Thomas T. Cullen column: Violent crime reduction in Danville

For most of the past decade, Danville has had the ignominious distinction of being one of Virginia’s most violent cities.

Situated along the banks of the Dan River just north of the North Carolina border — and much closer to Greensboro and Durham than the state capital of Richmond — Danville, population 43,000, was, until the late 1990s, the economic anchor of Southside Virginia.

But changing trade policies and the attendant decline of U.S. textile manufacturing decimated the region’s largest employers and led to a sharp increase in unemployment, which rose from 3.5% in 2000 to nearly 13% in 2010.

Between 2014 and 2016, the murder rate in Danville increased by 400%. The city had the highest per-capita murder rate in Virginia in 2016, and also one of the highest in the country. In 2017, the murder rate remained at an alarming level, as did the number of robberies, shootings and aggravated assaults.

But in 2018 the tide began to turn. Homicides decreased that year by approximately 8%, and there were significant reductions in burglaries and aggravated assaults.

According to the Danville Police Department, the first four months of 2019 have been among the safest on record. The murder rate is down by 33% from last year; robberies have decreased 73%; and aggravated assaults with firearms have dropped 70%.

What is behind this stunning shift? Several factors.

In January 2018, the city hired Scott Booth as its new police chief. Booth, who spent nearly 20 years with the Richmond Police Department before heading the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and security for Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, is a dynamic, tough-on-crime street cop. In his first year on the job, he revitalized the police department, overhauling senior management, using crime data to hold commanders accountable, and forming a specialized unit to combat violent crime.

But Booth also looked outside for help. Drawing on his experience fighting crime in Richmond, the new chief strengthened his department’s partnership with the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Virginia State Police and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, committing additional resources to a signature U.S. Department of Justice anti-violence initiative known as Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN).

The PSN philosophy is based on two simple and well-documented realities. First, a very small sub-segment of the criminal population in the United States — by some estimates as low as 6% — commits most violent crime, such as murders, shootings, rapes and robberies. Second, these violent offenders reoffend at higher rates than the general criminal population. By targeting this class of offenders and taking them off the street, it thus follows that the rates of violent crime will go down — in some cases, dramatically.

This is exactly what is happening in Danville.

In June 2018, the Danville PSN task force announced the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act indictments of nearly 20 members and associates of the Rollin 60s Crips and Milla Bloods street gangs. As alleged in these indictments, members of these national gang sets, which had emerged in Danville over the past few years, committed acts of armed violence and other criminal activity on a wide scale.

Among other things, the indictments allege that these defendants orchestrated a shootout in the middle of a large apartment complex that resulted in the killing of an innocent bystander. Trials in these cases are scheduled for this fall and early next year.

These RICO indictments and the arrests of 20 gang members resonated throughout this small and tightknit community and have undoubtedly contributed to the reduction of violence.

But the collaboration did not end there. Building on this initial success, the Danville Police Department and the city’s elected prosecutor, along with the Pittsylvania County sheriff, continue to work closely with their outside partners, regularly identifying violent offenders and, when appropriate, referring them for federal prosecution. The key to this successful partnership is the willingness among the local stakeholders to subjugate parochial interests and personal pride for the greater good.

Although everyone involved in this public safety initiative is heartened by the recent reduction in violent crime, we recognize that it is a precarious peace.

In order to achieve meaningful and lasting reductions, and, in turn, contribute to the burgeoning revitalization of this proud and historic city, federal, state and local law enforcement must continue their coordinated and sustained assault on violent crime. It also is critical that local leaders and community members support law enforcement in these efforts to ensure that crime in Danville remains at historically low levels.

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