Going After Crimes -- and Guns
Richmond, Va., Cleans Up Its Streets
By Severely Punishing Any Firearms Offense
By GARY FIELDS
August 5, 2008; Page A12
RICHMOND, Va. -- The National Rifle Association and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence rarely agree on anything related to gun laws. But both support a law-enforcement program in Richmond that targets gun crimes.
The Supreme Court's Second Amendment decision in June that struck down restrictions on individual gun ownership caused city officials nationwide to worry that they could see an increase in gun violence. It also renewed interest in Richmond's efforts to combat it. The city has already reduced firearm-related violence dramatically. It has done so not by making gun purchases more difficult -- Virginia is one of the easiest places to legally buy a handgun -- but by severely punishing all gun crimes, including those as minor as illegal possession.
The decade-old program is credited with reducing the number of guns on the streets by 31% in its first year, 1997. By 2007, the city registered 56 murders, down from 112 in 1996, the last full year before the program was implemented. Armed robberies dropped nearly a third.
"What they're doing in Richmond isn't brain surgery," says Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman Mike Campbell. "They are sitting down and working for a common goal: put the mopes with the guns in jail. Word spreads when you do that."
Dubbed Project Exile, the program forms the foundation of a series of local, state and federal law-enforcement partnerships. It focuses on the city's most violent areas and hands out harsh sentences for any crime involving a firearm, a move that runs counter to traditional city tactics of barring gun stores and crafting onerous licensing requirements.
With concern over crime rising amid budget cuts to local law enforcement, a small but growing number of law-enforcement officials view Project Exile and the cooperative efforts in Richmond as a way to further accelerate the decline. Other cities, including Springfield and Peoria in Illinois have visited to see what Richmond is doing.
Although the NRA is challenging gun laws in various cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, it supports Richmond's efforts.
"By prosecuting them they prevent the drug dealer, the gang member and the felon from committing the next crime," says NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre. "Leave the good people alone and lock up the bad people and dramatically cut crime."
Although it wants more done to tamp down the supply of guns, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence also supports Richmond's efforts, says Peter Hamm, Brady spokesman. The organization supports any measure that reduces violent crime, which the Richmond effort is doing, he says.
Before Project Exile began in 1997, Richmond had the third-highest murder rate in the nation, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. Guns were the weapons of choice. That year, then Deputy Assistant U.S. Attorney James Comey and Assistant Federal Prosecutor David Schiller promised 100% prosecution of gun crimes. They ran television and radio ads. A 40-foot city bus was emblazoned with the message: "An Illegal Gun Gets You 5 Years in Federal Prison." Bail was unlikely, parole nonexistent, and inmates facing federal time were more likely to be sent to prisons out of state.
As Project Exile has matured, the marketing campaign has toned down and it has become the basis for a larger cooperative effort. The tough penalties are still in place, but the state has added gun-related penalties of its own, some more severe than federal punishment. At a bimonthly meeting, a team of police, agents and state and federal prosecutors determine in which venue they will bring a case to ensure the maximum possible penalty.
"Whether you take a person state or federal, that person's gone," says David McCoy, the interim Richmond police chief. "The goal is to address violent crime and get violent criminals off the street."
In the 1990s other jurisdictions created similar programs to Exile and like Richmond had initial reductions in gun violence. They experienced a similar rise in that violence in the early 2000s. Violent crime dropped nationally in 2007 after a two-year rise -- even as violent crime continued to go up in smaller cities.
Richmond, however, seems to have overcome at least one obstacle that has endured elsewhere. Although state and federal agencies talk cooperation, there are turf wars -- and agencies aren't always as collegial as they are in Richmond.
But Richmond doubled down on the cooperation among state and federal agencies. The eight federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies and federal and state prosecutors meet regularly almost like one super police force determining where to deploy personnel.
In one example of cooperation, agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the FBI took a case to ease the workload on local authorities, says Brian Swann, who heads the ATF office here. The defendant killed a man who was trying to steal his crack cocaine. Although murder cases aren't usually federal, this one involved a firearm and drugs, and so could be moved to federal court. The defendant got life plus 40 years.
North of downtown, Mr. Swann and fellow ATF agent James Panos cruise in an unmarked car. While the agents conduct investigations, they also patrol like city police, engaging citizens and talking to potential suspects, "just to let them know we're here and keeping an eye on them," Mr. Swann says.
The agents respond to all murders in their sectors, as well as all shootings. The other local, state and federal agencies conduct similar operations.
"If we get called out" and someone identifies a suspect as Peanut, "I expect my guys to know who 'Peanut' is, who his grandmother is, who he hung out with last night," Mr. Swann says.
Residents have become accustomed to the agents and wave from porches as they drive by. One house is pockmarked from an old shooting. Nearby, Mr. Panos identifies several people familiar to authorities. One was the subject of a 2006 raid at his home where three guns and 10 grams of crack cocaine were seized. "We couldn't tie him to the guns," Mr. Panos says.
Further along, another young man eyes the car warily. He is known around the neighborhood as a low-grade drug dealer, but one who refuses to carry a gun, Mr. Panos says.
It is quiet for the moment, even in the Providence Park area where there were six shootings earlier this year. State, local and federal officials descended on the area and things have calmed down. "Maybe we'll be out of a job one day," says Mr. Panos.
Write to Gary Fields at email@example.com