The call to police at 6:30 a.m. today was all too familiar: A passer-by had spotted the body of a cabdriver stuffed in the trunk of his taxi.
It was the 55th homicide reported this year in this city of 220,000. In contrast, Washington, with a population three times as large, has recorded 86 homicides in the same period.
Richmond police and city officials are baffled by the rate of nearly two homicides a week that has put this normally placid capital city's name next to such rough-and-tumble metropolises as Gary, Ind., Detroit, Miami and New Orleans, the only cities in the country that had a higher per capita murder rate than Richmond in 1984, according to figures released this week by the FBI's Uniform Crime Report.
Richmond's 76 murders last year translate to a rate of 33.9 homicides for every 100,000 residents, fifth highest among cities of more than 100,000, and more than four times the national average of 7.9, according to the National Coalition to Ban Handguns.
The city's mayor, Roy A. West, pleads that "Richmond is not the OK Corral; people are not being popped off as they walk down the street." Nonetheless, police Capt. Kenneth E. Jenkins said he is worried that "being fifth in the nation in murder will result in people saying, 'Who would want to live there?' "
And while police said today's shooting death of cabdriver Eldridge Kemp appeared to be the result of a robbery, the city's director of public safety, Jack Fulton, said that "nearly all of the killings have been among people who knew each other. We have had only a handful of stranger-to-stranger killings."
At a news conference this week, West, a black, middle school principal, urged the City Council to encourage the Virginia General Assembly to pass legislation that would expand use of the death penalty.
"I know the death penalty is not a deterrent, but at least the person who commits the murder is deterred from committing murder again," said the mayor, who witnessed two of the three electrocutions at the state penitentiary here this year.
He noted, "Most of the homicide victims are blacks police said all but six of the 55 murder victims were black being murdered by blacks. Our murders are related to domestic problems and drugs. We have declared war on crime, but it has not affected the murder rate because some people in Richmond have little or no regard for human life."
City Councilman Henry Marsh, who preceded West as the city's first black mayor, said today that West's remarks have prompted "outrage in the black community," which makes up about 51 percent of the city's population.
Marsh said he believes that West's comments were made "to appease elements that believe the solution to crime is to lock up blacks." The mayor was in Dallas today and could not be reached to respond.
J. Earl Ricks, president of the Crusade for Voters, a black state political organization, said today that "capital punishment is not a cure-all. We must work to solve problems before they reach the murder stage."
Ricks noted that while most of the homicides are so-called black-on-black, "This is not just a black problem, it is a Richmond problem." He urged the police department to "put pressure on drug traffickers" and others who often wind up involved in killings.
Marsh said there are "no simple solutions" but that the city should embark on a comprehensive program to reduce crime. Among those efforts, he said, should be expansion of the Neighborhood Watch program, greater opportunities for jobs for the poor, better victim and witness support, and tougher handgun laws. He criticized his fellow council members, including West, for rejecting two proposals this year that would have made it more difficult to get handguns.
Josh Sugarman of the Washington-based Coalition to Ban Handguns said, "Cities and states that have lax handgun laws have higher murder rates. It's not that the people of Richmond are more murderous than people, say, in Boston; you just have more handguns lying around. In Boston, if there's an argument, you have a bloody nose. In Richmond . . . you have a handgun death."
Sugarman's argument appears to make sense if it is limited to those two cities. Boston, with a population of 565,192, had only three more homicides last year than Richmond.
But two other Virginia cities, Norfolk and Virginia Beach, with laws similar to those in Richmond and larger populations, had far fewer homicides last year than Richmond: 36 in Norfolk and 13 in Virginia Beach. In fact, murder rates in those cities (13.1 and 4.5 respectively) were even lower than Boston's 14.5.
There is wide disagreement on whether capital punishment is a deterrent. Judy Goldberg, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, said it would be "ludicrous to execute more . . . . Capital punishment causes violent crime to go up," she said.
But at police headquarters, Deputy Police Chief William A. Talbert noted that there were "no homicides for several weeks after the last electrocution."
He admits to being as puzzled as anyone about a homicide rate that threatens to exceed Richmond's all-time high of 88 -- inflated by a drug war -- in 1972.
He said that, except for murders, crime in the city has decreased steadily for 18 months, while arrests, including those for murder, have increased.
"There's not a lot you can do in law enforcement to prevent crimes of passion, and there's going to be a certain amount of drug-related killings no matter how hard the enforcement," Talbert said.
But Mayor West isn't buying that. In addition to calling for harsher penalties against criminals and urging lawyers to "stop looking for loopholes" when defending them, he is looking for help beyond the law: He has asked the city's ministers to devote one Sunday a month to preaching about "respect for human life."