March 09, 2005 News & Features » Cover Story


The Promise 

New Police Chief Rodney Monroe talks about reaching out, the role of the community and the key to making the city safer.

It's the perfect time to reflect on crime, on murder, on the state of our young people — a few minutes past the close of business, but too early for dinner. It's a gray, wet, winter afternoon, and the cold is getting colder as the sun sets. It creeps around door cracks, penetrating the sheetrock walls of this drab meeting room in a drab building on the edge of a deadly housing project.

Summits are all the rage in young political administrations. Mayor L. Douglas Wilder is fond of them. The next night he's holding another one — they can last for hours, and they end "whenever the mayor decides to leave," says one official — at the old Armstrong High School near the Creighton and Fairfield housing projects. He'll sit for hours listening to constituents complain about the same problems, the same culprits, and the seemingly never-ending cycle of crime. Drugs, guns, money, teenagers, murder.

Wilder's first big appointment in his new administration is Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe. Three weeks into the chief's job, he must feed the political machine that brought him here from the warmer climes of Macon, Ga. The talk is big and bold. And the promises are even bigger.

At 5:43, the chief pushes open the door.

After shaking a few hands, Monroe slowly makes his way down the hallway, his wide shoulders filling the space. At 5-foot-7, his diminutive stature looks a little out of place at first glance. He doesn't seem like a police chief. He walks slowly and purposefully. He has a rugged but gentle profile, like a favorite uncle or an auto mechanic who lives for hard work and cold beer. His movements are confident, though, as if he knows that you know that he could still kick your rear, even at age 47.

As a young boxer, Monroe learned to bob and weave from Sugar Ray Leonard — the pre-Olympics and pre-heavyweight champion Sugar Ray — when they were hanging out at Palmer Park Gym in Washington, D.C., 30 years ago. Monroe grew up in the tough part of town, where disagreements were settled with fists. "Being vertically challenged, you really had to know how to fight," he says.

At the Gilpin Court summit, he doesn't have to. The people here seem to embrace Monroe and his ideas. His presence has a calming effect on the room, which feels desperate for solutions. Just outside these walls, within Gilpin Court, seven people were murdered last year, 34 people robbed, and there were 229 assaults and 123 drug and prostitution arrests.

If Monroe must reach out, he doesn't have to reach far. He tells them to stop being afraid of the young people who roam the streets, those teenage boys who carry guns and drugs and dare you to challenge them.

"We can't be afraid of our young people," he says, pleading. That's what gives them their power. Embrace them, he says — even the bad ones. For too long, police officers, parents, schoolteachers and even family members have brushed them off simply as the "problem." The solution lies with the very young people who are committing the violence, the murders. "I think you got to expose your kids to the positive side of the negative side," Monroe says.

"You got kids that don't mind going to jail. You got kids that don't mind dying. … We normally put our hands up and say, 'Well, I don't know if I want to be associated with that,'" Monroe continues. "They are some of your greatest recruiters in life, those individuals that are currently out there hanging on the street corners selling dope, that's engaged in violence. So why not expose them to somebody who has been through that life and made a change?"

At the summit, Monroe promises to do his part by putting more police on the streets of Gilpin Court, but he says the community must also change. The people who live in Gilpin must cooperate with police by calling when something doesn't look right. He says he wants to reach the children before they become criminals.

A man in the audience stands up and tells the chief it isn't that easy. It's not necessarily that people are unwilling to work with police, but that many don't know how. They need to be taught, he says. "You need to learn how to tell on somebody," explains Ralph J. Williams Jr., a teacher's aide from Amelia County.

So let the teaching begin. If Monroe's message seems grand and familiar, straight from the spin doctors at City Hall or police headquarters, his record speaks otherwise. Monroe, by most accounts, has backed up similar preachings in previous stints with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., (22 years) and more than three years as chief of the Macon Police Department, where he was regarded as a straight-talking top cop who actually succeeded in building bridges between the police department and the community.

"I think one of the chief's strongest points was being able to get into the community," says Macon City Councilman Charles Dudley, who chairs that city's public safety committee. "He put a lot of money into the community so far as dealing with youth and youth violence. … Murders dropped, robberies dropped, he was implementing a lot of different things. The public loved him."

Crime in Macon dropped by more than 5 percent during Monroe's tenure as chief. Macon, a city of 100,000, recorded 17 murders in 2004. Richmond, by comparison, a city of 200,000, officially recorded 95 murders in the same period.

