Richmond guns plan shows some progress

Project Exile credited with reducing number of weapons on the street

April 16, 2000|By Bob Kemper | Bob Kemper,Chicago Tribune

RICHMOND, Va. -- The fact that the drug dealer was packing a gun along with his 10 ounces of crack cocaine the night police stopped him on the streets of this historic city was no surprise to Lt. Michael J. Shamus. What struck him were the first words out of the dealer's mouth.

"He shouted, 'Hey, all the dope is mine! The dope is mine!' " Shamus recalled, laughing at the memory. "Then he said, 'But that gun, that gun's not mine.'"

Richmond police have dozens of such stories they tell of street toughs willing to say or do anything these days -- even volunteering their guilt for drug dealing -- to avoid being charged with carrying an illegal gun. Dope means doing time. A gun, they know, means Exile.

Project Exile, born here three years ago and now touted in Washington as a means of curbing gun violence nationwide, is being credited with helping significantly reduce the number of guns on Richmond's streets and, as a result, the incidence of violent crime. Under the program, all local gun crimes are prosecuted in federal court and those convicted are sent -- exiled -- to federal prisons outside of Virginia for at least five years. Since the program started, 590 people have been exiled. All of them are still in prison.

Number of killings down

The number of killings in this city of 200,000 dropped from a record 160 in 1994 -- the year the city was dubbed one of America's Murder Capitals -- to 74 last year, the lowest number in 15 years. So far this year, 10 people have been killed here, half the number for the same time last year.

With fewer guns on the street, the numbers of rapes, robberies and assaults in Richmond have dropped as well.

Crime rates were dropping all over the country in that time, but Richmond officials note that their rates have dropped further and faster than in almost any other city. And the biggest drops in homicides and assaults here have been among incidences involving guns, they said.

Exile didn't do it all. The City Council, reshaped in the 1994 elections at the height of public concern over crime, has made crime-fighting its top priority every year for five years and formulated a comprehensive plan to combat violence. And Police Chief Jerry Oliver, hired in 1995 to remake a demoralized police department, has done everything from putting computers in patrol cars to opening new precinct stations, which he calls "customer service zones."

'A big part of it'

"There have been a whole lot of things that have been combined together to give us the kind of reductions we've been seeing," said Richmond Mayor Timothy M. Kaine, who was one of five newcomers elected to the nine-member City Council in 1994. "But Exile is, I'm sure, a big part of it."

Since Project Exile's inception, local officials said, far fewer people are carrying guns on the street and that alone has helped curb the killings and other violent crimes.

"It was almost as if the firearm to the criminal was an article of clothing," said James B. Comey, chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney's office in Richmond. "They would get dressed to go out and do whatever misdeed they were going to do, and they put on their socks and their pants and their shoes and their gun, all with equal parts of reflection. It was just a part of the uniform.

"Most violence in Richmond is what I call 'happenstance homicides,'" the federal prosecutor said. "It's what would have been a fist fight or a stabbing 15 or 20 years ago but like all altercations, it ratchets up to the most lethal available weapon. And because the gun is there, it's a shooting."

Project Exile was conceived during a round of meetings between federal and state prosecutors and city police, who in 1996 were puzzling over how to get at the core of Richmond's biggest problem: the sheer number of guns on the street.

A number of theories exist for the proliferation of firearms here. Guns have always been easy to buy in Virginia and, until just a few years ago when handgun sales were limited to one a month, there was no limit to the amount of firepower one could purchase. Also, more people started carrying weapons simply to protect themselves from others who were packing.

The possession of a gun in Virginia, at the time, was usually a misdemeanor. And even if an overwhelmed police force did make gun-related arrests, the criminals were out of the state courts on bail in a very short time.

The solution the group arrived at was to prosecute every local gun-related crime in federal court. Under federal jurisdiction, bail was harder to get. Sentences at the time were stiffer than state penalties. And -- in what surprised its creators as the greatest deterrent of all -- those convicted in federal court would do their time in a federal prison hundreds of miles away from home.

'It's just amazing'

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