March 22, 2011 News & Features » Cover Story


Proving Ground 

The last holdover from former Mayor Doug Wilder's administration, Police Chief Bryan Norwood is just fine with living in the shadows.

click to enlarge A prayer in the city: Police officials and local clergy bow their heads for peace at Hillside Court in South Richmond, the site of three recent homicides. - PHOTOS BY SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Photos By Scott Elmquist
  • A prayer in the city: Police officials and local clergy bow their heads for peace at Hillside Court in South Richmond, the site of three recent homicides.

"This is a chance to push forward some healing," Norwood says, addressing the assembled crowd on a breezy, sunny afternoon in March, while curious residents peer from their front stoops.

The healing session comes a little more than six weeks after a string of three homicides during a bitterly cold January cast a pall over this small, subsidized housing complex. Alex Arrington Jr., Coraliss Logan, Regina Doctor — today is the day the sting of those killings begins to subside.

At least that's the hope of Norwood and the host of white-shirted members of the Richmond Police Department command staff. With the ground warming and birds chirping, Norwood has arrived with members of the department's Faith Leaders Council — a recently formed committee of local pastors, priests and clergy — to apply some spiritual balm.

But it seems that this day comes a season too late. During a prayer vigil held Jan. 22 after Doctor was found shot to death outside her apartment, frustrated residents stood in the cold venting loudly about the notable absences of Norwood and Mayor Dwight Jones. They griped about neglectful city politicians on the other side of the James River, no-shows in their time of need.

With the changing seasons, the clock may be ticking for the chief. In his third year at the helm of the city's police department, critics say Norwood has done little to make his presence felt. While statistically violent crime remains at historic lows, his position is politically tenuous.

Following in the footsteps of a widely adored chief, Rodney Monroe, credited with instituting new crime-analysis technology and cutting homicides nearly in half, Norwood avoids the spotlight. While Monroe became former Mayor Doug Wilder's most important political asset, Norwood largely remains unknown.

Relative anonymity — in the public arena, at least — is a dangerous middling ground for a position such as Richmond police chief, some observers say. Recent dust-ups with nighclub owners, a group of local anarchists and chilly relations with the mayor make Norwood a vulnerable target if the city suffers a spike in homicides, or an increase in violent crime. Because Mayor Jones' predecessor hired Norwood in late 2008, just before he left office, Jones can cut ties with Norwood with little political repercussion.

David Hicks, senior policy adviser to Mayor Jones, says all is good when crime is on the downswing. Unlike former and high-profile police chiefs Jerry Oliver and Monroe, who came when crime was on the rise, Norwood has yet to be tested.

"Rightly or wrongly, the jury is still out on whether this chief could survive — or thrive — under the circumstances that both of those chiefs found themselves in," Hicks says. "If it really rained hard, would the roof hold up? Hopefully, we won't have to find out the hard way."

At Hillside Court in early March, there are signs of spring. Norwood says this faith council, one of a handful of the department's "uncommon civilian partnerships," is indicative of the public's deep commitment to reducing crime.

It's also part of a strategy. Community policing — the idea that police officers get to know the neighborhoods before crime strikes — took hold at the Richmond Police Department in the 1990s.

A staunch advocate of the strategy, Norwood has maintained the community-engagement programs credited with keeping violent criminals off the streets.

But can he continue to do his job without banking political capital?

He's in a tough spot, says Stacy Rogers, president of the Richmond Coalition of Police. "I think he's spent the last couple of years proving to people that he was the right choice," Rogers says. By not being as verbal in the news as his predecessor, Rogers says, there's a lingering false perception that he's not getting things done behind the scenes.

But there are benefits for Norwood's current boss, Mayor Jones. If pressed he can shed a political liability with minimum cost. And Jones would get to pick a replacement.

Such a choice leaves the door open to Norwood's critics, some of whom question whether his less demonstrative leadership style can be effective if the current crime lull comes to a close, which some say is inevitable.

There's smooth sailing during the calm, one City Hall source says, but Richmond is a city that can easily erupt. "Put in "Godfather" terms, he's a peacetime consigliore — only Richmond is a town that's prone to war."

click to enlarge During a March 2010 protest by protesting members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a counter-protest staged by supporters of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, Norwood and Richmond police try to keep the peace. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • During a March 2010 protest by protesting members of the Westboro Baptist Church, and a counter-protest staged by supporters of the Virginia Holocaust Museum, Norwood and Richmond police try to keep the peace.

A graduate of Hampton University, Norwood was plucked from his native Bridgeport, Conn., after surviving a four-month search and selection process when Monroe left to become police chief in Charlotte, N.C.

