At the scene of a recent homicide, someone dropped a note in a police car identifying the killer. The police chief was amazed.
"I'm seeing things I've never seen before," Chief Rodney Monroe said. "There was a belief that a person could commit a homicide in the city and never worry about somebody turning them in. But that's changed."
Richmond, a city that usually ranks among the deadliest in the nation, has seen just six homicides in the first three months of 2007, compared with 28 during the same period a year ago — a remarkable drop that the chief and others are attributing to a more visible police presence on the streets, a more aggressive attack on open-air drug dealing, and a greater willingness on the part of the public to cooperate.
"If we go back 20 years, we can run back far as we can, and we've never gotten off to the low start as we have this year," Monroe said Thursday.
Monroe said the city of approximately 190,000 is well on its way to meeting his unofficial target of fewer than 80 killings for 2007. There were 81 in 2006.
"Crime ebbs and flows. But I do think that what we're doing in the city of Richmond is not just luck and it's not just happenstance," said Robyn Lacks, a criminal justice professor and director of the Public Safety Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
The citizen action explanation
Among other things, more Richmond residents are identifying drug dealers, and witnesses are more willing to testify, Monroe said.
Residents are speaking out because they are sick of the bloodshed and trust Monroe more than previous police chiefs, said community activist Alicia Rasin, founder of Richmond's Citizens Against Crime.
"They're getting tired and frustrated and now they're coming forth," said Rasin, 54, who regularly shows up at murder scenes to console victims' families. "They're saying, ‘OK, enough is enough.'"
Also, police have increased their visibility in neighborhoods where violent crime is the worst, Monroe said. The department brought 40 additional take-home police cars and 20 more motorcycles to help officers enter confined areas such as alleys.
The department also boosted the number of hours officers are hitting the beat on foot, on bicycle or on motorcycle — from 24,000 hours in 2006 to a goal of 36,000 in 2007.
Targeting the drug markets
Drugs were a factor in many of the city's homicides in 2006, and police are now aggressively targeting Richmond's open-air drug markets. None of the six homicides in the first quarter was drug-related, Monroe said. The department is also experimenting with new computer programs that can help predict exactly where violent crimes will occur, based on such factors as the day of the week and the weather.
Arson, burglary, larceny and auto theft also have dipped markedly in the first three months of 2007, as well as violent crime such as rape. Major crime — a combination of all violent and property crimes — is down 17 percent.
Police are also solving more crimes. Two years ago, the department was averaging a less than 50 percent closure rate for homicides. Now, the average is more than 70 percent, Monroe said.
"There's less violent crime occurring, and of the violent crime that's occurring, it's being solved and the bad guys are getting taken off the street," Lacks said.
But one criminologist cautioned that it is too soon to say whether the figures represent a trend.
"Having fewer murders is always a reason to celebrate," said University of Richmond professor Joan Neff, coordinator of the school's criminal justice studies. "But in terms of attributing causality, I would say it's too early to tell whether it is simply an aberration or whether it is a real decline."
Neff also noted that January 2006 was an exceptionally bloody month. Two men were convicted of murdering seven people in the first week of 2006. There were 12 homicides in all that month, versus 19 for the entire first quarter of 2005.