In the streets of Washington, Monroe was so revered that a dozen former gangsters made the trek from D.C.'s projects to Richmond to attend his swearing-in last month. As an assistant police chief, legend has it that Monroe helped broker a deal in 1997 between two notorious gangs who ruled the deadly Benning Terrace public housing project — where 59 people had been killed because of drug-related violence during a five-year span. Police were afraid to enter Benning, says Robert L. Woodson Sr., founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit that works to stop gang violence. Monroe helped change that, he says.

How? He worked with Woodson to bring about a cease-fire between the rival gangs. They met in a church with police officers and gang members. It was a triangle of distrust and hate. The gang members hated each other and the police, which had a reputation for resorting to force too quickly. After a few meetings, they came to an understanding. "We came out of there with hugs and handshakes," Woodson recalls.

The truce wouldn't have been possible without Monroe, who went out of his way to build relationships with the people of Benning, Woodson says. Monroe, who was named commander of the 6th Police District soon thereafter in September 1998, is perhaps the best policeman the city has ever seen, Woodson says.

"Rodney didn't just show up when the newspapers were there. If they had a basketball game on Saturday morning, he would be there. He was there on Wednesday nights, off duty. He was just available," Woodson says. "Kids would tell him things that they wouldn't tell anybody else. Kids would say, no, we want to talk to Chief Monroe."

Monroe's time as commander of 6D, as it's known, was one of his toughest as a professional police officer. Long considered a rising star within the department, he was overlooked by newly appointed Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey in 1998. He demoted Monroe from assistant chief to 6D commander in the process.

Meanwhile, Monroe inherited a district where police had a reputation for corruption, where the morale was extremely low. Less than two years later, he announced his plans to retire and join Woodson's anticrime group.

"I got tired of seeing young people die in the streets of Washington," Monroe says. "There were so many senseless killings involving 14-, 15-, 16-year-old males and females that I thought I wanted to venture into an arena that was more focused on reducing violence among the youth."

He says there was one particular double homicide that turned the tide. Two girls ages 14 and 15 who were living in an apartment by themselves — their mother living a block away — had gotten caught up in the materialistic lifestyle of their drug-dealing boyfriends.

"They had become dependent on someone else, a drug dealer, to provide what they thought were the things that they wanted," Monroe recalls. "They were decent people, decent kids, but they had just gotten caught up and overwhelmed in a different lifestyle, a lifestyle they thought was glamorous. … I saw them when they were lying prone to the ground, each one with a bullet through their head, at age 15."

On the day he announced his retirement in February of 2000, Chief Ramsey called him and asked him to stay. He offered to promote Monroe back to assistant police chief and let him start his own division within the police department addressing youth violence. Monroe, always a cop at heart, accepted.

"If I had to do it over again, I would not have put him in 6D, but would have left him where he was," Ramsey says, referring to his initial demotion of Monroe. "I mean, 6D had a lot of issues and problems. Rodney took that over and really turned it around in terms of overall reductions in crime. … He's got very good community skills, and officers rally around him. I think he will take it a step higher in Richmond."

Before he got to Richmond, though, Monroe made a stop in Macon, where he inherited a police department rife with internal discourse. Before he was named Macon's chief in 2001, a group of police officers there filed a lawsuit against the city because they felt the promotions process was unfair. In fact, Monroe says, there really was no promotions process, which was the problem.

"Turnover was crazy. We had no pay scale, no step increases," says Monroe, explaining that the pay policy in Macon dictated that officers would be hired at a certain salary that essentially remained the same throughout their careers.

He managed to work around it by giving officers the opportunity to take on different jobs with different titles, so they could be rewarded. He says he was able to keep morale up by doing whatever it took to reward those who deserved it.

In such a contentious environment, perhaps the best sign that Monroe succeeded was his reputation. He managed to keep the respect of his nearly 300 officers, says a reporter in Macon, despite the controversies swirling around him. And he managed to stay out of political wrangling that engulfed Macon's City Council.

In March 2002, Chief Monroe nearly left it all behind — again. His only sister, Eleanor Monroe-Ridge, was found beaten to death in her home in Maryland. Police later determined she was murdered by her boyfriend, who committed suicide a day later.

"I almost gave it all up," he says, but a group of kids urged him not to. "It was a group of students in Macon, at an elementary school that I visited just prior to the death of my sister that wrote me all kinds of letters, asking me to come back."

