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2007 Richmonder of the Year



95, 86, 81, 50. The numbers hang heavy in the air, like concrete, in the lobby at City Hall two weeks before Christmas. There are no candlelight vigils, no comforting pews or stained glass, no inspirational holiday message. There's muffled chatter from a TV by the elevators and bright, fluorescent lights.

It seems odd, out of place, to hold a memorial service in a government building where politics are played and taxes are collected. A few meandering city employees and evening-shift janitors solemnly pass by the families huddling in a row of metal chairs, hundreds of people: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents, sons and daughters. Gospel music pipes in through a black speaker box, and there's a set of portable aluminum bleachers in the back.

It's that time of year again, when the living victims of Richmond's notoriously homicidal streets come together to grieve and commiserate at the Annual Holiday Memorial Program, sponsored by The Coalition Against Violence and the Richmond Victim-Witness Assistance Program. The turnout for this Dec. 13 program is one of the largest since the annual memorial service started in 1989.

There's irony in the crowd, given the year's precipitous drop in murders. (Since Dec. 13, the city has recorded four additional murders, bringing the 2007 total as of Style's Dec. 28 press time to 54.) There should be fewer, not more, families mourning. But they're coming in droves now, program organizer Linda Jordan says.

She credits the keynote speaker: Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. "I see more families, more members of the community here," Jordan says. "Because of Chief Monroe, there is more trust, more willingness to cooperate."

In the past three years, under the tumultuous reign of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder and the political infighting that has beset the city, Monroe has been a saving grace. Murders and violent crimes are down significantly. But at City Hall after hours on a cold December night, this is where the proof emerges. There's Monroe, hugging victims and promising to take the deaths of their loved ones personally. He's been reaching out for three years, and the people are finally reaching back. In a year that saw so much promise flicker in the wind of political chaos, Monroe has delivered.

Which is why Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe is Style Weekly's 2007 Richmonder of the Year.

The numbers tell the story. For a city that regularly pushed well past the century mark throughout the crack-infested '90s, Richmond had registered 54 murders in 2007. It's the lowest total in 24 years. More important, it's the one surefire public victory that Richmond can claim in 2007. All the economic development deals, new condo developments and art galleries in the world pale in comparison to this accomplishment: a 34 percent reduction in homicides from 2006.

Sure, the city feels like it's constantly in turmoil: a grandstanding, egocentric mayor, a disjointed School Board and a perpetually lost City Council. Yet amid all this chaos, somehow Richmond's streets are getting safer, quieter. Violent crime is down across the board. According to police department statistics, through Dec. 25 rape was down 16 percent, aggravated assault down 17 percent and armed robbery of individuals was down 5 percent. (The lone caveat, armed robbery of businesses, was up 10 percent through Christmas.) That's against a national trend in the opposite direction. Homicides in major cities are on the rise -- not dropping to record lows.

"What we are seeing is a result of action and not accident," says Robyn Diehl Lacks, director of Virginia Commonwealth University's Public Safety Institute and assistant professor of criminal justice at VCU. What's made Richmond unique, Lacks says, is a mixture of the city seeing more downtown investment, more businesses opening up and taking over areas that were crime targets, a new form of government and a chief keen on community policing. "It is a paradigm shift," she says.

This dramatic drop in violence coincides neatly with the arrival of Monroe, who has brought a renewed sense of accountability to the men and women in blue since taking over in 2005. He was Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's first big hire. Weeks before Wilder selected a chief administrative officer to run the day-to-day operations of the city, his transition team had plucked Monroe from Macon, Ga., where he was chief of a small police force with a fraction of the sworn officers and violent crime that beset Richmond. Monroe was revered in Macon, where he'd rebuilt a fractured department, where a group of police officers had once resorted to suing the city over its promotions process.

