Hughes continued. “I have to tell him that his Zoey is in heaven.”