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Richmond police have arrested dozens based on list of potential ‘shooters’

The exterior of the Richmond Police Department headquarters.
Maj. Ronnie Armstead said the Richmond Police Department has compiled a list of about 100 people suspected of being “shooters.” Individuals don’t need to have a criminal record in order to be included in the list, he said. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Representatives of the Richmond Police Department said last week that they’ve been compiling a list of people suspected of being “shooters.” Those on the list primarily reside in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods, according to department representatives, who said RPD created the list in an attempt to combat gun violence in the city. 

Approximately 100 individuals are on the list, according to Maj. Major Ronnie Armstead. Armstead led the department’s efforts in compiling the list, which includes individuals who don’t have a criminal record. In addition to focusing on people who have shot others previously, RPD also added victims of gun violence and people who “will shoot other people” to the list. 

“They came up with a list of individuals that are known to be shooters. Your violent people that are known to be shooters, even if they didn't have a record, but they're known to be a shooter,” said Armstead, who presented information about the project to the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners on Wednesday.

According to Armstead, police decide whether a person “will shoot other people” by investigating their background and connections to confirmed perpetrators of gun violence. 

In a follow-up interview Monday, Armstead told VPM News that “the knowledge we have of them, like people talking to us in the community, the involvements they have,” will help RPD make the determination.

According to the ACLU, racial profiling refers to “the discriminatory practice by law enforcement officials of targeting individuals for suspicion of crime based on the individual's race, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” Data USA, a platform that collects and analyzes government data, reported that Black people make up 60% of people living in poverty in Richmond. 

“We're going after those trigger pullers throughout the city, and especially in the Big Six,” Armstead said last week.

Richmond’s largest public housing neighborhoods are often referred to as “the Big Six” by both public housing advocates and law enforcement. They are Creighton, Fairfield, Gilpin, Hillside, Mosby and Whitcomb courts.

VPM News reached out to multiple current and former residents of Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods for comment on this story, but none said they felt safe discussing the situation on the record.

Operation Red Ball

Officers have been engaged in the initiative to create a list of individuals to observe, called Operation Red Ball, since November, according to Armstead. He said Monday that the department succeeded in its mission by arresting at least 45 residents of public housing across the city, who were among those arrested on suspicion of 188 felony and 138 misdemeanor charges in connection to the operation. 

Maj. Richard Edwards, area one commander for Richmond police, said at the Wednesday meeting that the project used data collected by the department between 2017 and 2020 to map areas where crimes involving firearms are concentrated in the city. That data included homicides, aggravated assaults and robberies involving a firearm. 

The area around Mosby Court was the most impacted by these gun-related crimes, according to Edwards. Now, Mosby is the primary target of Operation Red Ball, he said. 

“These … neighborhoods’ landmass make up 2% of the city's land, yet accounted for 26% of these violent crimes,” Edwards said. 

Operation Red Ball also has been monitoring public housing residents on recently installed security cameras and tracking some residents’ social media posts, according to Armstead. 

“One thing about these individuals is they love their guns, they love to post [online],” Armstead said. “We look at things like that as part of an investigative tool to track these individuals and apprehend them.” 

So far, the officers working on Red Ball have identified a total of 40 people as potential “shooters” in Mosby Court and arrested at least 22 individuals on the suspicion of various felonies and misdemeanors, Armstead said at the RRHA meeting. He also said another 30 individuals in Creighton and Hillside courts, which also were flagged as hotspots for gun-related crimes, are being focused upon in the operation. At least 23 of those people have already been charged, Armstead said.

About 30 additional people have been included on the list. Law enforcement officials didn’t specify the areas where they lived, but indicated that some of the individuals reside in other Richmond public housing neighborhoods.

Advocates recommend alternatives 

Omari Al-Qadaffi is a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to and advocates for low-income Virginians. He said these concentrations of crime are due to RRHA neglect. Next month, the housing authority is holding a ceremony to celebrate the completion of phase one in its project to redevelop Creighton Court, which will ultimately include the demolition of 503 public housing units and replace them with a mixed-income neighborhood. In the meantime, those apartments are empty. 

“I would expect that there would be more crime in a development that has half the units vacant,” Al-Qadaffi said. “I was getting a lot of reports about residents feeling that the vacant units around them did increase crime in the community.” 

Edwards said at the meeting last week that as Creighton is being dismantled, it remains the second largest hotspot for crimes involving firearms in the city. 

Al-Qadaffi said instead of targeting and arresting people suspected of gun violence or suspected of potentially committing a crime with a gun in the future, the city should implement gun violence intervention programs, connecting public housing residents with resources.

One of these programs, called Operation Ceasefire, has been instituted in Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and most recently in California. According to the Department of Justice, most of these cities successfully reduced rates of gun violence by between about 25% and 60% after implementing the program. 

Operation Ceasefire also tracks instances of local gun violence to compile a list of people most likely to perpetrate it. Then, community partners intervene by holding forums with these individuals and offering support, including intensive services and employment training. 

“I would just hope that they're following the lead of other violence intervention programs … versus just sending them to law enforcement,” Al-Qadaffi said about Richmond police’s work in the Big Six. 

Has safety improved? 

RRHA Director of Public Safety Marty Harrison told the board on Wednesday they need to avoid the perception that these neighborhoods are over policed. 

“We know that sometimes a police presence, if it's over-policing, makes people feel that they're confined,” Harrison said. 

Barrett Hardiman, chairperson of the RRHA board of commissioners, agreed with Harrison at the Wednesday meeting that children living in housing authority’s properties don’t feel safe. He said increasing the presence of police is the answer. 

“The children … aren't able to come out and play freely, like they should be able to do in communities,” Hardiman said. “Kids in these challenging communities don't get to have the same level of freedom.” 

Edwards and Armstead told the board that Red Ball has yielded positive results, including a 52% decrease compared to last year in violent crimes at four of the city’s public housing neighborhoods. However, those gains have not so far led to a decrease in the total number of people shot in the city, according to Edwards. 

“When we look at our total individual[s] shot, we are up one shooting,” Edwards said at the meeting. “Last year at this time, we had 12 murders. During that same time period this year, we've had five [murders].”

Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith endorsed Operation Red Ball during a press conference Monday. 

“They are going after those who are pulling triggers — and they're doing a phenomenal, phenomenal job,” Smith said.