Monroe, a 22-year veteran of the Washington, D.C., police department, has always had a knack for community policing, a likeable cop who quickly earned the trust of troubled teenagers and gang members. He brokered a remarkable truce in 1997 between rival gangs from one of Washington's most violent housing projects, Benning Terrace, by bringing them to a church to hash out their differences. He showed up at youth basketball games on weekends.

He did the same in Macon, bridging trust between the department and the community. The thinking was he'd do the same in Richmond.

A gruff, "vertically challenged" chief who learned to box with Sugar Ray Leonard in Maryland as a kid, Monroe, 50, is a blue-collar cop with none of the military pretense. He didn't rise through the ranks in D.C. by kissing ass, nor did he make his career about the bars on his sleeve. He isn't an us-versus-them kind of crime-fighter.

"I think Rod deserves incredible credit for running a good organization and personifying what people want to see. I think that Monroe is the best fit we've ever had," says former Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks, who worked for three police chiefs during his 12-year tenure. "He's got the mixture of making his own in a place like D.C. with the reality of politics. … Give Rod the credit, but understand that policing is just a component. I've had a bad chief of police, and I can tell you it makes a difference."

At the time, the hiring of Monroe was seen as risky. He took over a police force that had lost credibility in many of Richmond's toughest neighborhoods. Monroe's predecessor, former Police Chief André Parker, often placed the blame for unsolved homicides on the backs of uncooperative citizens. And Richmond was twice the size of Macon, a city of 100,000. Richmond had 95 murders the year before Monroe took over; in his last year in Macon, the number was 17. Some people worried Monroe was making too big of a leap.

But then it happened: Monroe delivered. His first priority was to rebuild the trust, restructuring the department to focus on "community policing," targeting the housing projects and higher-crime communities. He drew up a dozen new sectors throughout the city where the department would deploy a platoon of officers. They focus exclusively on specific neighborhoods, a strategy that requires more police officers, instead of rotating officers in and out of four larger precincts. Each sector sends out a monthly community newsletter letting residents know what the department is doing, including crime reports, photos of wanted criminals and, most important, updates when arrests have been made.

"Our account as it relates to trust within the community was pretty much depleted," Monroe recalls. "We had made so many withdrawals that no one wanted to cash our checks anymore. We go into a community and say, 'Hey, we need information, and with that we're going to go about taking that person out of the community; we're going to protect you from that individual.' We weren't doing that."

In 2005, he created the city's first true homicide unit to ensure there were detectives who did nothing but focus on solving murders. The early results aren't bad. Richmond Police, working closely with the commonwealth's attorney's office, has solved 79 percent of the murders that have occurred in 2007. In 2004, the year before Monroe took over, the number of solved murder cases was around 60 percent. The commonwealth's attorney's office has returned the favor, winning convictions in 48 of the 53 murder/manslaughter trials in 2007, a 90 percent conviction rate.

It helps that Monroe has received everything he's asked for to accomplish the mission. Wilder and City Council gave Monroe more money to put more officers on the street and upped the pay scale to keep officers around longer (starting salary: $36,500).

Monroe's become such a political asset that earlier this year, when he requested an additional $3.6 million in spending during an April budget session in council chambers, the entire room stood up and cheered. The police department is near full staff, with all 753 sworn officer positions filled, the last 24 officers set to graduate from the police academy this year.

It's been an all-out love fest for Monroe in 2007, punctuated by the dramatic drop in murders. Perhaps the biggest question now is, What can Monroe do for an encore? Even he admits 2007's 54 murders are probably an aberration. In all likelihood, crime is going to rise again; it's just a matter of when. Monroe's biggest problem may be setting the bar too high, especially coming into an election year. Mayor Wilder hasn't publicly declared whether he'll run again, but if he does, the evaporating murder rate will be his biggest political trump card — if it holds. If there's a spike in murders and violent crime in the first half of 2008, it may taint the political waters.

