Safety First 

Richmond's top prosecutor and the city manager are at odds over whether the city is doing its best to fight crime.

Richmond City Manager Calvin Jamison disagrees. The city is shaping up, he says, and residents should be assured that public safety is his administration's top priority.

Who is right?

Both the city's chief prosecutor and the city manager acknowledge that public safety is, now more than ever, a pressing and poignant issue. Yet how the two respond to it may have as much to do with swaying politics and public opinion as it does with actually tackling crime.

Numbers show that, locally, crime is down in 2002 compared with last year. It's declined for a while. But will it continue? Is the threat and fear of crime more real or more perceived? And is Richmond prepared with the resources to combat both? Hicks and Jamison dispute the answers.

Hicks remembers when the city was rife with crime. He was still new to the job in 1994, when Richmond had the third-highest number of homicides in the nation, 160. At press time there had been 61 homicides in Richmond this year — one more than last year. Two months remain.

Hicks says this is no time to let up. And that's exactly what the city's doing, he says. "In the post-sniper world," he says, "[policymakers] find we've geared down on public safety and law enforcement."

The retreat he points to is one of bodies — quite literally, those of police officers. He stresses his new mantra: "We need more police."

The annual budget for Richmond police is $56.4 million. (A figure Jamison says won't be considerably altered by state budget cuts.) At the height of Richmond's crime wave, say in 1994, the budget allowed for more than 700 officers. Last year, because of retiring or departing officers, the number of officers dropped to around 680. Faced with budget constraints, the city froze open positions. Police filled in gaps and streamlined resources. And the number of officers now hovers around 642. Police are down 54 men and women and it's not certain when they'll get them back.

"We're aggressively seeking to fill those slots," Jamison says. Public safety is not a matter of increasing the number of officers, he says, but rather a matter of "filling the 54 positions then allowing Police Chief [Andre] Parker to take leadership and maximize visibility and police presence."

"We've never retreated from our commitment to public safety," Jamison says.

Hicks questions that commitment.

The money saved by not filling frozen positions or jobs already authorized by the budget goes into the city's "rainy day" fund, Hicks points out. That fund helps bolster the city's standing with potential investors and with ratings companies like Moody's — which bumped up the city's bond rating three weeks ago.

Hicks says former Richmond Police Chief Jerry A. Oliver — who left in February to become police chief in Detroit — was aware that a decline in officers would leave the city shortchanged. Hicks says Oliver argued to replace the officers but was asked by the city manager to keep the slots vacant and find resources elsewhere. Oliver did not return calls for comment.

Jamison defends his position: "I take issue with [criticism] saying that money is going into the 'rainy day' fund," he says. "It helps the city." Take homeland security, for example. Jamison says that thanks to money from the fund, if a "homeland security" crisis arises, the city is ready to respond. As for bond ratings, he says, lower interest rates save the city money, which in turn can help pay for myriad city services.

Police are not being shortchanged in the process, Jamison stresses. "We've continued to fund the police for whatever their needs may be," he says. Citizens must "put things in perspective." Richmond is not the place it was when crime was rampant. Jamison points to initiatives like community policing and "blitz to bloom," and the resulting drop in crime.

Hicks thinks this is lipservice — so much so that he spends much of a recent afternoon with a reporter at a Broad Street restaurant, stumping for Parker, denouncing cronyism and lamenting that disagreement too often stifles debate.

The way Hicks sees it, there are those busy pushing the city's image and those busy protecting it. He criticizes city administrators for overly promoting and investing in the idea of a shiny Richmond that he says won't come to pass if more palpable attention isn't paid to public safety. And he contends that ubiquitous optimism has made some city officials starry-eyed and enamored, even duped.

Hicks warns of becoming blinded by hype. "We can't afford to get caught up in it but we do every day," he says, recalling high-profile cases his office has tried in the decade he's been in office. "We'd get excited, thinking, This is the biggest, baddest gang we've ever prosecuted." Likewise, Hicks vociferously says the city has taken the stance that economic development is more important than fighting crime.

"I don't want to hear about the millions we saved in renegotiating deals like Brown's Island," Hicks says. "I don't want to hear about business incentives or improved bond ratings" until city streets are safer.

Jamison says it is natural for Hicks, who is a personal friend, to be focused on the issue. "He's the chief prosecutor," Jamison says. "Crime is his only topic."

But economic development is part of the whole picture, Jamison says. It creates prosperity, which helps curb crime. "If you've got to put all your money into public safety, it'd be a city you wouldn't want to live in."

Hicks isn't so sure. "Would you rather have 717 officers and not need them or need 717 officers and not have them?" he asks.

"With the state budget cuts this is the best time to talk about what we need for improved public safety," Hicks says. "This is the time to address challenges and have discussions." It's hard to dismiss that Hicks sounds like a man aspiring to state office. "This is combat time," he says. "We need more police."


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