Once again, the Richmond Police Department is at a crossroads.
As the city embarks on a national search for its next police chief after the departure of Gerald Smith in October — this would mark Mayor Levar Stoney’s fourth hire since taking office in 2017 — the department is in desperate need of stability and reinforcements.
RPD has yet to recover from the summer of 2020, which saw more than 90 consecutive days of social justice protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Frequent clashes between protestors and police, which included the controversial deployment of tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bangs, left the city indelibly scarred. The cultural and political fallout was enormous, leading the department to recalibrate amid calls to “defund the police” and an overall rethinking of the role of law enforcement in American cities.
In the wake of the protests, there was also an exodus of officers. RPD currently has 149 vacancies, which has left the department undermanned as gun violence and violent crime spike. Smith, the former police chief, struggled to improve morale among the rank and file, losing the confidence of the police officers union, the Richmond Coalition of Police, and several City Council members. Smith also seemed to lose the community’s trust, particularly after his misstatements regarding an alleged mass shooting plot on July Fourth of last year.
Interim Police Chief Rick Edwards, a 23-year veteran of the department, has come into the role with a clear-headed approach: Staunch the bleeding by aggressively recruiting new officers, particularly those who have recently departed for Chesterfield, Henrico and other regional law enforcement agencies, and incorporate a “laser-like” focus on reducing violent crime through targeted enforcement efforts, leaning on technology and analytics.
“What I’m really interested in is having an evidence-based approach on how we look at crime,” Maj. Edwards said during a wide-ranging interview with the Times-Dispatch Editorial Board on Dec. 27. “I don’t have the resources to throw at the problem, so we have to be laser-like focused on where we spend our time, and with that strategy of deterrence, response and proactivity.”
Edwards, a former homicide detective, spearheaded an innovative new gun violence reduction initiative last summer. He asked the department’s crime analysts to break the entire city into one-to-three block “micro areas” and rank them according to their propensity for gun-related crime. The department then focused on the top 25. Officers were randomly deployed to these areas in 10-15 minute bursts, Edwards explained, with a mission to simply “engage with the community, talk with folks — no enforcement.”
The initiative seems to have made an impact. In the 1st Precinct, where 19 of the top 25 hot spots exist, there was a 73% drop in homicides from June 1 to Sept. 5, along with a 13% drop in nonfatal shootings, Edwards said.
The initiative is now being expanded across the city. It’s still early, but the effort appears to have played a role in reducing the city’s murder rate in 2022 — overall, Richmond saw murders drop 37%, from 90 in 2021 to 57 in 2022.
Richmond isn’t going to solve its policing issues overnight. It will likely take several years to get the department back up to full strength, Edwards acknowledged, even with the most successful recruiting efforts. Tactics that may have worked in the past are useless without more officers on the streets. The community policing initiatives established under former Police Chief Rodney Monroe (2005-2008) helped lead to a substantial reduction in violent crime that stretched on for nearly a decade. But with a shortage of 149 officers, just keeping up with daily call volumes is a struggle.
With just two years left in Stoney’s second and final term as mayor, there will be new leadership at City Hall in 2025. Ever since Richmond changed its charter in 2004 to elect the mayor at large, the city’s police chief has become essentially a political appointment. In the current environment, and with Stoney on the way out and a mayoral election looming, a national search for Richmond’s next chief seems unlikely to attract top-tier candidates.
Richmond needs to take a breather. Trust needs to be rebuilt, both within the Richmond Police Department and the broader community. When asked about the former police chief’s misstatements regarding the July Fourth shooting, and his doubling down in the weeks that followed that the target was Dogwood Dell, Edwards said he couldn’t speak to the former chief’s thought process. But, no, he didn’t see any evidence pointing to a specific location. Edwards declined to critique his predecessor’s decision-making, but he was firm on perhaps the most important point:
“I would just say that I would be very careful with my words, and understand that sometimes it’s more important to be slow and right than quick and wrong with information,” Edwards said. “If I find myself in that situation in the future where I misspeak, then I think it’s important to be honest about that, even if it’s a bit embarrassing. It turns into a one-day story instead of a six-month story.”
Hindsight is 20-20, of course. Edwards may or may not be the best long-term answer for Richmond and its beleaguered police department. But in the current climate, he just might be the only good one.
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