Patrolling Richmond’s ‘Iron Triangle’

Riding through Richmond's roughest streets.

Phillip Sanchez comes to work with a crisp uniform and courteous demeanor.

He’s recognized at the local Starbucks, where he likes to start off his day with a coffee and pastry.

But the normalcy stops there. Sanchez’ office is one of the most crime-addled neighborhoods in the nation.

Officer Sanchez inspects an abandoned house in the 600 block of 21st Street. He uncovered numerous condom wrappers and small plastic bags, evidence he said was consistent with drug sales and prostitution.

Officer Sanchez inspects an abandoned house in the 600 block of 21st Street. He uncovered numerous condom wrappers and small plastic bags, evidence he said was consistent with drug sales and prostitution.

Officer Sanchez patrols one of nine beats, the notorious Iron Triangle, a three square-mile area that owes its name to the railroad tracks forming its boundaries in central Richmond.

The triangle is infamous for being a hotspot for crime.

Violence is so pervasive here that on May 18, the department installed gunshot-detection technology called Shotspotters — a labyrinth of microphones that captures and relays the sounds of gunfire to a high-tech computer system.

The technology can pinpoint the location of discharge to the square-foot.

On busy nights, more than 10 separate bursts of gunfire can be recorded in the Iron Triangle between midnight and dawn, Sanchez said.

“It used to be a lot worse than what it is now,” Sanchez said. “But this is still a very depressed area of the city.”

Riding shotgun with Sanchez for a 10-hour daytime shift on Sept. 28, this reporter witnessed the range  of challenges and events  that confront a patrol officer on any given day.

The calls ranged from a leisurely request to maintain civility at a parent-principal conference to a white-knuckle, engine-roaring response to a frantic 9-1-1 report of a possible gunshot victim.

The 9-1-1 call turned out to be a hoax, but Sanchez’s adrenaline and pistol clutching were real.

So are the social and economic problems that continue to vex the city.

“There are a lot of crackheads around here,” Sanchez said as he drove by a man he identified as a drug-addled transient, shuffling down the sidewalk near newly-restored Nevin Park. “They walk around like zombies.”

“Crack, and crack sales,” he continued, “is still a main driver of crime around here.”

Tennis shoes dangle from telephone wires above the street in the 700 block of 6th Street. “Shoes on wires means drugs are sold somewhere around here,” Sanchez said. “It’s a marker.”

Tennis shoes dangle from telephone wires above the street in the 700 block of 6th Street. “Shoes on wires means drugs are sold somewhere around here,” Sanchez said. “It’s a marker.”

So are gangs. Intensely territorial, Sanchez said much of Richmond’s gang violence often stem from turf disputes, usually sparked by the need to control key outposts for drug sales.

Wearing the wrong symbols in the wrong neighborhood can trigger bloodshed.

Throughout the day, Sanchez points out young men stalking about the streets, usually wearing Cincinnati Reds or Chicago Cubs baseball caps, the capital “C” denoting membership in “Deep C,” the gang that grips central Richmond.

Like any good beat cop, Sanchez is on alert for all the subtleties that might be a tipoff to gang activities.

A pair of sneakers with laces linked and slung over high-tension wires, for example, denote nearby drug sales.

Some of the nondescript bicycle riders, Sanchez said, are street-level crack peddlers who transport product from a central location, like a house or apartment.

Sanchez sees this all with a sharpened awareness.

But now there are new components in the crime equation, and Richmond cops have had to broaden their bag of tricks.

The nation’s skyrocketing home foreclosure rate, which has not spared Richmond, is an added factor.

Vacant, bank-owned homes are magnets for transients, drug sales and prostitution, Sanchez said.

During his morning shift, Sanchez responded to a call from Code Enforcement officers requesting backup to sweep a suspected drug house.

After entering with a partner, pistols drawn, the house turned out to be empty.

Sanchez shines his flashlight on a photo resting on the floor of a foreclosed house. “Sometimes people are in such a hurry to go, they leave all kinds of things behind,” Sanchez said.

Sanchez shines his flashlight on a photo resting on the floor of a foreclosed house. “Sometimes people are in such a hurry to go, they leave all kinds of things behind,” Sanchez said.

But the remnants of previous activity – small baggies for drug sales, condom wrappers, a bathtub brimming with human feces – were telltale signs.

Sanchez has become expert at spotting houses that have fallen into unlawful ownership.

Sanchez, who transferred to Richmond from another department less than one year ago, takes the day’s more dangerous tasks in grim stride.

But he readily transitions into friendly neighborhood peacekeeper, part of a department initiative to engage the cooperation and goodwill of weary residents.

An early morning call dispatched him to a local school, Wilson Elementary.

There, he presided over an occasionally tense conference between three parents and the principal.

At another point, he drove by Lincoln Elementary School. “It’s my little gem,” he said. “I check in with the principal every day.”

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