Border Patrols 

Fighting against new crime trends, police in Henrico and Chesterfield counties adjust their strategies.

“Looking at what has changed is really mind-boggling,” Stanley says.

Violent crime that used to be exclusively a “city problem” has slowly crept into Richmond’s border counties during the last few decades. And in the last couple of years, the problem has gotten worse. But what really troubles Stanley, a 41-year veteran of the department, is that many of the criminals are between 18 and 25 years old.

“I think the number one thing that concerns me is the age of the perpetrators,” the chief says. “Not just shoplifting, but drugs and assaults, and breaking and entering, and larcenies. It just seems that kids are becoming more involved in this.”

Ditto for Chesterfield County. Across the board, violent crimes have been steadily increasing during the last decade, says Police Chief Col. Carl R. Baker. The criminals are younger and more violent than ever. In the last five years, homicide has increased 63 percent, up to 13 murders in 2003. Robberies are up 34 percent, drug violations up 23 percent, and kidnapping and abductions are up 17 percent. (Surprisingly, though, the number of assaults actually decreased 7 percent, from 3,235 in 1999 to 2,996 in 2003.)

Both counties are experiencing a shift to more violent crime — something that threatens to get worse in the years to come. The next generation of criminals promises to be more violent. And most of the crime is taking place in the older suburbs, the lower-income communities that border the city. As newer suburbs move farther out, especially in western Chesterfield, planners expect the low-income housing to spread.

It’s become such a problem in Chesterfield that police are working with the county’s planning department to identify potential problem areas before crime takes hold. Planners share information about neighborhood trends,and officers on the street keep an eye out for blighted buildings and other signs of neighborhood decay.

“It’s a new concept for us,” Baker says, adding that the program started about three years ago. They tow junk cars, identify buildings for inspectors and put more community officers on the streets where more houses have become rental property.

Technology is a huge asset for officers too. Surveillance equipment has improved dramatically, along with crime analysis tools, and electronic communication within the departments.

But both counties are discovering that one of the most effective tools for attacking crime is community policing. Officers are assigned to specific neighborhoods and work with schools, residents and community groups.

Henrico has about 30 officers devoted to community policing full time, and starting this week the department institutes fixed shifts for its officers. Henrico is moving from the more traditional revolving shifts — where officers rotate work schedules every few weeks — to allow them to build better relations with merchants and citizens within their beats. “We want to get to know that merchant, and apply that [community police concept] to the patrol philosophy,” he says. “It’s going to help the community policing program.”

Chesterfield is pouring more resources into its community police program, as well, and has been on fixed shifts for years. One of the biggest problem is geography. The county has fewer officers and considerably more ground to cover. Chesterfield, with 446 square miles, has 448 officers — or about one officer per square mile; Henrico, with 244 square miles, has 552 officers — somewhat more than two officers per square mile. Granted, Henrico is denser, with more shopping centers and higher concentrations of businesses and residents to police. But Chesterfield’s rapid growth — subdivisions and new housing are spreading farther west into the county — means the officers spend more time traveling from incident to incident. It takes an average of three minutes for the department to respond to calls. Baker says Chesterfield will need to add 50 police officers in the next two years to keep up.

The counties are walking a fine line. The increase in violent crime is forcing suburban departments across the country to specialize more than they have in the past, says George F. Rengert, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.

“What you call the suburbs would actually be the inner city of a lot of jurisdictions,” Rengert says. “And they are going to have to develop a more investigative arm to handle violent crime, especially murder. This requires people to become detectives instead of regular patrol people.”

But too much specializing, Stanley says, can become a problem. “We really don’t want to get back to overspecialization because that, in itself, hurts too from the standpoint of very well-rounded police officers.” Well-rounded officers are the mainstay of suburban policing.

Counties have some very distinct advantages over cities, however. Both Henrico and Chesterfield chiefs say the community is generally very proactive in reporting crime and helping officers identify perpetrators, unlike the inner city, where residents are less trusting of police and aren’t as helpful. Richmond Police Chief André Parker has frequently cited this lack of cooperation as a key obstacle to solving homicides.

Cooperation from the people living in the communities is the most important crime prevention tool, experts say.

Suburbanites need to recognize that crime isn’t somebody else’s problem, says Julie Goetz, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Richmond. “There tends to be a denial of the crime happening in the suburbs,” she says. “There tends to be the attitude that crime is happening there in that area, in the inner city.” The sooner people recognize the problem is in their back yards, she says, the sooner they’ll become more proactive in helping tackle the problem.

After all, the idea of the exclusive suburb is becoming a misnomer, Rengert says. Suburbanites traditionally simply move when crime takes hold, and that only makes the problem worse.

“What happens is they build more bypasses, and more highway systems, and they lose their exclusion,” he says. “In the future they are losing their exclusion and exclusivity.S


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