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, who served on the selection committee, says what impressed him most about Norwood was his adherence to the ideas behind community policing. Those were policies that worked under the previous chief, he says, and Norwood "wasn't going to run away from them."

The move wasn't without controversy. In 2008, at the height of the recession, Norwood found himself in Bridgeport caught in a tug of war between a mayor demanding cuts in overtime for police officers and a police union unwilling to make concessions.

He was just two years into his tenure as Bridgeport's police chief, but after months of wrangling, the union passed a symbolic no-confidence vote against both Norwood and Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch. Months later the union took a similar action against his successor.

Two months after the vote, Norwood accepted the offer to become Richmond's chief, arriving for his first day of work at the end of Wilder's tumultuous four-year reign as mayor.

The reception to Norwood initially was chilly, says King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Part of the problem was who didn't get the job.

Former Richmond police Maj. John Dixon had left in September 2007 to become Petersburg's police chief. And the selection committee passed over a stable of talent within the department — including a 25-year veteran, Maj. John Venuti, who left last year to become Virginia Commonwealth University's police chief. Maj. Peggy Horn, a 25-year veteran and the department's highest-ranking female cop, left in October to take over the state attorney general's Medicaid fraud unit.

Then there was former Richmond Maj. David McCoy, who served as interim chief after Monroe left. He was announced as the University of Richmond's new police chief in early February. A recent swearing-in ceremony for McCoy at UR was like a reunion; Venuti and Norwood both attended.

"Having so many former experienced RPD officers recruited for command positions is a testament to the department," Norwood says.

It also means Jones wouldn't have to look far to find a replacement for Norwood. McCoy and Venuti were widely considered leading internal candidates to replace Monroe when he left for Charlotte.

When the job went to Norwood, it continued the city's tradition of tapping outsiders for the job.

"It's always a good sign when someone that you've brought up gets another opportunity," says Chris Kopacki, a VCU Criminal Justice instructor and former Henrico police detective. In that sense, Norwood is like a recently hired college athletics coach who leads his team on a championship run. It's too early to make a credible assessment, Kopacki says: "In Norwood's case, he's essentially been coaching with someone else's players."

But there may be another talent drain on the horizon. Rogers, of the Richmond Coalition for Police, says a more pressing issue is the prospect of the department rank and file leaving to take jobs in Henrico County and Petersburg. The department's most recent operating budget saw officers lose funding for career development training. The department employs around 750 sworn officers, most of whom, according to Rogers, haven't received a raise since 2009.

"The fear is we could start lose the good young talent we've trained to other departments where officers are still getting those benefits," Rogers says.

Take the Henrico Division of Police, which is seeing a change in leadership after 16 years. Longtime chief Henry W. Stanley Jr. is retiring at the end of March. Replacing him is longtime deputy Lt. Col. Douglas Middleton, who joined Henrico in 1972.

At a news conference last week, Middleton spoke of instilling new leadership and cultivating new young talent while many of the department's brass are near retirement. The department also is planning its first raises for officers in three years, a 2.37-percent increase, Middleton says.

"I think our career development program is second to none," Middleton says, adding that "building a good, quality leadership program" will be one of his first priorities.

click to enlarge Richmond’s chief of police, Bryan Norwood, speaks to the media at Hillside Court. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond’s chief of police, Bryan Norwood, speaks to the media at Hillside Court.

Because Virginia is a right-to-work state, the Richmond Police Coalition has little bargaining power. Still, Rogers says Norwood is supportive of officers' needs. But whether raises and career development training will be reinstituted come the next budget cycle is an issue over which the mayor and City Council will wrangle.

Asked about the budget, Norwood gives a typically cool answer. "It's a moving target."

Another drag on Norwood has been the person who hired him. "Wilder will put a stigma on you," Khalfani says. "So [Norwood] had to successfully work through that because people thought of him as Doug's guy. People were suspicious because why would Wilder install someone when he only had a month left in the office?"

Among those protesting that the hiring decision should be put off until after the 2008 mayoral election was then-candidate Jones. Norwood and Jones' relationship has been an object of speculation nearly since the last ballots were counted.

In a recent interview with Style Weekly, Mayor Jones addressed rumors of tension between him and Norwood, albeit nonchalantly. "We're fine. We're fine," he said. "Crime is down. And he is doing a good job."

There do seem to have been some bumps in the road. In January the police department filed a lawsuit against anarchist Moriah "Mo" Karn, challenging for the return of police manuals originally released to her via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Members of Karn's group, the Wingnut Anarchist Collective, later posted the documents online and dared the city to pursue the case. The case was quietly dropped soon after the story went viral.

There are no existing tensions between the police chief and the mayor, sources say, but Jones also has rarely extended much public support for Norwood. During the mayor's state of the city address, for example, members of the mayor's senior leadership team were recognized openly; Norwood, who isn't a member of the leadership team, was not. By contrast, former Mayor Wilder took every opportunity to praise his former chief, Monroe, if not for obvious political reasons.

Given the mayor's more deliberative leadership style, Norwood's job seems relatively safe, sources say — for now.

Despite the circumstances that thrust them together, and the alleged tenuousness of their working relationship, Norwood and Jones seem like a well-made match. The story of their respective rises to prominence offers a lesson in symmetry. Both succeeded men who sought the spotlight more than they do.

Norwood acknowledges the similarities between his and the mayor's leadership styles. "We have similar personalities," he says. "That's why we work well together."

click to enlarge Bryan Norwood, hired by former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, talks to the reporters at his introductory news conference in November 2008. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Bryan Norwood, hired by former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, talks to the reporters at his introductory news conference in November 2008.

In an interview last week, Norwood tells Style Weekly that he doesn't want the story to be about him. His colleagues explain that Norwood simply is reluctant to step into the spotlight, or to get dragged too far away from the business of fighting crime. That includes handling the peripheral duties of his office, such as speaking to news media, which he rarely does.

At 44, he's the youngest to hold the job in more than 50 years. That much is apparent from the official photos of former chiefs, which stare down from the walls inside the fifth-floor conference room at police headquarters on Grace Street.

Sitting at the head of the conference table, Norwood's carefully measured responses compete with the hum of air conditioners while he explains his role in the department's community policing initiatives.

It's about setting a tone for interaction with the community, he says. The other part entails knowing when it's appropriate to let others walk the point.

City Councilwoman Reva Trammell doesn't represent the residents of Hillside Court. But it's close enough that she pays attention when the department's brass shows up en masse at the South Side housing project. "This is what the people have been yelling that they wanted," Trammell says. "This is what's moving our city in the right direction."

The chairwoman of council's public safety committee, Trammell says Norwood is the first Richmond police chief she's seen visit Hillside. It's indicative of the "outstanding" job Norwood is doing, she says.

So let the critics speculate on whether he's being hands-on enough. The proof is in the numbers, Norwood says.

Three years into Norwood's tenure, homicides inched up from 32 in 2008 to last year's total of 41. Violent crime, however, decreased 9 percent from 2009 to 2010, according to figures provided by the department.

"It's not my role to be a personality," Norwood says. "I'd rather every citizen in this city know a police officer's name than know mine," he says. "Let the citizens get to know the lieutenants and the sergeants, because that's where the work is done. That's the level where the solving of crime takes place."

But can a low-profile chief who was not the first choice of his mayor keep a job?

In 1994, Richmond held the distinction of being one of the most deadly cities in America. At Mosby and Hillside courts, drug wars played out in deadly fashion. And at the end of the year, the city recorded 160 killings.

Former Richmond chief Oliver arrived in Richmond from Pasadena, Calif., in 1995. The police department was demoralized then, he says. At the time, community policing as a philosophy of enforcement was only a few years old — and new to Richmond, Oliver recalls.

By the time he opted to take a similar position in Detroit in 2002, the number of homicides in the city dropped into the 70s, he says. To thrive in Richmond, Oliver says, a police chief must be involved in the life of the city on a multitude of levels. "He or she has to be the kind of person who's willing to take a seat at the table of problem solvers," Oliver says. "And you can't do that from behind your desk."

Middleton, who officially will take over as Henrico's police chief April 1, says he sees his position as critically important from a leadership perspective. He says he's not just a police chief in charge of 575 sworn officers. "I'm the police chief for everyone in the county," he says.

For a police chief, it's a balancing act, says Chris Kopacki, the criminal justice professor at VCU. "The police chief's job is as much about dealing with external issues like political influences as it is addressing internal ones," he says.

It's a game of perception with the public as judge, Kopacki says.

Norwood's predecessor, Monroe, was especially good at it.

Herring, the city's top prosecutor, says Monroe was much more comfortable acting as the face of the department.

"Chief Monroe wanted everyone in the city to know that he was the top cop," Herring says. "And some of the more popular police chiefs that we've had seem to take a similar junkyard-dog approach to fighting crime, and that seems to do well with the public. But Norwood's style seems to be that as long as the work's being done, his face doesn't need to be the one that's always out front."

Which is why some observers say that even after nearly three years on the job, his position may not be solidified. To do so Norwood may have to turn up the "hero-factor a la Rodney Monroe," says the City Hall source.

Norwood dismisses the idea. "I'm working within my own character and within my own style," he says coolly. "We're colleagues, but I don't see a need to compare myself with Rodney Monroe or anyone else for that matter. If there's a spike in crime, then we will simply need to redouble our efforts." S



Latest in Cover Story


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation