Drugged Out 

Drug arrests are plummeting all over, but in the city conflicting data suggests something is amiss. Has Richmond gone cold turkey?

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Perched in a second-story window in his Gilpin Court apartment, a pair of binoculars in hand, a 48-year-old Richmond man keeps close tabs on Federal Street, otherwise known as “the front” in the notorious housing project. He watches especially after midnight, when “the freaks come out,” he says — prostitutes, dealers, gangbangers. It's when the police sirens wail the loudest.

The man, who declines to give his name for fear of retribution, says he's witnessed all manner of mayhem. He watched a man taking a bullet in the back of the head. He's seen his 14-year-old neighbor, high on ecstasy — the same one who rushed into his apartment looking to fight one of his children — fatally shoot another man during a robbery for $20.

Still, sitting on his stoop late Thursday afternoon, the portly, baggy-eyed man says the neighborhood has gotten safer in the last year or so. The shootings aren't nightly like they used to be — more like once every couple of weeks — and overall violence seems to be down.

As for the drugs, the economic engine in the projects, police statistics show a major drop in Gilpin. There, drug-related incidents have decreased a whopping 62 percent over the last year, according to the city police's Web-accessible database, the Crime Incident Information System, which follows state and federal rules for reporting crime.

In the Gilpin Court neighborhood from June 3, 2008, to June 3, 2009, Richmond Police filed 64 drug-related reports — meaning there was enough evidence to either make an arrest or file a report. A year ago, from June 3, 2007, to June 3, 2008, police filed 173 such reports, according to the database. That's a decline of 63 percent.

If drugs are the nectar of violence, is the city undergoing a miraculous detoxification?

Between puffs of a cigarette, the man guffaws. “Ain't nothing but a revolving drug store. That's all they doing is just running them from one place to the next,” he says of police drug enforcement. “All they do is run them around the corner.”

It's not only Gilpin. Across the city, police appear to have made drastically fewer drug arrests in the last year. Citywide during the same June to June period — from 2008 to 2009 — the city's crime incident database shows drug-related incidents are down 54 percent, from a total of 2,807 to 1,279 reports.

Then again, maybe there hasn't been such a dramatic decline. Police officials say the numbers that appear in the online database are off-target, but couldn't explain why or how by Style's press time.

“It sounds like some kind of glitch or something,” Richmond Police Capt. Roger Russell says. On Thursday, Russell told Style city police made 1,117 drug-related arrests from Jan. 1 to June 4, compared with 1,217 drug-related arrests in the same period a year earlier. He says warrants for drug arrests have increased, in fact, and doesn't understand why the database numbers come up so short.

Others, however, say the trend isn't an accident. Since the arrival of Police Chief Bryan T. Norwood in October, police union head David Childress says the department has de-emphasized minor drug deals, or “hand-to-hands” in police lingo.

“There's nothing in writing, but it's trickled down that it's allegedly been said that the chief is not big on drug arrests — it's not one of his priorities,” says Childress, executive director of the Richmond Coalition of Police. “The guys working the street [are saying], ‘If it’s not important to the chief then why should I make it a priority?'”

Childress, a former 3rd Precinct sergeant who retired April 1, says the police department is operating at about 80 percent strength, and that many officers are frustrated with the lack of overtime pay, not to mention City Hall's nixing of pay increases this year.

“They are working at right at or below minimum staffing at all the precincts,” Childress says. “They just don't have the manpower to work on the drug corners.”

It could also be that police are making fewer drug arrests everywhere.

By comparison, such arrests in Chesterfield County dropped 13 percent from June 1, 2008, to May 31, 2009, compared to the same period a year earlier. That's a decline from 2,037 to 1,778 incidents.

During the same approximate time, the numbers are down 12 percent in Henrico County, from 1,615 arrests to 1,415.

Statistics are becoming central to policing and politics in major cities. They can give the appearance of less crime, hence safer communities, when there's simply less enforcement, and vice versa. When it comes to violent crime, drug arrests often are seen as having a causal relationship — more drugs leading to more violence, for example.

More sophisticated data-mining tools are increasingly used in making decisions about policing. Many larger departments, including Richmond, have installed computer systems to analyze crime statistics and better identify and target criminal activity in communities and neighborhoods.

But the statistics can be misleading.

