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The New Blue

The first 90 days in office can say a lot about a chief.


Their response that rainy Monday morning was a near miss. But the implications that followed struck home. The local connection to the case, the inflamed fear and the possibility that the sniper might have been captured here was more of a shock than news of another random shooting.

Not to Richmond's new police chief, Col. Andre Parker.

Since the sniper assaults began Oct. 2, Parker has been acutely aware of the possibility that the D.C.-area predators would press terrifyingly close. Just 36 hours before a tip came about the pay phone in Henrico, Parker had been in his apartment downtown watching Saturday night college football when police called to say a gunshot victim in Ashland was likely the 12th target in the serial sniper's rampage. As a member of the quickly constituted area task force, Parker was soon on the scene.

From his office at police headquarters, less than 48 hours before the arrest of two men in Maryland would seem to halt the terror, Parker moves stacks of papers on his desk to a spot under it and takes his seat. Despite the recent commotion created by the sniper investigation, Parker keeps his appointment for an interview with a reporter. He stresses that he tries hard to be accessible. It's one of the reasons he was hired, he says.

Last summer, City Manager Calvin Jamison and a 17-member committee recruited Parker, 46, from a roster of 42 national candidates to replace former Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver.

"The process was not an easy one," Jamison says. During the discussions, Jamison traveled to Parker's home in Illinois. He met with Parker and his wife, Sheila, a former Illinois state trooper, and their daughter, Jennifer, to sell the entire family on Richmond, Jamison recalls. Jamison already was sold on Parker. "He had the three Cs: chemistry, collaboration and commitment," Jamison says. "There are those who demand respect based on their position and those who command respect based on the person that they are. I think Chief Parker is the latter."

Parker took the job and officially assumed his role as chief Aug. 1. It's been 90 days since then. Parker calls it his "sprint." Once he's hit the 100-day mark, Parker says he'll be ready to unveil his program to improve policing in Richmond.

"I haven't completely formalized my plan as to what it is I'm going to do," he says. "Every day I'm learning new things; every day I'm hearing new concerns."

Today, he appears cordial and poised in a pristine black uniform. He smiles widely and often, with a smile he notes he's famous for. Christy Collins, a police spokeswoman, sits attentively in a chair next to Parker to listen in on the interview. She is here, she confides, because it's part of her job to help write his speeches, and, so far, she hasn't had many chances to get to know him, to hear how he talks.

As Parker talks — about his hopes for the job, his qualifications as chief and the high expectations he has of his colleagues — he can't help checking his Palm messenger to make sure he's not needed more someplace else.

Reports on CNN of a 13th sniper shooting, of a Maryland bus driver, earlier this morning scroll across the TV screen in Parker's sparse office. He checks his computer monitor often, too, clearly aware that his day could change in an instant.

"Crime is mobile," Parker says. "If it's visited upon in one community it certainly can be visited upon in another."

And at least part of Parker's solution to the problem is collaboration, a joint effort for regional police to work together. "We are not as parochial a law enforcement as we used to be. We used to only be concerned with events that happened in our community. We didn't share information, and we didn't communicate as well as we should," he says, adding: "We are stronger together than we are as individuals. Although we have different jurisdictions, we all have a responsibility to keep our communities safe."

It's a responsibility that Parker seems to know — no matter how it's carried out — has limits as well as potential.

By the time Parker appeared last Monday in Henrico at a press conference amid local, state and federal authorities for a "coordinated response" to the apprehension of two immigrant workers (that turned out to be unrelated to the investigation), the sniper had slipped away. And as Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose spoke to the sniper, a broader question had arisen, a question Parker must have expected from his new hometown: In a time when terror seems unstoppable, who can feel safe?

"We are living in interesting times," Parker says. "It has been rather a sprint to get to know the people in this community, their issues, and to think about them as I go along and figure out what my response is going to be."

And if the sniper's rampage so close to home brings anything positive it may be an opportunity for the police and their communities to respond better to fear and chaos, he says.

The press, the police, the public — all of them scrambling for information, good and bad — created a sense of chaos around the sniper investigation that would unnerve many. Parker, though, seems to thrive in such moments. He stays calm. A simple mantra he learned in the military guides him: Adjust. Adapt. Overcome.

"You have to adjust to the circumstances of the situation. You have to adapt either your position or your resources. And your main goal is to overcome whatever challenges you're facing," he says. "It's my style of leadership and my personal way of looking at life." The philosophy inspires how Parker makes decisions, too.

But in a place like Richmond where disorder sometimes seems to dwell, will it be enough to keep a new chief of police on-course? And if so, will the strategy Parker develops to improve urban policing work?

His former co-workers say yes. "You have to step outside policing for a while and learn to be a mediator between city departments and your city council. [Parker] will communicate well in this way," says East St. Louis Police Chief Col. Delbert Marion.

Marion acknowledges the two had their differences but says the two worked past them. "Our first meetings weren't pleasant. We didn't like each other," he recalls. "But we came to a mutual understanding that we'd work together for the betterment of the force."

