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Murder by Numbers

A series of brutal killings inspires a search for answers.


The homicides raised the city’s year-to-date murder tally to 51, with five months left in the year. There were 84 homicides in all of 2002.

The climb in the number of killings recalls the lethal grip the city suffered a decade ago when homicides ranked Richmond sixth in the nation among deadliest places. It reminds some of two decades ago, when the number hit 160, punching Richmond up to second place in the country.

Some argue that the city’s homicide rate is misleading in that it does not include far lower rates in the surrounding counties. But that’s hard to remember when blood is being spilled — especially when we know where much of it is happening.

This year, homicides in Richmond’s public housing communities have increased 50 percent from the total last year. At nine murders, city housing projects, with about 3,500 housing units, can claim nearly 20 percent of the city’s current murder rate.

This spring John Butcher, a self-appointed citizen watchdog who lives in South Side, presented to the public safety commission information he compiled from city resources and the Freedom of Information Act.

Based on his research, Butcher argues that the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which acts as landlord for the city’s public housing, isn’t effectively managing its tenants. This, he says, enables crime in such neighborhoods to persist.

Valena Dixon with RRHA disagrees. “Crime is not an RRHA issue,” she says. “We want the public to understand this is a collective issue,” a citywide issue that needs citywide attention. “We want the public to understand we look forward to working with task forces [to reduce crime]. And we want our families to have communities where they feel safe.”

Butcher says the spike in homicides shows they’re not.

“Murders are like traffic, pain and lust: They come in bunches,” Butcher says. “We are having a bunch right now. I hope this time we will abjure the notion that we might police ourselves out of the problem and turn to the people who can solve it: the landlords. Especially the big ones like such as RRHA.”

Twelve hours before the discovery at dawn on Wednesday of another murdered man in Hillside, a group of citizens gathered at Gilpin Court in Jackson Ward for a public safety meeting with city leaders to address violence in their neighborhood.

Councilman Bill Pantele is a member of the Public Safety Commission and represents the 1st District, which includes Gilpin Court. Taking the monthly meetings occasionally out of City Hall and into crime-ridden neighborhoods was an initiative started years ago in an effort to increase public input, but in recent years the effort lapsed. Councilman Manoli Loupassi, 2nd District, who heads the commission, and Pantele revived the effort last year.

Pantele says that even before the killings on Wednesday, City Council was aware that some swift action is necessary to halt homicides in public housing neighborhoods.

“I and the rest of Council are as frustrated as frustrated can be about the persistent and increasing crime,” Pantele says. “While it’s certainly true that causes for crime are multifaceted and require a multifaceted solution, it’s not as easy as putting police officers on every corner.”

(Richmond Police Captain Margaret Horn, who recently was named head of the homicide division, declined Style’s request for an interview.)

Without intervention, Pantele continues, crime “is going to wreck everything we’re doing.”

Pantele, reached by phone while on vacation and was told by a reporter of Officer Wendel’s murder — which did not occur in a public housing complex.

“We’ve got to declare war on crime in public housing and everywhere. I’m tired of seeing Alicia Rasin on TV,” he says, referring to the community ambassador for the city who consoles murder victim’s families. “She’s like the grim reaper.”

Pantele says the city is working on a plan to create a new task force. The task force is to be a departure from some city business in that it doesn’t aim to become a forum for public participation. “We have not done a good enough job from a leadership standpoint to fix the problem,” he says. And the task force, he says, is key to restoring faith in that leadership.

Pantele acknowledges that Butcher’s argument about murders in public housing communities has merit, but stops short of blaming violent crime in public housing on RRHA or any specific source. He says it’s not simply a policing problem, either. Still, there are simple measures that can be taken, he says, such as increasing the number of security officers assigned to public housing communities. According to Pantele, RRHA has the authority to hire as many security officers as it needs to help police its neighborhoods. It only has four, he says.

Moreover, Pantele says what’s needed is plain talk and precise action. He draws a hypothetical: “What if your job depends on a 40 percent reduction in crime? What would you do? That’s the kind of attitude we have to have.”

There is a kind of slogan Pantele hopes will emerge: Public housing is a bad place, a dangerous place to commit crime — a place where perpetrators will be caught and prosecuted.

And just as he notes myriad factors that cultivate violence — sparse affordable housing, concentrations of poverty, high truancy rates, poor health, environmental stresses, and lack of social services and police resources – he points to tools that could curb their impact — environmental evaluations of the projects, uniformed bike patrols, curfew enforcement, traffic stops, and video surveillance.

Pantele says none of measures he intends to push for are meant to restrict freedoms of public housing residents. Still, he points to RRHA’s recent win in the United States Supreme Court on the issue of governance of its sidewalks. “What are you going to do with it?” he asks. “It needs to be on the table.” Pantele says the task force will have at least five decisive initiatives in place by December.

But some residents in Gilpin Court say crime and the conditions that create it are just facts of life in their neighborhood. A day after the murders a group of friends hang out on the porch of an apartment on St. Peter Street. They’ve heard about the slain officer; they saw the report on the news, but hadn’t heard about the killing in nearby Hillside Court.

A 28-year-old man who calls himself Black and his pregnant girlfriend speak for the group. They hadn’t heard about the public safety meeting two days ago, and even if they had, they say they wouldn’t have attended.

This is what they do all day, says the young man: Hang out and watch the neighborhood. He and his friends say they know every unmarked police vehicle that passes by. They say they can’t approach friends who stop in their cars in the middle of the road for fear it’ll be seen as a drug deal. They say they don’t pass change out in public, either, for the same reason. They say they mind their own business.

“I’ll tell you what I do,” the man who calls himself Black says. “I drink, I smoke weed and I trip with folks.” Then he asks a reporter: “Now what are you going to do when they start shooting?” S

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