A portable security camera on Granby Street in downtown Norfolk being used by police as part of a hot spot policing strategy. (Photo by Jim Morrison) 

By Jim Morrison 

In March of 2021, a Norfolk prosecutor who had recently retired after 27 years wrote to City Council, the police chief and the city manager urging them to cast aside what he called a “malaise” and explore changes to combat the city’s longstanding violent crime problem.

“Violent crime has been a constant over the last few decades in the city of Norfolk whether the city is experiencing a positive economic boom or a more challenging economic period,” wrote Philip G. Evans II in an 18-page memorandum. “Sadly, although the trends over time with respect to upper end violent crime are disturbing, no one seems to want to address this issue.”

The city that year went on to record 61 homicides and then top that in 2022 with 63 murders, the most in nearly 30 years. It wasn’t until October 2022, following a series of shootings downtown, that the city issued a plan to address crime, 18 months after the Evans memo.

Even before that rise in killings, Evans had noted how high Norfolk’s homicide rate was. In the years leading up to his memo, it was two times the national average. In 2018, when Norfolk had 37 homicides, New York’s murder rate was just one-third of Norfolk’s, he wrote. The problem spanned generations: Evans prosecuted a father for multiple armed robberies only to later prosecute his son for murder.

“Why,” he wrote, “is no one screaming about Norfolk’s homicide rate?” And “when,” he asked officials, “did you last receive a comprehensive briefing regarding the subject of violent crime in Norfolk over time which included the chief of the Norfolk Police Department, the chief of the Old Dominion [University] Police Department, and the Commonwealth’s Attorney?”

“It has not occurred,” he added, answering the question.

Finally, Evans outlined a series of suggestions to tackle the problem, ranging from addressing the personnel drain in the police department to improving and increasing camera surveillance to creating a collaborative effort with schools to identify and divert youthful offenders who may become violent offenders.

According to a public records request, Evans received a reply from only one council member, Courtney Doyle, whose husband is now a judge but once was a fellow prosecutor. She wished him a happy retirement and thanked him for his observations.

City Manager Larry “Chip” Filer said he recalled the email as one of many policy proposals examined over the last year but added that “a lot of other people said similar stuff.” Like other cities facing rising violent crime in the wake of police shootings, police recruitment issues and the pandemic, Norfolk was searching for answers.

Complicating the problem was the fact that patterns of gun violence seemed to be changing in the city. Gun violence in the past, Filer said, was economic — drugs, burglary, robbery. Now, though, he said, “relational violence” seems to be the main driver. “Very rarely is our gun violence occurring between folks that don’t know each other,” he said.

“It took us quite a while to figure out what was happening, and particularly why it was happening,” Filer added. “One of the very first steps we took was to recognize that the violent crime, that particularly gun crime that we were seeing, was different than it had ever been in the city’s history. It was very personal. It was mostly between folks who knew each other, had a beef and were settling scores.”

To Evans, though, while the term “relational violence” is new, the problem is not.

“‘Relational violence’ has always been a substantial contributor to homicides in Norfolk,” he said.

New approaches to crime reduction

In October 2022, after high-profile shootings on Granby Street downtown, Filer released a paper outlining crime reduction strategies. Fourteen, including the deployment of hot spot policing with specialized units and the installation of portable security cameras, were intended to be put in place within three months. Twelve, including the establishment of a real-time crime center to monitor camera and data feeds, the use of automatic license plate readers and aggressive code enforcement, were scheduled to be implemented within a year. Nine, including the creation of a regional crime data center and integration of the city’s camera system, are long-term efforts expected to take more than a year.

The strategies reflect how cities awash in guns like Norfolk are reimagining fighting crime by turning to technology and softer social initiatives like violence interruption and conflict resolution.

A number of the proposals in Filer’s paper had also appeared in the Evans memo, giving rise to the question of whether the city could have acted sooner.

But Filer said the pandemic and the closing of schools made it difficult for Norfolk to implement community outreach, particularly with youth.

“It’s unfair to suggest that we were just sitting on our hands idly, you know, pontificating whether or not crime would go down by itself,” he said.

Police staffing challenges

Part of the reason behind Norfolk’s efforts to find new ways of fighting crime was the dramatic decrease in its police forces.

According to a police spokesman, the department had 727 officers at the start of 2013, 756 at the start of 2018 and 501 at the start of this year.

For years, Evans said it was clear staffing Norfolk’s department was going to be a problem as other local cities offered better pay and, more recently, officers became disenchanted with the policies of the commonwealth attorney’s office. He said the losses are reflected in other data: The city’s homicide clearance rate, which had once been above 80%, had been dropping. A Virginian-Pilot story reported it was 37% for 2022.