Parker served 24 years in the Illinois State Police Department, most recently dispatched as director of operations for the East St. Louis police. A decade ago, some say, Parker helped restore a sense of trust to a demoralized East St. Louis police department. The city was one of the most violent in the nation, with 54 homicides that year in a population of nearly 50,000, Marion notes. While Parker was there, he says, the department lacked significant resources — guns, for example, and cars — that they needed to do their job. During Parker's tenure he appealed to outside resources for help and got it. The murder rate was cut almost in half.

Another former colleague says Parker's contribution to the police department and the community there is a personal one.

"He came at a time when the community did not feel good about their police department," says Francella Jackson, director of community programs for the East St. Louis police. Jackson met Parker for the first time after she had been sexually assaulted. (She wasn't yet employed there.) When she tried to get help from police to file a complaint, she says, help wasn't offered. That changed when she met Parker.

"He may not even remember our introduction," Jackson recalls. "But he was different, he listened. He wasn't just a police officer. … For Parker, the fear of a crime was as important as the crime itself."

And the idea that the fear of crime is as great as the crime itself resonates clearly with Richmonders at a time when a sniper's reach seemed boundless.

At last a call interrupts the interview. Parker takes it — it's his boss, Jamison. It's about the soon-to-be rescheduled Autumn Harvest Parade that already has been postponed once because of the sniper scare.

"Hey Dr. J," Parker says. "You got a moment that I can talk to you about the parade?"

Parker informs the city manager that it will be impossible for him to provide the needed police officers for the parade.

"I hope that we can rethink our position, given my redirectional resources as it relates to this current situation," Parker says. "… The latest shooting this morning kind of caused this. But we've got to be part of this collective law-enforcement response." Jamison says something. "Yeah, not only conference calls but daily meetings," Parker says. "Yeah, all the chiefs. … We're staffed at the FBI. … I'm headed back over there after this. … We expect this to be staffed-up for a while."

Here is some of what Parker faces.

Richmond is in the middle of unprecedented economic investment — more than $1 billion worth — in downtown development, and city officials say a strong sense of public security is more important than ever to bringing people back.

Because of millions in state budget shortfalls the annual Richmond Police budget of $56.4 million could be substantially whittled down. Already resources are tight; new recruits are few.

For the first time in recent memory the Richmond Police Department is moving its headquarters. The transition from the dilapidated Public Safety building at Ninth and Leigh streets to a new facility on Grace Street begins this week. Fragile, irreplaceable data that has never been moved must be.

This midterm election, City Council and the School Board shift their elections from May to November — next Tuesday (Nov.5) — and it's possible with a transition in Council there could be a shift in power, and politics, if some incumbents are ousted. It would mean a new majority could vote to remove the city manager. And the city manager hires and fires the police chief.

Parker acknowledges most of this without appearing the least bit bothered. He cites the city slogan Jamison has been pushing ("One city, our city") as proof of the kind of commitment he's received so far, the kind he insists he's prepared to give back.

Years from now, when Parker tries to describe the Richmond he found in his first 100 days as police chief, he might mention the sniper and the real and perverse anxieties those shootings provoked.

But it's likely he'll recall other things much more vividly: that the number of homicides in Richmond — 54 in 10 months — was the same as the highest annual murder rate that his former city, East St. Louis, Ill., had ever seen. Or that crimes associated with drugs, gangs and prostitution were on the rise across the nation, some of them in Richmond, too. Or that the kind of crime that most often brings fear homeward doesn't make headlines.

These are the kinds of crimes Parker say he's committed to address daily.

Parker recently launched a program he calls the "Blue Wave" in response to citizen concerns in some of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods that police presence there isn't enough.

The initiative mirrors other "street-sweep" police blitzes in which police on bikes, on foot, in cars and on horses, even, concentrate on known high-crime areas for a certain period of time, hoping to deter illegal activity. In addition to this, the "Wave" aims to curb continued crime by following culprits to the neighborhoods where they turn up next. Word of its impact could come in just a few months.

"The Blue Wave is an initiative to disrupt criminal activity, to make the city of Richmond so inhospitable to criminals that they don't want to be here," Parker says. "It's my job to keep them moving along."

Parker says he is a collaborative leader, a person who demands and expects achievement from all levels within the police department. "It's important that I roll up my sleeves and work right next to them as they do the difficult jobs," he says. "I've been out at midnight with my officers on North Side, early in the morning with them. … I have to recruit them every day to be the best officers that they can be — and to stay here in Richmond."

It's close to 3 p.m. and Parker has granted a reporter much more time than was scheduled. He is due back at the command post at the local FBI office where he and other law enforcement chiefs from surrounding counties have been meeting daily to be briefed on the sniper situation. In less than 48 hours, Parker will get word that the suspected sniper and an accomplice have been arrested and that this killing spree is likely over. But, for now, Parker must be prepared for anything, as he smiles his way out of his office. "I've been called the smiling assassin, but not withstanding my smile, I get the job done. It's like the famous line from the 'Godfather': It's not personal, it's just business,'" he says, only half-jokingly.

Parker leaves the interview and his office in a way that seems to suggest a chief moving onward and upward in his role. "In terms of things that I see as problematic," he starts to say, then changes direction. "I prefer to say I see a lot of good things going on in the city of Richmond."

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