1999 Richmonder of the Year: Police Chief Jerry A. Oliver 

With violent crime cut nearly in half and Project Exile in the national spotlight, all of Richmond is celebrating its outspoken police chief.

Picture this.

A young man is returning to the neighborhood he once terrorized. He has been away, in federal prison, for five years. He was sent there because he committed a crime with a gun and was prosecuted in federal court, part of a Richmond program called Project Exile. He was sent away, exiled.

But now he's coming back. What will he come back to? A job at McDonald's? Hardly. A front-office job at a business? Not likely.

He is coming back to start his own business. He is going from criminal to entrepreneur, thanks to the Richmond Police Department. He'll be given a lawnmower and some gardening equipment. Local business will give him capital so he can buy a truck and start his own lawn and garden business. He'll be servicing the homes and lawns in the neighborhood where he once sold drugs. The neighborhood whose citizens dreaded every time he walked down the street. The neighborhood where he committed his crime.

This is Project Embrace, and if Jerry Oliver has his way, it will be the follow-up to Project Exile. It is Oliver's attempt to reintegrate all the "prodigal sons and daughters" who will be returning to the streets after serving their prison time.

Think this idea will be controversial?

Did you expect any less from Jerry Oliver?

If Jerry Oliver had proposed such an idea two years ago, he might have been forced, if not laughed, out of town. With violent crime at an all-time high, there were few unqualified successes for the brash and outspoken police chief.

He was frequently criticized for his oft-repeated mantra: "An arrest is failure." He was taken to court over his decision to transfer a number of police officers to other posts within the department. For a time it seemed Oliver and city officials were at odds over nearly everything, from case clearance rates to police response times. Oliver likened the chorus of criticism against him to "barking dogs." When City Council mandated in the fall of 1996 a 30 percent drop in violent crime by 2000, Oliver said, "We'll miss it miserably." There was talk as recently as two years ago that some on Council were looking for a way to force Oliver out.

And now this. With violent crime down 40 percent in six years years, and with the attention of the nation on our city for Project Exile, Jerry Oliver is named Style Weekly's Richmonder of the Year by a panel of influential Richmonders. "It's amazing," says Managing Assistant U.S. Attorney James B. Comey laughing, "that the people who wanted Jerry's head two years ago have disappeared faster than the open-air drug markets."

How did Jerry Oliver arrive?

Some would say he evolved — that he has toned down the inflammatory remarks, that he has come around to the community's way of thinking about cracking down with the full force of the law on violent crime and open-air drug markets. But Oliver himself would argue that it is not he who has evolved but Richmond — the community now understands fully what he was saying five years ago: "I haven't changed," he says. "I still say regularly an arrest is a failure of every other institution. It's an indictment of families, the school system, social service agencies and society in general. What's happened is people have come to realize what I was trying to say. Perhaps I wasn't articulate in making my case," he offers, then reconsiders. "Or people weren't understanding."

Everything changed with Project Exile.

The innovative program, a partnership of the Richmond Police Department, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and other federal and state agencies, offered Oliver the success he needed to breed confidence among Richmonders about the Richmond police and him personally.

Frustrated by soaring violent crime statistics, Oliver and Comey and others developed a strategy for moving gun offenses into the federal system. Suddenly, the stakes were higher for a criminal using a gun while committing a crime. Now it would be much tougher to make bail, he would be sent to federal prison far away from his partners in crime and for a longer time — at least five years.

That gave police more "face time," with victims, Oliver says — a chance to make real inroads with citizens who had long feared getting involved to reclaim their neighborhoods. And there was the élan of Exile. Gritty TV ads depicting the claustrophobic, monotonous life inside a postage-stamp-sized prison cell, the giant city buses rumbling through Richmond streets with the stark black-and-white message: "An illegal gun gets you 5 years in federal prison."

Last February, The New York Times came calling and not because of some racial argument revolving around the Civil War. Richmond would finally show its innovative side. Soon, Richmond was a must stop on the media tour. Newspapers all over the country wrote about Richmond's success with Project Exile and CNN, ABC and NBC's "Dateline" all interviewed Oliver for segments about the program. In March, Oliver testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Youth Violence.

Cities including Philadelphia and Rochester, N.Y., adopted similar programs, and Oliver has hosted officials from other cities — most recently Baltimore — to share the secrets of his success.

