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Justice League is watching

Unique partnership dramatically reduces homicides in Richmond

- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 11, 2009

RICHMOND — Every 45 days in a closed conference room here a handful of police officers, prosecutors, federal agents and bureaucrats gather to talk about criminals.

During the daylong sessions at police headquarters, they debate and exchange photos of about 40 "nominees" — those who have committed violent crimes, other suspected felons and a bevy of would-be gangsters — and decide who needs their attention.

They then set out to remove their "targets."

That strategy is part of a preventive crime-fighting initiative that is unique to Richmond and over the past four years has produced the most dramatic reductions in homicides of any big city in the country.

The Cooperative Violence Reduction Partnership (CVRP) relies on shared intelligence among federal and local agencies to identify the community's greatest criminal threats and seeks ways to arrest its targets and file the most effective criminal charges against them.

The result of this zero-tolerance program enforced by a handful of agencies has been a 66 percent decline in the number of homicides in Richmond since it began in 2005.

Commonwealth's Attorney Michael N. Herring said the coordination is needed to match a growing sophistication among criminals.

"The way I like to think of it, we're not going to play fair either," he said. "We will cheat, we will oblique, we will do anything to get someone off the street."

For a violent crime suspect, it could be as simple as revoking probation since the standard is less than proving guilt in a criminal act. It could mean reviewing active investigations that might yield lesser charges involving drugs or guns.

Or it could just mean daily visits from a team of federal agents and local police to remind a target they're being watched and that they will be shown zero tolerance for any infraction.

"We're going to find a way — ethically, legally, morally — to remove this person from the community," said Stephen W. Miller, managing assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Mr. Miller said the philosophy of the CVRP emerged from a meeting among prosecutors, police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials out of concern over the way drug cases were being investigated.

The meeting took place in 1997, about the same time Rudolph W. Giuliani was being credited with reducing crime through zero tolerance as mayor of New York City. But in Richmond, Mr. Miller said, there wasn't the manpower or the money to enforce zero tolerance for everybody for every crime.

In the course of the meetings, a new directive was issued: Isolate the city's crime hot spots and target known troublemakers.

"The mission was in each of these areas [to] find the five people who if you take them off the street the violence will go down," Mr. Miller said.

In choosing targets, the partnership considers a person's criminal history, any intelligence indicating they have recently committed or are planning a violent crime, their potential threat to the community, the charges that could be brought against them and the sentences the person could receive.

If a person is thought to be a witness or a suspect in a violent crime, police may look for a way to quickly bring that person into custody. If prosecutors have reason to think a person is connected to a crime but don't have the evidence to charge them, they can ask police or federal agents to review open investigations for the chance to bring other charges.

In targeting feuding gangs, police and federal agents have used grand jury subpoenas to summon suspected gang members for questioning, to photograph and fingerprint them and warn them of the criminal outcomes of escalating violent feuds.

Brian Swann, resident agent in charge of the Richmond field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), said the exchange of information enables authorities to be proactive instead of reactive against crime.

"If we're going to go after a target, we pick the target," he said during a recent interview, excusing himself to answer his cell phone. The call was from a prosecutor at the courthouse awaiting a verdict in a murder trial and asking if the "backup plan" was still in place.

It was, Mr. Swann said. That meant if the jury returned a not-guilty verdict, prosecutors would immediately file firearms charges based on an ATF investigation.

Richmond already had made headlines for a sharp reduction in killings in the late 1990s through Project Exile, a high-profile, local-federal partnership in which illegal gun possession was prosecuted in federal court, bringing mandatory minimum sentences. Homicides dropped from a high of 160 in 1994 to 66 in 2001.

"That kind of set the tone," said Marla Graff Decker, Virginia deputy attorney general with the public safety and enforcement division and a CVRP member. The attorney general's office is behind the Gang Resistance Intervention Program (GRIP), which offers social service options to people who authorities expect may be a victim of crime.

Project Exile still is in use, but the gains leveled off. After dropping to 66 killings in 2001, the number crept up to 93 killings in 2004.

But in 2005, several key leadership positions in Richmond law enforcement changed hands. Rodney Monroe, a former assistant chief with the Metropolitan Police Department in the District, took over the police department. Mr. Swann was elevated from field agent in Richmond to supervisory agent. And Mr. Herring was elected commonwealth's attorney.

The loose partnership among agencies was formalized in 2005 and quickly expanded. It grew to include Virginia State Police, FBI, DEA, the U.S. Marshals Office, the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and the Department of Corrections Probation and Parole Office.

"A variety of law-enforcement entities got drawn to the table based on where we saw it going," Mr. Miller said.

Mrs. Decker said the crime-fighting philosophy changed to suit the creativity of the partners.

