March 03, 2015 News & Features » Cover Story

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The New Chief 

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham helped develop the city’s community-policing model a decade ago. Now he’s at the helm of the department with the goal of keeping the neighborhood connection strong.

click to enlarge Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham was officially sworn in Friday, but took command of the Police Department the previous weekend. The 51-year-old brings experience from time in Washington and Richmond.

Scott Elmquist

Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham was officially sworn in Friday, but took command of the Police Department the previous weekend. The 51-year-old brings experience from time in Washington and Richmond.

Uniformed officers mill around the command room on the second floor of the city’s police headquarters. The setting is like what you’d see in a crime drama — a small auditorium with a podium in the front facing four long rows of desks. Majors in crisp white shirts dot the room.

They’re about to begin the department’s twice-monthly focus meeting, where top officers receive reports and statistics on crime from across the city.

The room quiets when the city’s new police chief, Alfred Durham, takes to the podium for the first time in his new role.

“Wow,” he says, as if briefly stunned by his rise.

Durham, 51, began his career working undercover in the housing projects of Washington. He steadily worked his way up the ranks through the city’s Metropolitan Police Department before coming to Richmond for a stint in 2005 and returning last November.

Any awe on Durham’s part is short-lived. He launches into a series of award presentations, delivered rapid-fire to members of the department who’ve stood out in one way or another during the past several weeks. On this day, that includes Kecia Hunt, the communications officer who handled the call when 1st Precinct officer William Turner was shot while responding to a call in early January.

Soon the meeting shifts to its primary purpose: grilling Durham’s new team on its stats.

The city is divided into 12 sectors, which serve as small police departments, each helmed by a lieutenant. Each one takes turns behind the podium, presenting work from the previous two weeks and comparing the numbers to previous results and goals that were set going into the period.

This is the model of community policing that former chief Rodney Monroe brought to Richmond in 2005, when the city was reeling from almost 100 homicides a year.

It’s also the system that Durham helped establish as one of Monroe’s first hires.

Now that he’s in charge, Durham says he’s committed to following the course charted by Monroe 10 years ago. That’s because it’s working, Durham says.

The reports to the command staff are detailed. Lt. Jeremy Sayles describes all three robberies that took place in his sector, 111, which covers the far East End.

If the command staffers like what they hear, they say so. If they don’t, they say so. In Sayles case, they seem pleased enough.

For the most part, Durham quietly follows along in the back of the room. He and his majors shout the occasional question: Are these goals aggressive enough? What were people saying at the community meetings you attended last week? Do you have any idea what led to the increase in car thefts?

Durham turns to a reporter he’s invited to sit in on the meeting. “It’s my job to drive crime down and make sure we’re maintaining connections with the community,” he says. “This is one of my primary tools to make sure we’re doing that.”

 

click to enlarge Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, at a Feb. 2 news conference to announce Durham’s appointment, says he expects the chief to continue the model of community policing brought by former chief Rodney Monroe and continued by Ray Tarasovic, who is retiring. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones, at a Feb. 2 news conference to announce Durham’s appointment, says he expects the chief to continue the model of community policing brought by former chief Rodney Monroe and continued by Ray Tarasovic, who is retiring.

When Mayor Dwight Jones introduced Durham as his choice to be the city’s top officer two weeks ago, he made it clear that he wasn’t looking for radical change in the department, which has seen a steady decline in violent and property crimes during the past 10 years.

Jones attributes that drop to two things: community policing and Rodney Monroe, who served as chief from 2005 to 2007 and implemented the strategy during the city’s high murder rate years.

Durham, like his immediate predecessor, Ray Tarasovic, was one of Monroe’s co-workers and protégés from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington and later in Richmond.

“He was part of the team that began community policing over 10 years ago,” Jones says, crediting the approach to helping the city avoid the kind of unrest that’s gripped Ferguson, Missouri.

