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Code "S" for Serious: City Gives New Powers to Property "Cops"

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As special conservators, or "S-COPs," the inspectors will wear badges and respond to property complaints equipped with the necessary paperwork to make a noncompliant owner cringe. And while they don't carry firearms, the inspectors do carry digital cameras.

The move comes as the city continues to grapple with property infractions. In the last fiscal year the city received close to 8,900 property complaints, city spokesman Linwood Norman says. With three months remaining in the fiscal year, the city has already received more than 8,400 complaints.

What owners can be nabbed for may surprise you. City inspectors can cite residents for inoperable vehicles on private property, unlawful accumulation of trash on public and private property, and overgrown yards — not to mention illegal dumping.

Most infractions result in charges called unclassified misdemeanors, meaning they carry a fine of up to $2,500 but no jail time, says Property Maintenance Inspector David S. Cooper. He notes an exception: environmental citations — the "grass, trash and the vehicles," he says, for which infractions can result in a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by fines of up to $2,500 and a year in jail.

In order to become an S-COP, Cooper says, he and his 20 or so colleagues underwent a 24-hour course licensed by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. Previously, it would have taken months. Inspectors would cite a property and have to go to the Richmond Sheriff's Office for a summons, then go to the Richmond Police Department to have a magistrate sign off on the summons. After that, it would typically take four to five weeks for a sheriff's deputy to deliver the summons.

Now, Cooper says, by issuing a summons directly, the entire matter can be resolved in court in as little as a week.

Last week, Cooper sprang to action after receiving a citizen complaint from the mayor's office. At issue was a corrugated shed in Shockoe Bottom that appeared to have gaping holes in the roof and sides that peeled away from its foundation. It's located on East Grace Street across from upscale condominiums.

Cooper inspected the building through a chain-link fence and counted at least four violations. He took pictures of the shed with a digital camera.

"I'm going to give [the owner] 30 days to make repairs," Cooper says. "If he doesn't, I'll issue a summons. But this should give him a wake-up call." S

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