"It's evolved. What it was three years ago, it's not anymore," she said.

Among the best examples of how CVRP works came after the killing of Garrison K. Llano, 21, who was fatally shot on March 4, 2004.

William Thompson, the Richmond police detective assigned to investigate the case, quickly determined that Mr. Llano had been shot by a man named Chris A. Tucker, after the two argued about Mr. Llano being at Tucker's girlfriend's house.

Tucker was charged in the killing by the Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney's Office in the fall of 2004. The case fell apart when crucial prosecution witnesses changed their minds about testifying, and in November 2004 the prosecution withdrew its case.

The case might have remained unsolved, but in May 2005 ATF Agent Danny Board and Detective Thompson coordinated their efforts to gain an indictment on federal drug charges. The U.S. Attorney's Office prosecuted Tucker, who was sentenced in December 2005 to five years in prison. That got Tucker off the street — and it made witnesses in the case more cooperative.

Other arrests made in the course of the Tucker investigation netted witnesses who were either with Tucker the night he killed Mr. Llano or whom he had told of the killing. Those people were persuaded to testify against him.

The information led investigators to the man to whom Tucker sold the shotgun he used to kill Mr. Llano. The man proved uncooperative, but authorities were quickly able to link the reluctant witness to several drug deals. They filed drug charges against him. At that point, he agreed to tell prosecutors what he knew about Tucker.

In November 2007, prosecutors indicted Tucker on murder charges.

On Aug. 12, Tucker pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 years in prison with 11 years suspended.

Each year since the inception of the CVRP in 2005, homicides in this city of 200,000 have declined. Richmond recorded 93 homicides in 2004, the last full year before the program's inception. The city recorded 85 killings in 2005, 80 in 2006, 55 in 2007 and 32 last year.

No U.S. city of more than 100,000 that provided crime totals to the FBI saw homicides decline each year over the four-year period and at as dramatic a rate as Richmond.

"I was astonished," said Edgar A. Domenech, special agent in charge of the ATF Washington field office. "I was astonished to see the numbers as they dropped."

CQ Press, which annually issues a rank of the country's most dangerous cities for crime, last month ranked Richmond No. 49 on its list. The ranking is down from No. 5 just four years ago.

So far, the CVRP has worked in relative secrecy - the city's homicide numbers largely attributed to better policing and good fortune. A lack of publicity has meant no outcries over different standards of justice, the uneven application of zero-tolerance policing or criticism that authorities are harassing people they can't build cases against.

Even the ACLU of Virginia, which in the past has objected to Richmond policing methods, admitted it had never heard of the CVRP.

But the partnership's methods have raised some questions in the community.

"I have actually heard some resentment," Mr. Herring said, describing a community meeting at which a young woman stood up and asked why a drug dealer in her community was handed a longer prison sentence than a man convicted of murder.

Mr. Herring said he understood the frustration, but the woman could not have known about the man's criminal past and the threat he posed to the community.

Mr. Miller, asked if he had seen a backlash from the community, was quick to respond: The law-abiding community, he said, is happy that crime is going down. What the targets think doesn't matter.

"They're not happy about it. But we don't care," he said.

Much of the partnership's operational work — engaging targets and gathering intelligence — is conducted by Violent Crime Impact Teams (VCIT) under the direction of ATF. The steep decrease in crime in the city coincides with the fielding of the teams, which began in 2005.

In 2004, ATF said it would deploy teams to 15 cities around the country, anchored by ATF agents solely dedicated to investigating violent crime with local authorities in the most troubled urban areas. Local police agencies also were expected to commit officers to the joint efforts.

"You're not going to impact violent crime if you're going to arrest the latest bad guy," Mr. Domenech said. "The VCIT concept was each individual VCIT city would design its own plan to attack the problem."

In Richmond, the problem was homicides. In 2004, the year before VCITs were dispatched, two of the city's 12 sectors recorded 46 killings — accounting for nearly half of the city's total of 93. The two sectors, where ATF currently operates, are home to public and low-income housing complexes that have long had entrenched violent crime problems.

The teams come under the direction of Mr. Swann, a former Fairfax County police officer and 20-year ATF veteran. His agents respond to every homicide in the VCIT patrol areas and work with local police for the first 48 hours of the investigation. He said it helps to develop a knowledge of the area and the people.

Maj. John Keohane of the Richmond Police Department agreed, calling it "the best relationship we've seen." He said federal agents show up at their roll calls and solicit information.

On most days, teams of about four officers and agents go into the targeted neighborhoods and "consensually engage" CVRP targets. They also talk to residents about recent crimes, gather intelligence and make themselves visible. While the number of homicides here has declined by about half in the last four years, these neighborhoods still account for about a third of the killings citywide.