Community policing as established by Monroe divides the city into sectors so police can get to know a neighborhood and its residents. It also allows police to focus on the specific needs and crimes that each neighborhood faces. The South Side has different problems than the West End.

The idea is that officers assigned to each sector become accountable to residents by not only being in the community day in and day out, but also attending community meetings and participating in neighborhood events.

When Durham arrived in Richmond, he says the city’s Police Department had a different approach and a bad reputation.

“I don’t want to badmouth the chief then,” Durham says, “but it was different. There was no connection to the community. It was just going in and locking folks up. You go in, you lock them up and you leave. And it was going from radio run to radio run. It wasn’t active, it was reactive.”

The department’s leadership under then-chief Andre Parker had slipped, says David Hicks, a former city commonwealth’s attorney who was appointed to serve as a Richmond General District Court judge by state legislators last week. He currently serves as Jones’ chief policy adviser.

“We had a lot of police shootings, and the easy answer is to just blame the public, but it’s never an acceptable answer,” Hicks says. “The truth is that we had years before when the city was a far more dangerous place, and fewer officer-related shootings.”

The Richmond Police Department still has its critics. In recent months protesters with Black Lives Matter have taken to city streets and raised grievances with the way the department treats black residents.

At a recent City Council meeting, Leonard McMillian, a retired factory worker, outlined a series of unfortunate interactions with the department, including being detained in his house for what turned out to be a false report. A front-page story on his encounter ran in the Richmond Free Press last week with a one-word headline: “Wronged.”

The Police Department has just as many vocal supporters. Fattah Muhammad appeared at the next City Council meeting to detail his admiration for the department.

“I’m proud to be living in Richmond,” Muhammad says. “I’d move, but I’m afraid to move because of what I might face in other cities. I know when I go out on the street someone’s got my back, which is the Police Department.”

click to enlarge Durham speaks with Deputy Chief of Operations Eric English during a recent crime statistics meeting. The new chief says he’s fortunate to inherit a department that functions well and is free of scandal. He says the challenge will be continuing to make improvements. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Durham speaks with Deputy Chief of Operations Eric English during a recent crime statistics meeting. The new chief says he’s fortunate to inherit a department that functions well and is free of scandal. He says the challenge will be continuing to make improvements.

Tarasovic, who is retiring, met Durham in 1988 in Washington. Tarasovic was the lieutenant assigned to the city’s SWAT team and Durham was a candidate for the squad.

Did he stand out? “Oh, he absolutely did,” Tarasovic says.

Tarasovic isn’t merely being polite all these years later. Durham set a record on the SWAT obstacle course, finishing in four minutes.

Durham is a tightly built man who speaks carefully, projecting a contemplative tone. He was born in Washington, where he grew up, graduating from high school in 1982. He went into the Marines, serving on active duty for four years and staying in the Reserves for another 13 years.

He picked up the unusual pronunciation of his last name, Dur-Ham, in boot camp, because that’s the way a drill instructor said it. He wasn’t one to argue.

He joined the Washington Metro Police in 1987. It was a rough time in the city’s history, and Durham was assigned to a challenging part of the city.

“Me being straight out of the Marine Corps, I didn’t really know what crack was,” Durham says. “I guess they show you pictures in the academy.”

He learned quickly. As a new recruit, Durham was a fresh face, meaning the city’s vice unit could use him to do undercover work in the city’s housing projects.

“We would walk into those communities and dealers would just drop their money and drugs because they didn’t want to be holding,” Durham says. “The kids would go running and pick all that money up. Thousands of dollars. I’d never seen anything like that. But crack cocaine, it ruled those poor neighborhoods over there.”

Durham’s next move was to SWAT in 1992. That’s where he met Tarasovic, then a lieutenant, and Monroe, the unit’s commanding officer.

Durham rose through the ranks, taking over as the city’s harbor master in 2000. He says he wasn’t a boat guy at first, but it turned out to be an appealing assignment.

“I spent a day down there,” he recalls. “These guys walk around in shorts, they’re on a grill cooking out on a pier, and they had 12 boats and pointed to one and said, ‘That’s yours if you come down here.’ I got back to my regular post and said, ‘Commander, sign me up.’”

Durham’s final appointment in Washington was as assistant chief, managing the department’s day-to-day operations. The rank-and-file apparently considered him effective. Delroy Burton, the chairman of the city’s police union, credits Durham with repairing a strained relationship with the department’s administration.

Durham was in the midst of planning security for President George W. Bush’s second inauguration when he got a call from Monroe. It was 2005, and Monroe, just hired in Richmond, wanted Durham to join his command staff.

“I was like, ‘Dude, I got 18 years in D.C.,’” Durham says he told Monroe. “‘I can’t walk away from this.’”

But Durham is the restless type, and with a little coaxing, he made the jump.

“I don’t like to get stagnant,” he says. “I had 13 assignments in my 25 years with the Metropolitan Police Department. If I learn or master something, it’s time to move on.”

 

click to enlarge On recent weekday night, Durham walks the Randolph area with his officers, soliciting feedback and distributing literature on a recent rise in thefts from vehicles in the neighborhood. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • On recent weekday night, Durham walks the Randolph area with his officers, soliciting feedback and distributing literature on a recent rise in thefts from vehicles in the neighborhood.

Not long after he moved to Richmond in 2005, Durham faced a most personal encounter with crime when his brother was shot and killed by an angry customer at the Washington tire shop where he worked. Durham, a man whose job put him in close proximity with homicides for nearly his entire career, tears up while recounting the experience.

On the day of his brother’s funeral, Durham says, he made a vow to redouble his efforts as a police administrator.

In Richmond, he’s taking over a department devoid of any major crisis, internal or external. The department is free of any scandals and the city recorded 44 homicides last year while violent and property crimes continue to trend down.

That’s both a good and bad thing for Durham. The good is obvious. The bad is that it will make it more difficult to achieve the kinds of eye-popping results racked up by his predecessors.

“The challenge is to just keep getting better,” Tarasovic says. “It’s easy to reduce 100 by 10 percent. But as the numbers get smaller, the difficulty increases. Crime is going to occur.”

On the personnel side, Durham is sticking up for officers, who’ve been unsuccessfully angling for a pay raise since 2009. Durham says he’s going to work to make that happen, though his success will depend on his boss, Jones, who seemed to register a look of surprise earlier this month when Durham addressed the issue.

And as part of a 100-day plan that Durham unveiled last week, the chief promised to meet with officers in a series of forums to hear their concerns.

Turning to the community, Durham says he intends to keep ties strong between police and neighborhoods. And when his officers make mistakes, he says he wants to hear about it. “I’m a listener,” he says. “I take action. And one thing I don’t tolerate is bad police.”

Durham says he plans to take the city’s community engagement efforts further by adding foot beats, which he says should make officers even more accessible. Durham also says he wants to work on the department’s relationships with younger residents. He says he rarely sees teenagers in community meetings and wants to get more officers into schools.

 

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist

Perhaps the most visible initiative Durham has undertaken is an order to his officers to keep two solid blue lights on all marked police cruisers. Durham says he wants the police presence in Richmond to be unmistakable.

To that end, Durham took part in a community initiative last Wednesday launched by former chief Bryan Norwood, who followed Monroe and was succeeded by Tarasovic.

Durham and about a dozen officers meet in the Randolph neighborhood to go door-to-door, warning residents about an increase in theft from vehicles in the neighborhood.

Durham introduces himself to every resident he encounters, asking each whether they’ve had any good or bad experiences with the Police Department.

The feedback is almost unanimously positive, or at worst, indifferent.

Durham is pleased.

“The way I look at that is twofold,” he says: “First, man, I am truly blessed. But the other side of it is, the expectations are already set and I have to maintain that. That’s the most important thing.

“I’ve got to be like Tarasovic, but better.” S

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