The numbers contained within the city's online Crime Incident Information System are supposed to be consistent with the state's official Uniform Crime Reporting Program, which administers state and federal standards for collecting official crime data to ensure year-to-year consistency.

Often, however, the numbers that individual police departments keep internally are considerably different from what's reported to the state, and ultimately, to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Norman Westerberg, the uniform crime reporting program manager for the Virginia State Police, says that agencies sometimes disagree with the FBI guidelines on recording incidents. Some jurisdictions, for example, don't like to classify an incident as an aggravated assault if no serious injury occurs, such as when a gun is pointed at an individual during a robbery. Under state and federal guidelines, however, that must be classified as aggravated assault, Westerberg says, even though some jurisdictions “may not classify it that way for internal purposes.”

So there can be discrepancies. The Chesterfield County Police Department reports 1,833 drug-related arrests for 2008, for example, while the state police annual report on crime statistics, “Crime in Virginia,” which stands as the official record, reports that the county made 1,569 drug-related arrests.

In Richmond, the online database reports 2,037 total drug arrests in the city in 2008; the state police recorded a total of 1,818 drug arrests.

There can also be lags in how the numbers are reported, Westerberg says. An initial police report might turn out to be unfounded, or perhaps there isn't enough evidence to prosecute and the charge is dropped. Or, say, an initial arrest for malicious wounding turns into a homicide when the victim later dies, long after the report was filed.

So it's possible Richmond's online crime statistics are simply considerably off, Westerberg says, but it would be unusual for them to be off by 54 percent because of a computer or clerical error, particularly for more sophisticated police departments.

“I would say it's unusual,” he says. “But it could happen.”

Others are doubtful. While he's unfamiliar with the online database, local defense attorney Kevin M. Schork says the court dockets certainly appear to be shrinking. He says the drug cases on the docket in General District Court for north of the James River — Wednesday is drug and sex day — have fallen off considerably in the past year.

“Last year, court would run from 9 to 4 in the afternoon based on the number of cases that were there,” Schork says. “Recently, you can get out of there by 10:30.”

A cursory search of the dockets in Richmond General District Court — the Wednesday criminal dockets on North Side, the designated drug days — shows the number of drug cases from May 2008 to May 2009 are down 25 percent, from 212 drug-related cases in May 2008 to 157 drug-related cases in May 2009. But those cases include all manner of drug-related crimes, from a variety of agencies, including state police and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Other defense lawyers aren't so sure about dwindling drug cases — there are still plenty of cases at the federal level, for instance — but many see an overall decline in criminal court work.

“You look at the size of the dockets and they are down,” says Thomas P. Collins, a longtime Richmond defense attorney. “It's as slow as I can recall. Most of the private bar that I talk to are saying we are all a little slow. You thought the economy would go down and crime would go up. It's not my observation.”

Richmond lawyer David Whaley says some attorneys may have seen a decline in the local courts because “a lot of those cases are direct indictments — more cases are going federal.” Those cases, he says, “are more complex.” In fact, Whaley says he thinks the drug enforcement across the region, including Richmond, is as strong as ever.

“I think there is more of a concentrated effort than there ever has been,” he says.

As for the data, it's difficult to say. The state forensics crime lab — where all drugs and “drug equipment” — with the exception of some marijuana cases — are sent for analysis, reports only a minimal drop in drug cases coming to the Central Lab, which handles all cases in the region. The numbers couldn't be broken down by jurisdiction by press time, but lab officials report the number of drug cases have dropped from 10,999 in 2007 to 10,251 in 2008. Through May of this year, the lab reports receiving 4,231 drug cases (the summer months typically see a spike).

Could it simply be that the police are doing too good of a job? It's no secret that under former Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe, minor drug arrests became a priority. As a former Washington cop, Monroe believed drugs and violence to be intricately connected; snuff out one and it takes care of the other.

Brian R. Swann, resident agent in charge of the Richmond field office for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, says the city's drug culture has changed significantly since 2005.

“It's less prevalent now, and it seems to be that the drug dealers aren't as open doing their trade as they once were,” Swann says. “It makes it more complex.” Because the drug dealers have been forced to go underground, so to speak, law enforcement has been forced to become more sophisticated in its approach.

Could that mean that drugs are on the wane? Not in Gilpin Court, says the Richmond man, who was scheduled to finally move out of his Federal Street apartment last Friday after 10 long years.

“They ain't doing nothing but sugarcoating that shit,” the man says. S


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