About twice a month, multiple teams patrol the neighborhoods to send a message.

On Dec. 4, about 20 law-enforcement officials — 12 ATF agents and a combination of Richmond police and Virginia State Police officers — drove into a targeted neighborhood in a caravan of seven unmarked cars. Dressed in vests that prominently displayed the words "police" or "ATF," the teams deployed to street corners, forming a perimeter and then converging in the center of the neighborhood.

Mr. Swann, a badge dangling from around his neck, approached a group of teens sitting on an aluminum bench watching a pickup basketball game in a park.

"Who's got next?" he said, meaning who had the next game.

Most of the teens didn't even look up. He focused on one.

"How are you doing today?"

"Fine," the youth quietly replied.

Aside from the teenagers, the reaction was mostly positive. A woman sitting in a patio chair on her porch said a cold front was moving in. A couple on the street standing next to a car stopped to talk about the broken axle the man was trying to repair.

A few young men walked discreetly away, looking over their shoulders as they went. Others watched from behind windows or screen doors as the teams moved through the area.

Maj. Keohane stopped at a corner on Whitcomb Court. As a rookie, 24 years ago, this was his beat. Back then it was a notorious and persistent open-air drug market. He said the change was remarkable. Even 10 years ago, police got little cooperation from residents.

"There was just a lot more resentment to the police," he said.

At the first stop, one team stayed behind. A young man on a list of habitual trespassers at the public housing complex had an outstanding warrant, so they processed him and waited for a vehicle to transport him to jail. The other teams moved on. Each stop took about half an hour.

In another neighborhood, the agents, officers and troopers engaged a group of about a dozen children in a courtyard. Mr. Swann on the sidewalk tossed a football with a boy as a police lieutenant tried to recruit him to a youth league basketball team.

It's early evening, but darkness had fallen -- a time that in past years residents said would have brought drug dealers to the street corners.

"To me, it's getting better," says Vernell Marrow, 57, as she watched the activity from her front door. "They've been stepping up. Just to see kids out here playing at this time of day, the neighborhood's getting better."

Mr. Swann acknowledged that sometimes the operations can be perceived as "touchy-feely." But they send a message.

A little later, a team stops a young man and his pregnant girlfriend in the open stairwell of a low-income housing complex. The man said he didn't live there - an admission that drew a swarm of agents. Within moments, the dark breezeway was lit with hand-held flashlights as agents checked identification and questioned the couple.

The man stayed mostly silent. But the girl, quiet at first, was soon bantering with the lead ATF agent, Anthony Spottswood.

"What are you getting each other for Christmas?" he said, as they waited for an identification check to determine if the man had any outstanding warrants. "I can't tell you that," she said playfully.

Mr. Spottswood kept the talk light as he asked and was reluctantly granted permission to check the pockets of the man's oversized parka. A cell phone rang. The ID check turned up nothing. The man was free to go. He skulked off, three steps ahead of his girlfriend, and the agents moved on.

Asked about the spectacle of drawing a dozen federal agents and police officers while just walking through an apartment complex, Mr. Spottswood smiled.

"They're used to it by now," he said.

What remains to be seen is whether the success the CVRP has had can be duplicated in other cities. In the years since Project Exile debuted in Richmond, the philosophy was exported to other states and localities under different acronyms with varying degrees of success.

Since 2004, ATF has fielded more than 100 VCIT teams nationwide. Some with more success than others.

"I think the VCIT in Richmond is ATF's most successful continuous VCIT in the country. No other VCIT comes close," Mr. Domenech said. Of the program's success, he said: "I think it's more dependent on the relationship between the law-enforcement community - the local, state and federal law-enforcement community."

The sentiment was echoed by Mrs. Decker, who said the key is putting ego aside, avoiding petty turf battles and disputes over credit and blame.

"A lot of us like to say public safety transcends politics," she said.

Other obstacles exist. Mr. Herring said it can still be difficult explaining to a city council oversight panel why prosecutors paid by Richmond taxpayers are assigned to federal cases. But the downturn in crime has trumped any potential criticism.

Mr. Swann said he's well aware that at some point the number of homicides is going to hit a floor, beyond which it cannot be driven any lower. After that, he wonders if the gains can be maintained.

And while the partners have largely remained unchanged since the CVRP was formalized, the group took a hit this year when Chief Monroe left Richmond in May for a job as police chief in Charlotte, N.C. He was replaced as CVRP chairman by incoming Chief Bryan Norwood.

Mrs. Decker said the CVRP can survive personnel changes, adding that it has become part of the culture of law enforcement in the city.

"I don't think there's anything out there like Richmond," she said.