Assigning credit for a drop in the murder rate, or blame if there's an increase, is risky business. Academics have for years searched for reliable data to track the effectiveness of policing as it relates to homicides, and there is still little evidence to suggest there is a direct correlation. At the peak of the crack epidemic in 1994, Richmond saw a record 160 murders, largely because of gang-related violence while police worked to establish dominance in open-air drug markets. You could argue that when the police department is doing its job — breaking up drug rings, for example — the usual result is a murder spike as gangs from outside the area rush to fill the void. After all, people don't stop consuming drugs. And as long as there's demand, supply is never far behind.

Local defense attorney Steven Benjamin raises the question as an academic exercise. "Let's say you take out 10 to 20 people who control [the drug trade in] a housing community or neighborhood. Richmond is a well-known market. As soon as a market comes open, then there is substantial competition to acquire that market," Benjamin posits. "You don't see much in the papers anymore about Richmond drug gangs being indicted, broken up. … So has stability within the drug trade caused a reduction in the number of drug-related homicides?"

It's an intriguing thesis. Chief Monroe says the department's efforts attacking open-air drug markets has only intensified. Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring recently speculated that the recent rise in armed robberies, the only area of violent crime to see a spike in the past few months, may be related to police doing a good job of taking away the open-air drug corners. In other words, criminals are searching for alternative means of enterprise — robbery.

But that doesn't account for the most important part of the equation: Has demand for drugs abated? Benjamin doesn't think so, which leaves an interesting paradox. "One way to reduce drug-related murders is to maintain a stable drug market," he says.

Monroe doesn't think so. He believes the success in reducing homicides is a result of good old-fashioned police work. When a murder is committed, his department throws all of its available resources at getting the killer behind bars — which, he says, has an added bonus. By getting the shooter off the streets quickly, it stops the cycle. More often than not, in drug-related murders, the shooter is often the next victim.

"So when you're able to lock up a shooter you've done two things in a lot of cases," Monroe says: "Number one, that person is not going to kill somebody else because they are going to be in jail. And number two — and sometimes more importantly — they are not going to be a victim themselves whereby somebody is going to retaliate against them.

"But if that person stays out on the streets, not identified, not arrested," Monroe continues, "it could very well be your next homicide, and you never know that the reason that they were killed is the fact that they killed somebody else."

Simply put, Monroe argues that good police work is making a difference. And considering he's been a cop for 28 years, perhaps he's earned a temporary reprieve from the question of stabilizing the drug market. It helps that he's leading by example, says Captain John Venuti, who heads the department's homicide unit. Venuti noticed the change almost immediately with Monroe's hiring in 2005. When murder struck, he says, Monroe was there, on the streets with the homicide detectives.

Before 2005, murder scenes were typically sparse with police. Venuti says he and four detectives "would be on the scene and the chief would hear about it in the morning." Monroe, however, is on the scene at a "majority" of the homicides that occur, along with command staff and prosecutors from the commonwealth attorney's office. "One of the things that I recognized as soon as I got here … to him, it's more than just a body lying in the street," Venuti says. "It makes all the difference in the world."

Others are seeing the change, too. King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, says the police force is becoming visibly more diverse, with more black officers in particular. "We used to try and look for anyone dark," Khalfani says. "Now we see dark women, men. Many of them are pleased with him as well." That may be especially significant, given that 50 of the 54 homicide victims in 2007 were black.

This isn't to say that the fight is over, that the police department doesn't have its shortcomings or that Monroe hasn't had his share of missteps. Third Precinct Sgt. David Childress, president of the Richmond Coalition of Police, says that shifting from 12-hour to 10-hour shifts — a move Monroe says allows the department to deploy officers more effectively during high-crime hours — has often left his precinct short-handed.

"The deployment of our manpower certainly leaves a lot to be desired," Childress says, explaining that the shift to "sector policing" and to 10 1/2-hour shifts means he often can't put enough officers on the street. "They've been telling everybody that we're up to full strength, but I don't know where they are at."

