The Boxer 

Rodney Monroe comes out swinging in response to his challenging first year as chief of police.

But like the best of boxers, the most formidable challenges tend to bring out the best in Monroe. His response to a year that might leave some chiefs updating their résumés? Crime was way down in 2005, compared with the previous year under Chief André Parker. Murder: down 9 percent. Rape: down 16 percent. Arrests were swiftly made in the Behl and Harvey murders; in fact, arrests were made in 71 percent of murders in 2005, compared with 49 percent in 2004.

In his "State of the City" address, Mayor L. Douglas Wilder reserved effusive individual praise for just one city employee: Monroe. Loupassi calls Monroe "excellent." Former Commonwealth's Attorney David Hicks, who's representing the family in the North Side shooting, says Monroe, a former assistant police chief in Washington, D.C., is "way overqualified" to be chief of police of Richmond, with a population of 200,000.

Even some of the department's toughest critics respect Monroe. Defense attorney Steve Benjamin describes Monroe as "a good man with a tough job and a long way to go because of the department he inherited. There are some persistent institutional problems that must be addressed — training, accountability and trust," he says. "... [But] we should all wish him well because we're all in this together."

Monroe himself humbly allows that the department "made some great strides" in 2005. Of his event-filled first year, he says only that he's "not trying to keep any kind of score. … I've been involved in a very fast-paced environment in the past … it's nothing I don't feel capable of handling."

Among his major initiatives has been making homicide detectives investigate only homicides and not other violent crimes, too, as they did under Parker. One of Monroe's first decisions as chief was to create a homicide division.

"I can't have them investigating a homicide one day, 12 hours later investigating a robbery and 12 hours later investigating a rape," says Monroe, whose own sister was murdered in 2002 in Maryland. "By focusing them strictly on homicides, it lessens their case loads … [and] we have a much higher closure rate."

Recent events, however, have presented Monroe with his biggest test to date. Three officers have been involved in shootings that left two unarmed men dead, the most recent two weeks ago. Monroe has responded to the department's apparent trend of fatal shootings by police by asking the U.S. Justice Department to review those cases, and he's drastically increased requirements for firearms certifications. In the past, officers were certified after a one-hour annual session at the firing range. Now they must take an eight-hour annual class.

The officer who shot North Side man Billy Thigpen III Jan. 29 took that eight-hour course, Monroe says, and Thigpen's shooting will be investigated by a team of homicide detectives and investigators from police internal affairs and the Commonwealth Attorney's Office. Of the Thigpen shooting, Monroe says it's "a very tragic incident," and there are "several eyewitnesses" remaining to be interviewed. He cautions that "everyone — including the Thigpen family — is deserving of a fair and impartial investigation. … [The community] shouldn't take what little information we have about this case [so far] and draw such big conclusions."

Still the public outcry reached a crescendo last week during a vigil for Thigpen in front of his home, where family, friends and community leaders wondered why Monroe didn't show. "He was on South Side the other week, but he's not here," cried Frances Robinson, president of the Richmond branch of the NAACP, referring to a vigil for the Harvey family nearly a month ago.

The crowed that gathered sneered loudly when Daryl Holland, executive director of Richmond's Youth for Social Change, informed them that police had removed their spotlight and left them in the dark a few minutes earlier because they felt "intimidated." "The people wanted him here tonight," Holland said of Monroe. "That I know."

Monroe also has increased police visibility — adding more motorcycles and foot patrols, and increasing the number of marked cars. He's set up monthly community meetings and set measurable crime-reduction goals. He's also divided the city into policing "sectors," designed to maximize police presence in trouble areas and during high-crime hours.

"In the past," Monroe says, "we've just evenly distributed officers throughout the city. It was the same way with shifts: We had the same number of officers working the day shift as we had working the evening shift as we had working the midnight shift. Well, we found out it doesn't work that way. Higher volumes of crime are in the early evenings between 5 and 9 p.m., and then it picks back up between 11 [p.m.] and 1 a.m., so we scheduled officers based on those times."

Not everyone's been happy with those changes, though.

Carytown merchants have complained that the response time for a shoplifting call can be as long as 90 minutes, and Monroe unapologetically says that's probably true, because with 450,000 service calls a year, the department is now "stacking" calls. Priority calls such as gunshots and robberies come first, followed by lower-priority calls such as shoplifting or noise complaints.

Police union president Sgt. David W. Childress says some areas are getting less policing in the past, another fact that Monroe confirms, explaining that more officers are being put in higher-crime areas and fewer in lower-crime areas.

Sector policing has also resulted in lower morale, Childress charges, because many officers are scheduled to work weekends, leaving them less time with their families. Monroe says 65 percent of officers had weekends off when he started — too many. However, officers have presented him with a scheduling plan he says is better than his own, offering more police on the streets while allowing every officer to have regular weekends off. That schedule will be implemented later this month.

Another problem, Loupassi says, is "we are losing a large number of officers to other jurisdictions" because the Richmond Police Department has received the same small cost-of-living increases as other city employees over the years. And, according to Childress, it's been as long as 12 years since some officers have received major salary-scale increases.

Monroe says Wilder and City Council support the salary increases he is implementing as soon as July 1, providing "dramatic increases" in pay "to bring us up to par with the surrounding jurisdictions [and] to stem the flow of officers leaving. … A 10-year officer should not be making the same thing as a two-year officer."

Turnover among officers in 2005 was about 10 percent, the same as in recent years, Monroe says. All told, 38 sworn officers left the department in 2005, either for retirement or for other jobs, up from 26 officers in 2004.

And as for the boxer himself, when will he hang up his gloves in Richmond and move on? A new mayor down the road could hire someone else, but barring that, "I will be here as long as the support for the Richmond Police Department is here," Monroe says, "because I don't think any chief can operate in any city without the full support of his government's leadership. I have that 110 percent, and … that's why we're going to see improvements. If that ever stops, then Rodney Monroe would no longer be here." S

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