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With the recent budget fiasco in the police department, Police Chief Jerry Oliver finds himself back in a familiar place - the hot seat.

Chief Concerns

As you might imagine, Jerry Oliver's got a lot on his mind.

One of his officers is being accused of assaulting a City Councilwoman.

Another officer has come under fire for the alleged improper obtaining of search warrants.

And then there's the budget thing.

Since it came to light last spring that the Richmond Police Department overspent its budget by $4 million - with the figure later being upped to $5.5 million - it seems the shine has come off the department and its lightning rod-turned-golden boy of a police chief. The shine had not come easily.

Oliver had a bumpy start from the time he was hired in May 1995. He inherited an antiquated police department with poor community relations. "It was a police department that had been neglected, had low morale, the physical plants were deteriorating … [There was] zero technology, really. It was a police department that was severely deprived," he says.

In a January interview, Assistant U.S. Attorney James B. Comey said, "[It was] a 1950s police department doing a 1990s job. … Jerry's job was to turn that battleship."

Oliver immediately began transferring officers, changing captains' shifts and hiring new deputies, for which he was taken to court. He clashed loudly with City Council, demanding more money for new technology and services.

At the time, Oliver says, the department's mission was merely reactive and responsive. "To protect and to serve is not good enough," he says. The department's new mission is the rather corporate-sounding: "We engage the community. We solve problems."

Oliver was charged in 1995 with reducing the violent crime rate by 25 percent; the next year, City Council upped that goal to 30 percent. Today, violent crime is down 40 percent since 1994. The murder rate, once the bane of this city's existence, has dropped 54 percent.

With Project Exile - a joint effort of the police department, Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and U.S. Attorney's Office, it uses federal laws to prosecute and sentence those who commit a crime using a gun - Oliver himself and the Richmond Police Department as a whole received accolades and imitation from all over the country. The New York Times and newspapers nationwide wrote about Exile. Oliver appeared on CNN, ABC News and NBC's "Dateline." In March 1999, he testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Youth Violence. In January he was named Style Weekly's Richmonder of the Year by a community panel.

Since the budget fiasco, though, the spotlights on Oliver have gone from warm to scorching. It's a situation he's used to, if not comfortable with. He is back to having to defend himself, every decision he makes, every dime he spends. When crime was at all-time highs, when the city had become numb to murders every other day, no one, he feels, was worrying about how much money he was spending to fight the problem. He says he purposely outspent his budget every year. "When crime was going through the roof, they didn't ask that question," Oliver says, referring to scrutiny of the department's spending.

Now with crime down, City Manager Calvin Jamison says the city's "focus is changing, from a city that was dealing with murder rates to one that is safer" and now is dealing with the bigger- picture issues of downtown development, infrastructure, education and transportation.

That's exactly what worries Oliver. He fears that city leaders are turning their attention away from the aggressive policing that contributed to Richmond's dramatic drop in crime.

"This is half-time," he says, "in a very important game. During the commercial break, people are starting to nod off." He's clearly worried that others feel the game is already won.

Let's get down to it: Jerry Oliver wants more money for his department. "We will continue to do great things, but we won't continue if we don't have more money," he says. And if he has to endure cuts that will cause the department to backslide in its innovative efforts, he says, he's out of here.

His department's budget for fiscal year 2000 was $46.5 million. The department spent $51.1 million.

The 2001 budget, which started July 1, is $46.6 million. But Oliver says he needs $50 million to do the job he's already doing. That means more than just basic police response to calls, he says. It means outreach — special initiatives such as the Blitz to Bloom program, which targets drug dealing and blight in areas such as Highland Park, Blackwell and central Church Hill. It means citizen police academies, bicycle units, a community service unit, Police Athletic League, the Vanquish program, which puts officers in public schools, and numerous other programs.

All of that has cost money. Lots of it, in operational costs and especially overtime, which has been a chronic spending problem for the department.

With demands for services outpacing city revenues — which have increased by only about 2 percent per year (compared to 5 to 10 percent in the counties) — City Manager Calvin Jamison says he has asked departments to "do an examination of key core services and determine if there is a better way to deliver that service."

Sounds perfectly reasonable, but Oliver says what he's being asked to do is identify $2 million in possible cuts before it can be decided if those programs can be funded. Under those rules, Oliver can't name a program or unit he's willing to give up easily. He says he won't stand by and watch the dismantling of the department from a full-service operation to a traditional reactive police force. "I'm not willing to stay here and allow what we've accomplished over the last five years to be frittered away for political reasons or other reasons. I'm not willing to allow the department to regress under my leadership."

So he seems to be rallying the troops, hoping to garner support for the initiatives and special units he has put in place over five years. He'll meet with citizens in an open forum Sept. 7 at the Police Academy to ask what they think can be cut from the police department's services. He's hoping they will say "nothing."

He obviously wants to trumpet the work his department has done over five years and not to be judged by the budget mess.

When Jamison assesses Oliver's performance, it's all high marks when it comes to policing: "He is and continues to be an excellent police chief. … We are a better city, a safer city because of the leadership Jerry has provided." But in the area of management? "He's had some challenges," Jamison says. "But we are moving forward." Jamison refuses to be nailed down on the question of whether or not Oliver's job is in jeopardy over the budget situation, just reiterating that a department head has to be a leader and a manager.

And though he says he's all for streamlining his department and making it more efficient, it's clear that Oliver wants to stay focused on aggressive policing: "I wasn't asked to balance the budget," he says. "The object was to get crime rates down and improve police services."

The Citizen Forum with Police Chief Jerry Oliver will be held Sept. 7, from 6-8 p.m. at the Police Academy, 1202 W. Graham Road.

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