Officer Matt Stonebraker steers the cruiser. His partner, Anthony Diaz, paws at his Glock, the way you might tap your wallet, just to make sure it’s there if you need it.
Moments earlier, the radio had squawked, the dispatcher reporting a call that a drug deal was going down.
The tires squeal and the car banks hard right as Stonebraker whips around the corner off MacDonald Avenue and onto 25th Street.
He jams the shifter into park, bringing the cruiser to a grinding halt. Both officers are out and in full sprint.
Some guys turn and walk north on the sidewalk. Others bolt into an old apartment building.
The cops rush through the apartment’s front gate and scale creaky stairs. The sound of their shoes on the flimsy floorboards sounds like a mini-stampede.
No telling what’s at the top of these stairs.
Two turns, up staircases, now they’re on the third floor. The officers set eyes on two men, straight ahead, about 20 feet. One man frantically pounds his fist on an apartment door. The hall is dim. Stonebraker rushes in first, tackling the first man as the other braces himself against a wall, hands skyward in surrender.
“Hands out, hands out,” Stonebraker barks as he grapples with the man.
Other officers have bounded up the stairs to join the melee. A boot is on the man’s head. Moments later, he coughs up a golf ball-sized plastic bag containing rock cocaine.
“Whoa,” Diaz says, breathless. “I looked at the guys on the sidewalk first.”
“We went the right way,” Stonebraker huffs.
Adrenaline has barely tapered off. Both men pace in semicircles.
Drug dealing “has been an ongoing problem here,” Stonebraker says.
Diaz takes off the blue sanitary glove he had worn while sifting through evidence at the scene: A wad of cash, crumpled papers. All will go to the evidence desk at the station.
Diaz and Stonebraker exchange a crisp high-five.
The streets are still gritty, a cop’s job can still be tough, and Richmond still has a lingering reputation, but the secret is out: Any way you slice it, crime is trending down in Richmond, and has been for years.
Six years ago, new city leadership brought in Chief Chris Magnus, who pushed a new policing strategy emphasizing community relations and having his officers build links with residents in small slices of the city. By most measures the new course has been a success.
Crime fluctuates due to an array of factors—demographics, economics, the state’s corrections policy, social conditions—but an effective, respected police force makes a difference. The department now emphasizes community relations with respected community members, including influential African-American religious leaders. At the same time, the department has been infused with dozens of new hires in the last few years, including young officers who buy into the community-oriented policing approach.
The crime numbers over the last six years, since Magnus came aboard, tell a tale of steady improvement. Violent crime, a category that includes homicide, attempted homicide, rape, assault and robbery, has fallen every year since 2006, when there were 7,537 recorded citywide, with the exception of the 2009-2010, when the numbers remained essentially flat at 6,163 and 6,218 violent crimes, respectively. Overall, the totals represent a decrease of nearly 20 percent.
At the same time, killings in the city are down. Last year, 21 homicides were recorded in Richmond, the lowest number in a single year total since 2001, when there were 18. The highest total the city has seen in the last decade was 47 homicides, which the city suffered in 2007.
Crime is not only down, but the Magnus-era has helped redefine what was once a maligned department, despised by much of the community.
“People may be surprised, but so much of what we do on a daily basis is just about communicating with residents out here in a positive way,” said Stonebraker, a military veteran who grew up in Richmond in the 1980s. Now, he patrols an Iron Triangle that is much less forbidding than the one he knew as a kid. “Relations out here, between different groups of people and the police are a lot better than some people might think,” he said.
Stonebraker and Diaz form a “proactive” community policing team, one of at least three in the Central District, an area that includes the Iron Triangle. They try to build trust with residents, gather intel and generally be a steady presence in the neighborhood.
They spend about half their time in a cruiser and the other half on mountain bikes, which they say gives them a better “feel” for the streets and brings them closer to community members.
“I don’t like to be in that mode of being cooped up in a car all day,” Diaz said.
Both men are part of the wave of young officers hired since Magnus took the reins. They work under Lt. Mark Gagan, the central district commander.
The concept was first tried in 2009, and department leaders seem pleased with the results. Freed up from the constant grind of responding to distress calls, Stonebraker and Diaz can build relations, gather intelligence, and even spend time at the Richmond Police Activities League center hanging out with local youth.
“We shoot baskets with them, get on the computers,” Stonebraker said.
“All the kids know us,” Diaz added.
But for all the community-building, officers still have to deal with violent situations, like the scuffle and drug bust on 25th Street, which occurred in February.
“It’s a fine line,” Stonebraker said. “And I think we’re pretty good at walking it. We are nice and respectful most of the time, but there are going to be situations where you can’t show any hesitation or weakness.”