Maintaining partnerships, sharing resources and building relationships were the often-repeated phrases uttered by local, state and federal law enforcement officials Monday in Petersburg as they gathered to brainstorm ideas on what they collectively could do to curb crime and deadly violence in the Tri-Cities region.
“I think what you’re hearing a lot about is leveraging relationships,” G. Zachary Terwilliger, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, told a roomful of officers and prosecutors from 18 law enforcement agencies who spent the day at Good Shepherd Baptist Church for the Tri-Cities Violent Crime Summit.
The topics discussed includes gun violence, removing firearms from the street, the opioid epidemic and human trafficking.
The urgency to join together to address crime and violence plaguing parts of the Tri-Cities region is especially acute for Petersburg, which last year was the most murder-prone locality in Virginia in the proportion of killings to its population. The city had 17 homicides in 2018 — a record for this city of 32,000 — which equates to about 53 killings per 100,000 people.
Petersburg consistently has ranked in the top three statewide in per capita homicides since at least 2013, state figures show.
The carnage continued during the first four months of this year, with five people slain in March and April. In another uptick of violence this summer, two people were killed in July and four people were shot during a six-hour period in late August.
For Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth Miller, Monday’s summit was about hope. “Today is a new direction for our city,” he said. “We can’t fight crime by ourselves.”
In neighboring Hopewell, which also has seen more than its share of violent crime, Police Chief Kamran Afzal said the discussion at Monday’s summit “really was about relationship building ... and the need to depend on each other. Nobody’s big enough to handle things on their own. So we all require each other’s assistance.”
Hopewell, a city of about 22,000, ranked third in the state last year in per capita homicides.
Terwilliger has called on state and federal agencies to help.
Representatives of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, FBI, Drug Enforcement Association, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Marshals Service, United States Postal Inspection Service, Virginia State Police, Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority police and Virginia State University police were all in attendance and pledged varying degrees of support. Police from the counties of Chesterfield and Prince George also sent representatives.
“The reason why we’re here today is the victims of crime, and to help them have hope for the future, so that their children and grandchildren don’t have to be subject to criminal activity,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Angela Miller.
“One of the things that I think everybody talked about is the cooperation,” Miller added. “But it’s not going to end today. We’re going to be following up; we’re going to be meeting again. We’re not here and gone. This is a commitment we’ve all made. This is something that continues throughout until everyone in the Tri-Cities area can feel safe about going about their business.”
But community activists in attendance said it will take much more than police enforcement to turn things around.
Shahid Shabazz, an activist who owns a barber shop in Petersburg and heads Shaping Up Our Future, a group that directs young people from the streets to programs like Midnight Basketball, said Petersburg needs more resources to develop programs for youths “before they get to that point of committing crimes.”
“We have everything separate” in Petersburg, he said. “The neighborhoods are separate, the businesses are separate, the churches are separate — which causes an effect that when the children get to the middle school age is when they first get to join each other.”
And by that time, “they’re already at the ‘I’m representing my neighborhood, I’m representing my friends’ — so it’s kind of like the gang mentality is already there,” he added. “Because there’s no outlets for the youth before they get to that middle school age.”
“And that’s what we’re here for; we’re trying to change the mindsets of the youth before they get to the point of meeting any of you in this room,” Shabazz continued. “We need help to do the things we want to do. We have programs in place, but we cannot make them move because we can’t pay for it [all] our of our pocket. We’ve been doing that, but we’re limited in what we can do.”
Petersburg activist Bari Muhammad said young people need opportunities to expand their horizons.
“Our children need to leave the area and know that there’s more to life than this little prison that we’re in Petersburg,” he said. “And because we don’t exercise this with our children, they eat each other’s flesh. They go at each other. That’s all they know.”
The children are “trying to get past 16, 17 years old. ... The murders are getting younger and younger,” Muhammad added. “So we need solutions. We need to get out of Petersburg, we need to go on college tours, we need to be exposed to the trades. We need a business to come here so that our children get out of high school, they can go into that business where they can just walk right in there.”