And there's the issue of Monroe's emphasis on "field interview reports," which Monroe credits with helping officers track down criminals expeditiously. When officers stop someone for routine traffic violations, for example, they fill out detailed reports, including such information as why the person stopped was there, where they were going, their appearance, and so on. The idea is that such information can pay off later.

Monroe credits a field interview report with recently helping police pick up a robbery suspect. Police had stopped and questioned the suspect just 20 minutes before he committed the crime, generating a report. There are no official quotas for filling out field reports, which if abused can infringe on personal rights, but Childress says that quotas persist. "I think there's a lot being said that's not always true," Childress says. "These field interview reports, which are good and the guys should be doing … some lieutenants have set up quotas."

There are other, potentially more damaging, criticisms. Monroe has stubbornly insisted that nine members of the police force, recently reduced to six, shadow Wilder as his personal security force. The cost: nearly $500,000 a year. Wilder initially refused, but Monroe insisted. There was also Monroe's role in ensuring that City Hall, a public building, remained closed to public officials, journalists and other citizens the night of Sept. 21, turning City Hall into a mini police state during Wilder's attempted eviction of the School Board and Richmond Public Schools.

Monroe doesn't view either decision as a mistake, or the potentially damaging perception that his police department has become the strong-arm of Mayor Wilder. As for the City Hall fiasco, he says he strongly believes his department had a duty to man the doors to prevent a potentially "volatile situation" from getting ugly.

This is where critics have been loudest. Hicks, Khalfani and Benjamin all see the chief's insistence on securing City Hall — not allowing the public, including state Sen. Henry Marsh, into a public building — as a serious offense. "We got a mayor that runs and rules with an iron fist, and obviously he rules the police chief as well," Khalfani says. "I'm sure [Monroe] was following orders, but at some point folks need to stand up and advise that some actions are inappropriate."

Benjamin takes it a step further. He says Monroe "has got to be the one who stands up to the administration and says: 'I do not work for you. I work for the people and the law says this building is open. This department will not become your personal police force.' When someone tries to close a public building, then the proper role for the police department is to be standing there holding the door open for the citizens."

For all his strengths and leadership skills, Monroe can come off as painfully simplistic. He equates the City Hall closing, for example, as no different than police helping a landlord evict a tenant, a common practice. He's seemingly oblivious to the analogy's main weakness: Closing City Hall to the public more closely resembles evicting the landlord at the request of the tenant.

Still, in the streets, in the neighborhoods where bodies have traditionally piled up and the criminals are often teenagers carrying handguns, Monroe has done something miraculous. It's on full display at the same City Hall, during the holiday memorial.

While members of the city's victim-witness program give the grisly roll call — one by one, family members come and place ribbons on a memorial — Monroe sits off to the side, grimacing. They walk slowly, painfully.

Linda Jordan, chief organizer of the annual service whose son, William, was gunned down at age 19 in 1994, greets each family with a hug. When her name comes up, Jordan the comforter transforms into the victim, and Monroe gets up from his chair, walks over and wraps his arms around her.

This is where he's been most successful, where the chief has made a difference. And it's the most important difference. He talks of knowing their grief personally, and he does: His only sister was beaten to death by her boyfriend in Maryland in 2002. Losing his sister to the same violence he investigated time and time again devastated Monroe, who briefly considered leaving his job as chief in Macon, retiring for good.

"Death is not a number. All too often, people like to place a number on a loved one," Monroe tells the families during a brief speech. "My main focus is to bring life to that death. You as loved ones deserve that life to mean something."

It seems to be sinking in. After the memorial service is over, those who have every reason to be dissatisfied, mothers who have lost their children, praise the department for being upfront, for reaching out and treating their cases with dignity, for making sure they don't become just another number.

"I think he's doing better on crime, making people feel comfortable about coming forward," says Karen Hazaimeh, whose son, David Smith, was murdered at age 19 on Sept. 23, 2004. "People don't fear." S

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