Is Richmond's Crime Data Reliable?; Minority-Owned Firm to Build Stony Point Mall; Verizon Book Takes a Number — or Three; Have Snow, Will Shovel 

Street Talk

Two years ago, when Richmond police followed Chesterfield and Henrico in filing crime reports by a state-mandated incident-based-reporting system, everybody involved expected it would take some time to perfect.

But not this long.

The searchable database is online (it's reachable from www.richmondgov.com), which in theory is a boon to civic groups.

But some civic associations that use the city Web site to review police reports and track crime in their neighborhoods are charging that the system is severely flawed. They claim important crime information is missing or, at least, inaccessible to citizens — and officers.

They complain that the crime information they received before incident-based reporting was instituted was more accurate and thorough than that they get now.

"It's not as complete," says Zoe Anne Green, a citizen member of the crimes statistics task force and a Museum District resident.

Richmond Deputy Police Chief Evelyn McGill adamantly says that isn't so. "I want to be clear on this," she says. "There is nothing missing. We hear this a lot."

The ongoing process of switching to incident-based reporting — a highly technical and computer-driven style of filing crime reports — has been a challenge for police. "It was a difficult process that took quite some time," McGill concedes. Still, she insists: "Our experience pretty much mirrors other police departments."

One source of confusion is that reported crimes often occur in places that aren't recognized by what's called the city's "central address file," which is maintained by the city's Department of Community Development.

For example, if a crime occurs in Bryan Park it might be reported as occurring at the park. But because "Bryan Park" isn't a specific numeric address registered with the city's central address file, the reported crime would be listed in the database as a "non-validated address entry" — a category created by the Richmond police to resolve the address problem. As a result, citizens searching the public database for that crime report may have a hard time finding it. Also, if the direction of a street, like North Belmont, is left off or incorrect, data can be difficult to find in the system, says Green.

These hard-to-track crime reports are known as "exceptions." And according to the city's community development office, there are around 9,000 of them in its database. Green contends that the "exceptions" are so common the police might as well call them "incidents."

McGill says this is inaccurate. She maintains that 95 percent of all crime reporting is accurate and in the publicly accessible database system.

"Our goal is to work with the community and have as much information available as possible," says McGill. "We're not perfect. If there are some suggestions, we're glad to hear them."

Green has a few.

She says she's been trying to convince Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver to address the problem with the city's database for months. She says she's been told Oliver has hired an outside independent consultant to come in and fix the mess.

Oliver was unavailable for comment last week, police spokespeople said.

McGill does not say whether a consultant has been hired. But she is quick to point out that the department is working to allay citizens' concerns over reported crime information.

Green remains dubious. "How is it useful for someone trying to get a snapshot of crime in the neighborhood?" she asks. "It isn't. Incomplete data helps no one." — Brandon Walters

Minority-Owned Firm to Build Stony Point Mall

You might expect Richmond's movers and shakers to protest the choice of an out-of-town construction company to build the much-hyped Stony Point Mall.

But some of the loudest voices in the push for city development were ecstatic when, a few weeks ago, they heard about developer Taubman Centers Inc.'s choice of Columbus, Ohio-based Smoot Construction Co.

Why? Primarily because Smoot is a minority-owned company that plans to emphasize doing business with minority-owned contractors for the $125 million, 680,000-square-foot mall project — a plan of action many believe will set the tone for future development projects.

"We're trying to grow the city, and we're trying to grow it for everyone," says City Councilman William J. Pantele. When talking about economic expansion, you can't ignore the fact that 58 percent of Richmond's population is African-American, he says: "It's vitally important that we have everyone come along."

And minority business owners are eager to do so. "The buzz is excitement. Lots of pride and lots of excitement," says Stacy Burr, deputy director of the city's Office of Minority Business Enterprise.

Burr says Smoot is talking to local minority contractors well before the bidding process begins. Company representatives are hosting a round table and project briefing on Jan. 14 and 15 so contractors will know what Smoot's looking for, Burr says — although the company doesn't yet know how many jobs will be created.

Lynda Sharp Anderson, president and CEO of the city's Metropolitan Business League, says she was "elated" to hear Smoot was coming to town — not just because they will hire minorities, she says, but because the project may create better relationships among local contractors.

Not everyone may be so happy about Smoot's goals. "Of course, this is a very controversial issue," Pantele acknowledges. Contractors' resentment forced the city to drop its mandatory minimums for minority recruitment years ago, he notes. Still, recent construction projects, such as the development of Tobacco Row and the expansion of the convention center, drew criticism for failing to meet targets for minority business participation.