Oliver will even break it down into percentages if you want him to. He'll concede that 5 to 10 percent of Richmond's drop in crime can be attributed to outside forces including the end of the crack epidemic, good economic times and fewer young people in the population. The rest of the credit he'll take for local law enforcement.

Even one of Exile's harshest critics, attorney and school board member David Baugh, who calls Exile "flawed," "excessive," and racially troubling, credits Oliver for the job he is doing overall. "I think the chief is an excellent chief. ... He has upset some officers ... but raised the professionalism of that department as far as I'm concerned. I just believe they're a nicer P.D."

But Oliver and others are quick to point out that Exile alone is not responsible for Richmond's dramatic turnaround. Mayor Tim Kaine says it really all started back in 1994, when, after his election, City Council picked public safety as Richmond's No. 1 issue. At the time, he says, there was a prevailing attitude among the leadership of the city that Richmond's runaway crime problem was simply beyond the control of law enforcement. That attitude, he says, was "demoralizing," but Oliver, who came to Richmond from Pasadena, Calif., in May 1995, brought a new way of thinking. "His attitude from the beginning was 'I own a big portion of this problem' and 'We can reduce crime from Day One.' That attitude is so different. It was the first big step."

Also from Day One was the problem of Oliver's mouth. It got him into a lot of trouble with city leaders including Kaine. "Jerry does say what's on his mind," Kaine says. "I agree with some of what he says and disagree violently with others." He says he had "quite a row" with Oliver over the problem of low clearance rates — the number of cases solved or closed. That led to improved central records keeping and a much improved clearance rate.

Kaine points to other internal improvements Oliver has spearheaded, improvements that he says have been just as important as Project Exile in reducing crime. Back in 1997, Oliver made it a priority to begin serving a backlog of some 1,500 unserved felony warrants. It was basic police work that was "absolutely critical," and now that the police department is caught up, the system is much more efficient, Kaine says.

Kaine also credits Oliver with standing his ground when it came to dealing with City Council. "When crime has been bad, City Council would say we need more police officers. [Oliver] would say we need more technology, computers, mobile data terminals in cars." Getting those things would help police make more arrests, find stolen cars and clear felony warrants. "He convinced us we needed more technology," Kaine adds.

Comey, of the U.S. Attorney's Office, agrees that Oliver's emphasis on technology was critical to the police department's success. When Comey began dealing with City Council over the issue of crime he continually told them it was "like trying to turn a battleship."

"[It was] a 1950s police department trying to do a 1990s job," he says, adding that the funding levels and equipment were like that of "some quiet 1950s Southern city." There was one crime-scene van for nine police detectives; no police drying room where blood-stained evidence is routinely allowed to dry; no watch commander on duty at night — just to name a few off the top of Comey's head. "I could go on all day," he says.

"Jerry's job was to turn that battleship."

Like turning a battleship, Oliver had to make some hard turns and also do some subtle maneuvering. And through it all, he's never left the wheel. He has established citizens' police academies for spouses of police officers, for senior citizens, young people, school principals, city leaders, the media and the community-at-large.

This year, the department introduced Blitz to Bloom, an intensive attack on drug dealers and blight in Richmond neighborhoods such as Highland Park, Blackwell and central Church Hill. Police have made hundreds of drug arrests, seized numerous guns and towed abandoned cars.

In September, the department created a customer service unit to improve responsiveness to the community and hosted a citizen's forum so that the community would have a chance to hear about and review upcoming changes in the police department.

Oliver says he is attracting a different kind of person to the Richmond Police Department, which he says used to bring in a lot of 25-watt people. Now he surrounds himself with 100-watters, including aggressive young lawyers and highly educated department heads. "People deserve to have a top-notch, world-class police department. I would put our police department up against any police department in the country in terms of leadership." Now he's even looking overseas for his next generation of cops. This year, Oliver visited U.S. military bases in Germany to recruit new police officers and he hopes to attract applicants with military backgrounds to the force.

He is looking for highly educated, energized people to "raise the bar" and create a kind of renaissance within the Richmond Police Department. He has sparked some changes himself which have, of course, caused controversy. Oliver got his share of flak over promotions and transfers within the department, and even for instituting a physical fitness requirement. "I knew there was going to be hell to pay, but that's what a leader does when they have a vision," he says.