“More than half of the homicide squad is sitting in other police departments right now from three or four years ago,” he told the Mercury. “They went over to Chesapeake. They went out to Suffolk, or Isle of Wight, or Franklin, or they just retired.”

When Filer arrived in 2019, he said he was given an internal memo outlining a “retirement bubble.” Then the George Floyd murder and other police incidents intervened, creating morale and recruitment issues. A program to recruit police from larger cities, called “Today Will Be Different,” has had some success. But the reality, he added, is police departments will be augmented by civilian analysts manning a real-time crime center so sworn officers can be dedicated to patrolling the streets.

“We have been a little slow to that pivot compared to other major cities,” he said. “The days of us having 700 sworn officers are over. It’s done. And part of that is due to the fact that we probably can’t get there in the new reality of policing. But also part of it is that that’s not necessarily how large cities are going to police anymore.”

Violent crime hot spots

The Evans memo called for developing a program to deploy cameras mounted on telephone and other poles in areas where violent crime can statistically be predicted to occur, to work with businesses to upgrade their surveillance systems and to use license plate reader systems more widely. He added that the cameras should be able to produce video useful in court. “As a prosecutor, my team encountered numerous cases in which a crime of violence within the coverage area of cameras associated with a governmental structure only to learn the quality of the resulting video is insufficient to identify the actors in the crime or non-operational,” he wrote.

But a year later, the city confirmed that cameras in eight of the 12 city-owned parking garages did not work. Funds to replace them have been approved. After a March shooting outside a restaurant downtown that killed three people and injured two others, the city added mobile cameras downtown.

While the downtown shootings spurred media coverage, statistics show that crime and particularly shootings and homicides are clustered in other neighborhoods.

The Evans paper identified the densest concentrations of homicides over the past 20 years in the city’s public housing areas. That fits with the city’s own 2012-21 map of homicide and aggravated assault hot spots, which shows four housing developments operated by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority as the most dangerous places to live.

“For far too many of the residents of our economically challenged neighborhoods in Norfolk,” Evans wrote, “the fear of violent crime in their neighborhoods is their daily reality.”

In September, Karen Rose, the authority’s security program manager, sought increased security funding from the authority, noting that people with a grudge were shooting from streets at the edge of public housing communities so they could escape easily. During that meeting, Ronald Jackson, NRHA’s executive director, said he was frustrated that the city was not acting faster to install speed bumps and take other actions to reduce opportunities for crime.

“If something happens, we’re looked at as if we’re not doing everything that we can to get things done within the community,” he said. “These are not citizens of the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. These are citizens of Norfolk.”

“To me, if there’s a call there for police service as there would be in Ghent, they should get the same type of response,” he continued, referring to a more affluent area of the city. “And to me, I get the feeling as if they’re on a reservation and are treated differently.”

Filer disputed that.

“To say that they don’t get the same response in those communities as someone in Ghent is simply not true,” he said. “In fact, if you were to observe our patrols, we have far more police officers patrolling in those areas than we do in Ghent in large part, for good reason. We allocate resources based on those hot spot maps.”

Diverting young people from crime

Evans recommended creating a collaborative effort to divert youth who end up in juvenile court or face disciplinary actions at school before they escalate into becoming violent offenders.

Norfolk’s plan — hiring consultants who have worked in violence intervention — is a distant cousin of that suggestion. The city last summer announced a two-year, $180,000 contract with the Newark Community Street Team, a New Jersey-based nonprofit, to train members of Norfolk organizations on ways to resolve disputes before they escalate. The first place they targeted was Young Terrace, one of the public housing communities highlighted on the city’s homicide hot spot map.

The Newark program, which began in 2014 and focuses on at-risk youth and young adults from 14 to 30, is one of several community violence intervention efforts that have emerged recently in cities like Louisville, Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta and Wichita. The programs are so new and sorting out why crime rates drop is so thorny that researchers say evaluating them is difficult.

The city is committed to three years with the program.

“We’re very hopeful this will help us get to the bottom of at least some of what we’re seeing in this gun violence space,” Filer said.

Researchers agree, though, that violent crime does not have a single cause. Nor is there a silver bullet solution. So the city is trying a range of strategies.

“We’re going to do everything we can do at the city level to deter and have the evidence to be able to effectively prosecute criminal activity,” Filer said. “We do need all hands on deck to try and limit the amount of criminal activity that’s happening in the city. We’re not happy with where we are right now. And so we’re going to take actions to try and move in a different direction.”

This report is republished courtesy of VirginiaMercury.com.