Nothing puts city politics in perspective like a visual metaphor.
The fair-weather economy was flat ground for former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe's easy jog to the lowest murder rate the city's seen in decades. For his successor, Bryan Norwood, a three-hour, media-friendly jog through the city's hilly East End last week illustrates the potential uphill race facing the rookie chief.
While the economy sours and crime rates inevitably inch higher, Norwood's political endurance may well determine his future — and potentially that of his boss, Mayor Dwight C. Jones.
Rising crime can have dire political consequences, says John Moeser, senior fellow at the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement at the University of Richmond.
“Of all of the issues facing the city, the one that resonates most compellingly to the citizens is crime,” he says. Though Norwood is the highest-profile holdover from the administration of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, he's definitely Jones' new relay partner, Moeser says. However they ended up on the same team, they win or lose together.
“I would say that citizens seldom go to the trouble of making fine distinctions,” Moeser says. “If violent crime is increasing, and it's happening on your watch, the political consequences can be severe.”
That Norwood's predecessor ran on such a level track worries Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Mike Herring. “Effective leadership and policing on the streets” played a part in the reduction, but “we were also benefiting from a thriving economy,” Herring says. “I think [the homicide count] is hovering at around 28. Compare that with the last 10 or 15 years, that's what you have to appraise.”
Perhaps allaying Herring's fears — and providing cause for relief for Norwood and Jones, Moeser says — is that most Richmonders understand crime is cyclical.
Not all observers of Norwood's political challenge are as convinced as Moeser that the public makes connections between a worsened economy and increased crime rates. Norwood could serve as a convenient get-out-of-jail-free card for Jones.
If times get tough, the benefit is obvious: Jones improves his standing by removing an unpopular chief and personally benefits by getting to choose his own chief.
To survive, Herring says, Norwood needs political allies; relationships with members of City Council could be particularly valuable. And Norwood needs to become a more visible presence on the streets — and not just doing sprints up Libby Hill, as he did July 1 with police recruits.
“I think Richmond responds well to visible chiefs. … they like to see the chief have sort of a bully pulpit,” Herring says. “They like someone who talks candidly but tough on crime because people in Richmond assume that the message trickles down to the guy on the street who is going to offend.”