Pantele hopes that starting with the Stony Point Mall project such controversies may cease. Smoot's hiring practices could lead other private-sector companies to follow suit, he says.

"This issue of minority contractors gets painted a lot of times as a merely punitive or negative issue," Pantele says. But it's really about civic pride, he says, and unity in development. Without partnerships with minority-owned businesses, he says, "we'll be getting a building, but we won't be building the future of Richmond." — Melissa Scott Sinclair

Verizon Book Takes a Number — or Three

Have you noticed anything puzzling about your new phone book?

Verizon's debut of the Greater Richmond Super Pages — the new version of the White Pages — is peppered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of mistakes.

Mostly, they are duplicate entries in the business-listings section of the book.

Take page 200, for instance. Of the businesses on this page at least 10 are listed twice with identical information. Two have three listings. One is entered four times.

Scrutiny of nearly any page turns up the same. And sometimes the multiple listings contain different information, like addresses and phone numbers.

So what gives?

According to Verizon spokesman Paul Miller, Style's query is the first he's had on the matter. Last week he probed for answers.

"There are indeed a number of duplications and, if there is such a thing, triplications," Miller acknowledges, after consulting with Verizon's phone-book production center in Texas.

Is it a software problem, a merge-and-purge system gone awry? Is a printing or production error to blame?

No, reveals Miller. The culprit: competition.

According to Miller, the duplications arise when area residents or businesses that use phone companies "other than Verizon" switch to another competitor and the listing information isn't deleted from the previous company's databank.

So, last year, when Verizon collected residential and business listings for the Super Pages every single listing from wholesale (other phone carriers) and retail customers was included. Hence the multiple duplications. Other multiple listings are more confusing and cite outdated numbers or obsolete addresses aligned with accurate numbers and addresses.

This explanation is little consolation for Virginia Barnes. Ever since the new phone book hit doorsteps last month, the Richmond resident has been barraged at home by phone calls meant for an engineering company. That company is listed three times in the phone book with the same address — but with three different phone numbers. One of them is correct. The second isn't in use. And the third is Barnes' home phone number.

"I've been getting eight to 10 wrong calls a day," she says, exasperated. She has reported it to Verizon.

In order to correct the problem, Miller says, people or their phone companies need to inform Verizon when there is a switch in service and update listings. Customers should make sure their information is correct.

"We're still looking at the processes," says Miller, in hopes that there will be fewer wrong entries in next year's phone book. — B.W.

Have Snow, Will Shovel

Last Thursday was nothing short of an aberration in Richmond.

Not so much because of the snow, but because of its timing and accumulation. It sneaked up and trounced us, much like a scandal in the wake of other news. And we ate it up. It was just after the holidays. We didn't even deserve it.

Ah, snow.

We piled on layers and plunged into it. We snuggled up inside, and blew it a kiss.

We crunched it down and chased it with a beer.

Then there's George Noel.

It was nearly 2 in the morning when Noel, 37, awoke and saw the stuff coming down. He moaned. "I hate to see it," he says, "it just means I'll miss a day's pay."

Noel is an electrician, he says, and snow will stop his work.

So he invoked an approach to Thursday's blizzard most would never conceive.

He went to work — work dredged up on his own.

Noel arose at 5:30. From his garage he fetched a shovel and broom. He had sawed the long handles off a while back. Next he grabbed a smaller brush he calls a swisher. He placed the items in a black messenger's bag. Then he filled the sack with salt.

Noel bundled up good and pedaled from his home near the State Fairgrounds to The Fan. He parked his bike on Kensington Avenue. It was 6 a.m. Noel began knocking.

"I wanted to catch people," says Noel, "that's all."

He did. Noel hustled.

By 2 p.m. Noel had brushed off dozens of cars and shoveled as many walkways. His pockets feel different, he says, with an extra $180 in them.

"As of now I've doubled my regular day's pay," he says proudly. Quitting time will be when he's tripled the pay. Noel says he can do this by 6.

He never gets cold, he claims, and he never tires. "I've been running into some real nice people. Even ones who don't need anything done," he says.

It seems the snow inspires Noel in more ways than one.

He turns up Nansemond Street to 7-Eleven for a cup of coffee. He smiles widely and confesses: "I do this every time it comes down." — B.W.

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