Richmond police have stepped up their presence in Shockoe Bottom on weekend nights, and they think it’s making a difference.
Police worked fewer violent crime cases in Shockoe Bottom last year than anytime in the past decade, according to statistics provided by sector Lt. Tim Wyatt.
There were 22 cases of rape, homicide, robbery and aggravated assault in 2013, for example, compared with 48 in 2004.
“Obviously, something’s working right. We’re in the right places. We’re arresting the right people,” said Wyatt, who has been lieutenant for about 1½ years in what police identify as Sector 112, which includes Shockoe Bottom.
Violent crimes are on track to dip even more this year in Shockoe with only eight reported through mid-July.
On three recent weekend nights, officers policed the area on foot, observing and making occasional small talk with nightclub patrons who strolled along sidewalks, many of them stumbling near the time establishments closed at 2 a.m.
About half an hour later, a large truck crawled down East Main Street, blasting the streets and sidewalks with water.
Typically, most people have left the area when the hoses come out, and those who haven’t quickly depart upon spotting the water truck.
On one Saturday morning, Lt. Erlan Marshall suggested the few stragglers head home if they wanted to avoid getting wet.
“Obviously, the No. 1 priority is to clean the streets,” Wyatt said of the water truck. “The side product of that is it also helps us move crowds along,” he added.
Wyatt said keeping the area relatively uncongested is an important piece of the police department’s strategy.
He said there’s a tendency after the bars close for people to congregate on the streets, and some are “loud and disorderly.”
“If you’ve got 25 officers but 1,000 people, it’s kind of hard to always address that appropriately,” Wyatt said.
“What citizens need to understand, as well as business owners — the longer that people are allowed to kind of just congregate after they’ve had a night of drinking, the greater the chance you’re going to have those fights, you’re going to have the kind of violent crime that gets associated with those bars.”
Most of the nightclubs’ doors are manned by bouncers, some of whom are off-duty police officers. Wyatt said it’s not unusual for several Richmond police officers or Richmond Sheriff’s Office deputies to be paid by individual businesses to help with crowd control.
Wyatt said arrests are fairly uncommon outside the nightclubs on a typical weekend night. He said officers could make “a lot more arrests,” but instead, their primary goal is safely getting everyone out of the area.
Marshall echoed the sentiment one early Saturday morning.
Generally speaking, Marshall said, folks don’t get arrested in Shockoe Bottom for simply being drunk in public, regardless of how intoxicated they are. He said officers only worry about the ones who act in ways that put themselves or others in danger.
At one point, a visibly intoxicated man approached Marshall and began peppering him with questions related to a seemingly minor incident the man had been involved in. Marshall entertained the questions briefly before suggesting the man go home, prompting the man to claim he was going to report Marshall.
Marshall turned away, grinned and noted that his job requires “thick skin.”
The heavy police presence is more welcomed by some than others.
Jamal Barrows, 33, who stepped outside a restaurant late on a Friday night to smoke a cigarette, said he’s been to Shockoe only on rare occasions and has felt safe, partly because of the police presence.
“As long as you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, the more the merrier,” he said.
David Prado, a salsa dance instructor, said he has promoted nightclubs in the area since 2003. He said police need to have a presence in the area, but might be going overboard in establishing what looks like “a police state.”
Tony Adams, who promotes events at concerts and bars, also objected to the large number of officers, contending their presence creates a “stigma” about the area that could deter people from patronizing businesses.
“There’s nothing going on in Shockoe Bottom,” Adams said, arguing there’s no need for so many officers.
Adams also questioned why the city finds it necessary to clear the streets of Shockoe, which has many black patrons, with a hose, but not Carytown or the Fan District.
“Is that the way to treat patrons?” Adams said.
Wyatt said Shockoe has a higher volume of people condensed in a small area on weekend nights compared with Carytown and the Fan, in addition to a history of violence specifically tied to drinking establishments.
“It’s an easy way for us to get people to move along,” Wyatt said of the water truck. “It’s not against the law to stand on the street corner, but when you have a thousand people coming out of the bars at one time, blocking the streets, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to kind of think outside the box to get them moving along. It’s not like this water’s directed at the people; it’s directed at the curbs.”
Wyatt added that there is a downside to heavily policing the area, but said it was outweighed by the benefits.
“I think it’s a double-edged sword. I think sometimes it’s a deterrent, but sometimes I think it also instigates,” Wyatt said. “Let’s be honest. We have a certain element in society that the mere presence of police is going to incite them to act ignorant.”
But for the most part, he said, officers’ presence serves as a deterrent. And when there is a problem, officers can respond quickly and in force.
“It strikes me as the police are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we’re not there and something goes wrong, the question is: Where were you? Why weren’t you here?” Wyatt said, adding that those were the questions business owners asked after a homicide near 18th and Main streets a few years ago.
Police also block a section of Main Street shortly before nightclubs close on weekends, partly as a way to eliminate traffic gridlock, Wyatt said. Marshall said it’s also safer than allowing vehicles to travel through an area filled with people, many of whom are intoxicated.
Last year, Shockoe property crimes (arson, burglary, larceny and auto theft) were in line with previous years at a total of 169, compared with an average of about 174 annually over the past decade.
Wyatt said that’s also an area in which the police department hopes to improve by policing “smarter,” partly by targeting high-risk areas.
Wyatt said about half the officers policing on weekend nights are getting paid overtime. The department pays for up to 11 officers and one supervisor at Shockoe Bottom per weekend night.
Wyatt said he’s also hoping that more is done in the near future to promote Shockoe, adding that some people have a false perception that it’s a high-crime area when the Fan District had about twice as many violent crimes last year.
“Right now, we’re down 27 percent,” Wyatt said of violent crime this year compared with the same time last year. “But I’m not satisfied. We’re going to keep pushing.”
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