Richmond Police officers lined the entrance to St. John’s Church Thursday evening for the fourth and final town hall on increased crime rates and public safety.
Officers quickly unfolded extras chairs as more than 100 people – including Mayor Levar Stoney – attended the session for the First Precinct with Police Chief Alfred Durham.
“I’m lucky, I’m blessed,” Stoney said. “Because I’ve got the best police department in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”
Forums for the Second, Third and Fourth precincts have also been held for the past two weeks. Such meetings have become a tradition for Richmond police since Durham became RPD Chief in February 2015, and are part of sharing his vision for policing in the city. They also serve as a time for residents to share concerns about their communities.
“These meetings are a reflection of our mission: we make Richmond a safer city through community policing and engagement,” Durham said. “The purpose of these town hall meetings is for the Department to get input from the general public. Our strategy depends on understanding what we can do better and communicating with the public how they can help in our mission.”
At the department’s first community town hall forum, held at Southside Plaza Community Center on April 18, Durham revealed Richmond has seen 17 more violent crimes in 2017 compared to last year, and more than a dozen carjackings, compared to just three last year.
Yet Durham assured the audience that “crime is not out of control.”
Durham reiterated the same message Thursday evening to Richmond’s community members. He opened the forum by emphasizing his goal for transparency between the community and the police department.
“We can’t do our job if we don’t know your expectations of your police department,” Durham said. “We are having some challenges this year, but the most important keys on how we’re going to resolve those issues are sitting right in this room.”
Durham proceeded to go through a detailed presentation including reports on 2017 citywide violent and property crimes, increased firearms in the city, department staffing levels and how the community can help.
The first slide included the FBI 2017 Uniformed Crime Report, which is divided into two categories: violent and property crimes. Violent crimes (also known as crimes against persons) include murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault. Property crimes are the more common type of criminal offense, and they range from shoplifting to burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson.
“We have an awesome department … And although they are great, they are not superheroes,” Stoney said. “They will tell you they are only better with better neighbors and citizens. They’re great because of you all. The more information they give, the better they can do their jobs.”
The report, as of Thursday, showed there have been 21 homicides in Richmond city, including three “double murders,” or a homicide in which two people were killed. The first double homicide were the deaths of Shaquenda Walker, 24, and Deborah Walker, 55, on Feb. 16. Shaquenda Walker was the daughter of Deborah Walker; police say the two women were shot by Walter Gaines III, 23, before he shot himself.
On March 29, a triple shooting in Mosby Court in Jackson Ward left Mikkaisha D. Smoot, 16, and Taliek K. Brown, 15, dead after both were taken off life-support at VCU Medical Center. An adult woman was also found with an apparent gunshot wound. Her wound was not considered life-threatening.
And on April 10, Kejuan L. Goode, 18, and Terrell D. Thomas, 20, were shot and killed at the Midlothian Village Apartments in South Richmond.
“We’re seeing a lot of gun violence in the city,” Durham said. “A lot of our young folks are illegally possessing firearms.”
Compared to this time last year, the city has had two more homicides and 10 more aggravated assaults — including six more shootings in which a person was injured. Property crime is also up, driven in large part by motor vehicle thefts. Between violent crimes and property crimes, there have been 482 more crimes this year than in 2016, which was the deadliest in a decade.
Durham explained that crime across the city is not out of control; rather, certain neighborhoods have seen “significant increase” in crime in 2017 – especially in East Richmond, public housing communities and several communities in Southside.
“We have been concentrating our efforts on these areas because we know where the violent crime is committed,” Durham said. “Crime is not out of control. But we do have violent crime, in this city, and we have a small population of folks committing those criminal acts.”
During the Q&A session that followed, a mother from the Oakwood community expressed a need for more police patrolling the street.
“I remember about 10 years ago, we used to see more police presence – at the bus stop, on the streets, at the corner stores, and that’s gone away,” she said. “We need more police on the street.”
Durham said a lack of police patrolling the streets is in large part due to decreased staffing levels.
“We are short 44 (officers), 13 in the Second precinct alone,” Durham said. “How do we make up for that? Through minimal staffing overtime. When we’re making them work, they get burned out.”
Another forum attendee, a woman from Fulton, said in the last two weeks, there have been seven break-ins in her neighborhood.
“You don’t see police like you used to, when they would maybe drive through the neighborhood at 9:30 in the morning when all the break-ins seem to be going on,” she said. “Where’s that presence to keep this down?”
Lieutenant John McRoy, First Precinct Section 111, said he tries to have an officer on Fulton every day, but with staff shortages, sometimes they get pulled out of the area.
Durham reminded the audience that his department does all they can to keep the city safe, but at the end of the day, “we all play a role.”
“Police are the only people in society paid to do public safety, but public safety is a shared responsibility,” Durham said. “What more can we do?”
Crime rates increase during the summer season; to help combat this, Durham listed “summer strategies” for the audience on how to stay safe and help prevent crime. These strategies include locking motor vehicles and homes, bringing friends to police forums and the simple slogan: if you see something, say something.
Maura Mazurowski, News Editor