Oliver's vision is contagious. He speaks so convincingly, so dynamically, so articulately that it is hard to argue. When he speaks about old people approaching him and telling him they can walk to the corner store for the first time in years without being frightened, that's when you know it's all working. Crime statistics aside, you know it's working when a guy working in a car dealership stops by the chief's office at the holidays to drop off a calendar and tells Oliver, "This is the first time living here I've really felt safe in this city."

"Confidence is contagious, just like hopelessness and despair," says Oliver, who himself is always brimming with confidence. He's always said publicly he doesn't carry a gun, doesn't feel he needs to. He visits homes in the most crime-ridden areas of the city driving alone in his car, no entourage, no fleet of police cars announcing his arrival. He uses pithy phrases like "I'm in it to win it" in living rooms all over Richmond. "Are you in it to win it?" he asks the elderly and the working poor and the middle class and all those he visits. He feels people waking up to the question.

So maybe, just maybe, with the people on his side this time, Oliver will succeed when he floats the idea of Project Embrace. He seems to care genuinely when he talks about those hardened criminals exiled by the program of the same name. "How do we reintegrate these people productively?" he asks.

Sounding more like a preacher than a police chief, Oliver calls them Richmond's "prodigal sons and daughters."

"If you give people good, they will primarily be good," he says. "We've got to make them care about themselves."

So he's proposing this program which will take the city's stockpiled tools, lawn mowers, industrial equipment and other property and endow these returning ex-convicts with the tools they need to be entrepreneurs. Comey thinks it's a great idea, "incredibly challenging" but possible and doable because these are ex-federal prisoners, who are under more stringent post-release supervision, reporting and employment requirements.

He says it's typical of Oliver, this big-picture thinking, but it's also risky. That kind of softhearted talk can demoralize the troops, but Comey is confident Oliver can make Project Embrace work. He says Oliver's army is pumped-up, physically fit and becoming a much better operation than in the past. Still, Oliver has found a way to keep "the warm fuzzy wuzzies" in the equation.

"It's a balance not many people can strike," Comey says. "As police chief you are called upon to be a mixture of Patton and Mother Teresa." But Oliver has found the balance, Comey says.

Patton and Mother Teresa? That seems an awful lot to live up to. Yet you somehow believe Oliver can pull it all off when you hear him talk about Project Embrace: "I owe an obligation to those kids we arrested, a debt I owe them to do the best I can to keep them from returning to a life of crime."

Selection Committee

Ernest T. Brown
Chairman, Bank of Richmond

The Rev. Kenneth Dennis
Pastor, Greater Mount Moriah Baptist Church

Sr. Charlotte Lange
Principal, Saint Gertrude High School

Cathy Pond
Executive Director, YWCA

Treeda Smith
Community Affairs Director, NBC 12

Irving B. Taylor Jr.
Director, external affairs, Bell Atlantic

Ralph White
Manager and Naturalist, James River Park System

Walter R.T. Witschey, Ph.D
Director, Science Museum of Virginia

Gray Wyatt
Owner, Perly's restaurant

Style Weekly
Sara Fender
, publisher
Beth Laws, editor
Janet Giampietro, managing editor

Past Recipients

Eugene P. Trani
President of Virginia Commonwealth University

Harold M. Marsh Sr.
Attorney, substitute judge who was murdered July 23, 1997

Paul DiPasquale and Tom Chewning
Artist and fund-raiser who spearheaded the Arthur Ashe monument project.

MCV Hospitals

James and Robert Ukrop
Owners of Ukrop's Super Markets, civic activists, charitable leaders

Nina Abady
Civic booster who worked to revitalize Richmond's downtown

Arthur Ashe
Tennis player, humanitarian

Police Chief Marty Tapscott

Mary Tyler Cheek McClenahan
Founder, Richmond Better Housing Coalition

Gov. L. Douglas Wilder

Barbara Grey
Richmond Public Schools principal

The Richmond Bureau of Police

The Hon. Robert R. Merhige Jr.
Federal judge

Lt. Gov. L Douglas Wilder

Rob Morano contributed to this story.

Latest in Miscellany


Comments are closed.

Connect with Style Weekly

Most Popular Stories

Copyright © 2023 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation