The conversation around demolishing Richmond’s majority black public housing projects has been reignited recently, and one big supporter of this idea is outgoing Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring. He’s resigning next month to become a partner at the law firm McGuireWoods. In an interview before his resignation, he said poverty, specifically in the big six courts is largely to blame for the city’s ongoing battle with crime.
Herring’s been Richmond’s top prosecutor since 2006. And for a long time, he thought he understood the source of violent crime. But a jump in homicides and shootings in 2016 and 2017 -- particularly in the housing projects -- really had him scratching his head.
“We couldn’t correlate it to the drug markets in the way that we used to be able to in the '80s, '90s and early 2000s,” Herring said. “We had literally used every arrow in our quiver, that is us, the police department, city hall, to try to tamp down the violence.”
At the same time, Herring said residents in the communities most affected by the growing violence became less willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
“We would go out and say to communities, if you don’t help us, we can’t prosecute the cases and prevent the crime,” Herring said. “A pretty simple message, right? And yet, it didn’t seem to resonate.”
Richmond police said last fall they’re getting a handle on violent crime in some of the most challenging neighborhoods. They credited an anti-violence messaging campaign with cutting homicides in half in Richmond’s big six public housing projects in 2018.
But Richmond’s interim police chief said cooperation from residents is still a struggle.
And even with the decline in crime in those areas, Herring said public housing has deeper problems.
“We will not be able to effectively control, combat and certainly prevent crime in the areas where there is concentrated poverty and public housing by simply policing,” he said.
Herring released a report this year that looks at why people offend in Richmond. Of all the factors discussed in the report, Herring largely sees poor neighborhoods as the root of the problem.
This is why he’s supported getting rid of the courts.
This idea is not new. Policy makers have been calling for years to tear down the decaying complexes, replace them, or help residents to move elsewhere.
This idea didn’t go over well with some residents at Gilpin Court.
They joined community advocates this spring to plant vegetables at the new Charles S. Gilpin community garden.
The late community activist Lillie A. Estes worked for years to bring the Charles S. Gilpin Community garden to life in what was once a vacant lot in Gilpin Court. The longtime Gilpin resident saw fruit trees planted in 2018 but died three months before this Spring's planting. (Photo: Whittney Evans/WCVE)
Lafonda Page, who has lived at Gilpin for four years said she usually doesn’t let her kids play outside like this because she worries for their safety, but she said she believes most of the crime doesn’t come from people who live in the courts.
“It comes from people who come into this neighborhood,” she said. “And it’s not fair for us. Most of us feel like prisoners in our own house and that’s not right.”
Richmond police say that’s true to a certain degree, but crimes are sometimes committed by people who are staying with residents in the courts.
Page responded to Herring’s concern that he can’t get cooperation from residents to solve crimes.
“I mean they don’t trust them,” Page said. “If they tell what happened with the crime, who’s not to say that they’re going to expose them and then something's going to happen to their family? People have kids. They have families they have to live for.”
Over-policing In Black Communities
Another driving factor of some of this distrust could be the disproportionate interactions black people in Richmond have with law enforcement.
Recent data shows Richmond police made about 27,000 contacts with people between 2017 and 2018, and most of those stops were with people of color. Black people made up about 90 percent of traffic stops for warrant violations, for instance.
Liz Coston is a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“If we think about it largely in the context of what does the population of Richmond look like, 48 percent black, we should see roughly 48 percent of the stops being of black people for curfew violations,” Coston said.
Coston is also with Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, the group that obtained the data through an open records request.
“It’s not what we see in the data. It’s reflective of racial bias,” they said.
The data show, city wide about 12 percent of the total population was stopped by police between January 2017 and October 2018. When public housing neighborhoods are isolated, that number goes up to 20 percent.
Visualization by Anika Imago for WCVE.
Herring said while the data is alarming, it didn’t surprise him.
Interim Police Chief William Smith said it’s not flattering for the department, but the numbers were pulled from an outdated system that’s inconsistent and unreliable.
“It has some serious flaws. It does. But we are a transparent and we are an accountable organization, and the data is what it is,” he said.
The department is currently building a new data system that Smith said will be more accurate and reflective of the department’s work.
The Chief pointed out that public housing residents are victimized at a higher rate than other people in the city. And he said it’s not just extreme poverty, it’s also just poor design. The complexes weren’t constructed with safety in mind.
“I would refer to it as a prison without walls,” he said.
Smith said the courts are the result of racist decisions made decades ago that the city has to grapple with today.
“Public transportation, they have it, but maybe it’s not as efficient as it could be. There’s not a lot of jobs that they can walk to. When we start looking at the things that allow somebody to be in a stronger position, they have the deck stacked against them,” Smith said.
Smith is eager to work with the new public housing CEO on his plans to redevelop the courts.
Public Housing Redevelopment And Broken Promises
Breaking up the courts is a tired conversation for some like Brian Koziol, Director of Research and Policy with the non-profit Housing Opportunities Made Equal.
“And I think one that I think certainly public housing residents are tired of hearing about and has created a lot of mistrust in those communities,” he said.
In the 90s, Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority moved to replace the decaying South Side public housing development Blackwell. Residents moved out when the 400-plus units were demolished with a promise that they could return to newly built homes. Koziol pointed out, the final homes are just now being built more than 20 years later.
“I don’t know if any existing residents actually came back to that community,” Koziol said. “And just because they’re low-income, doesn’t mean that their community is any less valuable to them.”
Long-time community organizer Art Burton said the community garden in Gilpin Court is one way residents are working to improve life in that public housing neighborhood. He says with more resources people there can thrive.
“We don’t believe that we have to destroy our communities and go somewhere else,” he said. “We don’t see our color as being a barrier to our success to the need where we have to go live with other people to be successful, we don’t believe that.”
Burton had a message for public officials like Herring who are touting this idea.
“Tell him come live here. Be my neighbor, okay? I’m sure everything would change overnight if the Commonwealth’s Attorney lived in Gilpin Court. Or the mayor, or any of the nine city council members, or the school board members or leaders of RRHA.”
Herring’s last day is July 1. Then it will be up to his successor to grapple with the city’s ongoing struggle with crime. And whether it’s the result of poverty, public housing or something else entirely, this person will have their own ideas for how to fix it.