Robbery Run 

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Richmond Police may have murderers and drug traffickers on the run, but a recent spate of violent crime -- shootings and assaults — has the city's law enforcement officers, not to mention prosecutors, searching for answers.

It turns out the drop in drug traffic and the pop in violence are connected.

Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring says his office has been keeping tabs on a noticeable spike in one category of citywide criminal activity: Robberies are up, Herring says — way up over last year's prosecutions.

"Robbery has certainly been the subject of much talk lately," Herring says, attributing the spike to an unlikely and ironic cause — unemployed drug dealers. "Some of the success that the police have enjoyed in attacking open-air drug markets has yielded two things: arrest and incarceration, but also displacement."

In simple economic terms, while drug dealing becomes more hazardous duty for the dealers, many of them are looking to other "business models" and are seizing on robbery as a way to make fast money — and a way to prove themselves to their peers.

Richmond Police did not respond to requests for an interview, but they did provide statistics that complement Herring's report of increased business.

So far this year, Herring's office has closed 171 robbery cases, an increase over last year's 163 cases. With an additional 120 cases pending, the office likely will close at least an additional 60 before year's end, according to Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Stephanie Merritt. Each of these cases accounts for a single defendant, but because a defendant is often accused of mulitple robberies, the number of robberies may be much higher than the number of cases.

Meanwhile, Richmond Police statistics don't necessarily support an increase in robbery this year so far, showing 268 robbery arrests as of Oct. 2 compared with a total of 364 last year. The 2006 numbers had increased by about 70 arrests over 2005.

Herring called the problem regional and Henrico and Chesterfield county officials confirm that. Chesterfield has seen a sharp increase in robberies over the past two years, jumping from 162 robberies in 2005 to 230 in 2006. So far this year, the county has recorded 218 robberies with two and a half months to go.

Ditto for Henrico.

"We certainly feel that the volume is up," says Mike Gerrard, a deputy comonwealth's attorney with Henrico, who says the solution to the problem is also regional. Cooperation among departments has been key in many arrests.

"We certainly see more robbery arrests," he says. "The good news is we're seeing pretty good results in terms of prosecution — it's typically the [state] penitentiary even if it's your first offense."

This is partly because judges aren't tolerating the crimes, Gerrard says, but also because of mandatory sentencing laws — use a gun in a crime and it's an automatic three-year sentence.

Though the Police Department's numbers this year so far don't support Herring's theory that robberies are on the rise, in a press release last week Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe appeared to confirm the trend the prosecutor's office has observed.

"We're looking for possible connections to robberies and gang activity," Monroe said in the statement, addressing the rise in violent crime that the release seemed to indicate was confined to a handful of the city's major public housing projects.

Recent headlines have shown high-profile violent crime isn't confined to these areas. The shooting of a fleeing robbery suspect by a Baskin-Robbins manager (the suspect had waved what turned out to be a BB gun), the robbery and shooting of an ice cream truck driver, and the shooting of a school bus are cases in point.

And City Council President Bill Pantele has complained of an increase in violent assaults in the Shockoe Bottom area.

Citywide, robberies are more frequently involve guns, Herring says, an aspect of this crime trend that has roots in the street culture shared by many of the individuals his office has been prosecuting.

"In some segments of the community, it's either become a rite of passage or fashionable to show your gun on the street," Herring says.

That practice figures into what prosecutors have been handling, agrees Merritt, who heads his office's robbery prosecution efforts. Herring stops short of linking the activity to gangs, but Merritt sees at least some relationship.

Herring recounts an unsuccessful murder prosecution that collapsed in some part because of the credibility on the stand of some of the witnesses his prosecutors had to rely on.

All were packing, Herring says, and "to hear them talk, after the defendant shot and killed the victim, the street erupted in random gunfire." Nearly all the shots were fired in the air or at no particular target, he says; rather, they were "firing guns just to give notice. It's pretty scary."

Both men say that guns and their use in these crimes appear to be a broader issue of street credibility. Carrying a gun and showing a willingness to use it have become coming-of-age events.

"It appears to be some sort of rite of passage," Merritt says of the robbery component. "I think it's possible that our community-based gangs are using robbery as a rite of passage to get into the gangs." S

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