Immediately upon his return to Macon, he had the entire department retrain in domestic violence. "Seeing bodies over 26 years, you develop a shield that you see them — and you don't see them," he says. "But that was one that really rocked my world."

It's one of the reasons he became interested in the Richmond job, he says, so he could be closer to his family in Maryland. Monroe and his wife, Marvette, have two children: Hollye, 21, and Brandon, 18.

Monroe's ability to manage such a tough environment, and his track record in D.C., impressed Wilder's transition committee so much that they offered him the job on the same day he visited Richmond in January for his first interview.

"He did not leave the building. We made him an offer on the spot," says the transition committee's co-chairman, James C. Cherry, who is also chief executive of the Mid-Atlantic region for Wachovia Bank. "He met so strongly every characteristic that we wanted."

Perhaps the thing that most impressed the transition committee was Monroe's street smarts. The day before his interview Jan. 13, Monroe drove to Richmond's most notorious neighborhoods to measure up the city. He didn't see any patrol officers in some of the toughest 'hoods, places such as Fairfield and Gilpin Court. There was, of course, plenty of blight: trash, loitering, broken-down cars.

Of all the candidates that the transition team interviewed, no one else had actually ventured into the streets as Monroe did, Cherry says.

"He's been an incredible breath of fresh air," says Richmond's Commonwealth's Attorney, David Hicks, who clashed regularly with former Police Chief André Parker. "The biggest thing he is doing is, he is realizing that you can't run the police department from the fifth floor [of police headquarters]. … People are much more willing to sacrifice when they know you are in it with them, too."

Monroe is "not a flash over substance" kind of police chief, Hicks says. Indeed, in his first day on the job Monroe sent back the fully-decked-out Ford Explorer that was standard for the city's police chief. Monroe says he "wanted something that looked like a police car." He opted for a plain-looking, no-frills, Crown Victoria.

Monroe learned the ultimate lesson in humility in his first year as Macon's chief. Georgia law required him to take 400 hours of standard police officer training — how to fill out a police report, etc. — before issuing him a badge, gun or uniform. For a year, Monroe wore a suit to work, forbidden to carry a gun or make an arrest.

"I actually sat in a class with 21-year-old rookies," Monroe says, cracking a wide, disarming smile. "I sat in the back of the class and took my test every Friday and worked through it. Then I had to take 60 hours of chief school."

For now, he has his work cut out for himself. Although the city reported a 12 percent decrease in crime last year, homicides are still what make headlines in Richmond. Under former Chief Parker, the city saw murders increase and the police department's relationship with the community sour.

Officers within the city's police department say Monroe is instituting more accountability among officers and the department's top brass. He is putting officers on more permanent beats so that they build better relations within the community. He's installing an investigative unit that focuses solely on homicides.

Monroe says he is evaluating everything from top to bottom to make sure the department's resources are in the right places. After witnessing his first homicide scene Thursday night, he promises more changes to "expedite" investigations. He wasn't pleased with what he saw last week. "I can pretty much guarantee that there's going to be some additional changes," he says. "Sometimes, we can get overly dependent on policies and procedures."

As for Mayor Wilder, Monroe says he doesn't feel any pressure to play politics, not yet at least. He says he isn't concerned about job security or pleasing politicians — he could live on his retirement pension from D.C., if need be.

He's already put his foot down with the former governor. Monroe feels strongly about creating a security detail for Wilder, to ensure he is protected at all times. His high profile requires it, Monroe says.

Wilder rejected the idea initially, Monroe says. "I told him it wasn't his call, that he wasn't going to have a lot of say-so in it."

At the crime summit in Gilpin last week, Daryl Holland, the organizer of the event, praised Monroe for reaching out to communities such as Gilpin. There is a "deep hate" for the police among some young people, he said, and areas such as Gilpin haven't been given the top priority by the city's police department.

"When certain precincts needed resources, [Parker] would divert resources to more affluent parts of the community," Holland says, explaining that the only time people ever saw the police was when they were making an arrest, or locking someone up. "His focus was not on the East End."

With Monroe, Holland says, that's already changing. Within a week of Monroe's swearing in, Gilpin saw more than double the number of officers patrolling the neighborhood — on motorbikes, and even on horseback.

"Never would you see motorcycles in the Gilpin area," Holland says. "He had horses out here, with kids who had never seen horses before."

The usually gruff Holland gushes at what may be in store. "I have to admit," he says, "I'm a little bit taken by this chief." 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