A man died Monday after being shot on Sunday night in northwest Roanoke, according to the Roanoke Police Department. He was the 17th person to die as a result of a shooting in the city of Roanoke this year.
Violent crime rose in Roanoke during the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2020, the city of Roanoke witnessed a greater than 80% increase in people wounded by gunfire compared to 2019, according to data provided by the RPD. Comparing 2020 to 2018 results in less grim numbers, but, even then, the city saw a greater than 17% increase in people wounded by gunfire.
Violent Crimes reported to Roanoke City Police Department 2011-2021
Homicides reported to Roanoke City Police Department 2011-2021
When Roanoke Police Chief Sam Roman gave his annual report to city council about public safety in 2021, the numbers hadn’t receded. He reported a 6% increase in people wounded by gunfire in 2021 compared to the previous year.
“Our number one priority is to reduce violent crime,” Roman emphasized during an October interview. “. . .When violent crime is your priority, every available moment you have mostly is dedicated to reducing that violent crime, working to remove people who continuously perpetuate and involve themselves in violent crime.”
When asked specifically what it looks like to invest every available moment into reducing violent crimes, Caitlyn Cline, public information official for the RPD, said, “There’s no, ‘Here’s step 1-2-3-4-5 and we’ve solved violent crime.’”
“It’s community outreach,” she said. “It’s us partnering with people in the community. It’s sending our officers to the best training so that we can solve these crimes and get those specifically violent offenders behind bars faster. It’s all that collective work. It’s working with prosecutors. It’s partnering with federal law enforcement agencies too. Maybe we can’t get charges in the city, but maybe it can be a federal crime.”
No increase in the national violent crime rate and a rise in the murder rate during the pandemic
Across the country, political candidates released tons of ads this year focused on crime. So many, in fact, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan “fact tank,” posted an article on Halloween pointing out that the annual survey from the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2021, the most recent year with data available, showed no recent increase in the U.S. violent crime rate.
On the other hand, the U.S. murder rate did rise significantly during the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that provisional data shows a 30% increase in the U.S. murder rate between 2019 and 2020 — the biggest one-year increase in over a century.
National rates of violent crime per 100,000 people
National homicide rates per 100,000 people
In August, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a group of police leaders from large cities in the United States and Canada, released a survey showing that homicide and rape totals are down in the group’s U.S. member cities compared to this point last year; however, robbery increased by about 13% and aggravated assault numbers increased by about 3% compared to this point last year.
With scholars still figuring out how exactly the U.S. violent crime rate changed with the pandemic, it’s impossible to get a definitive answer about what’s behind any increases in violent crime. Some experts have theorized any changes are likely related to both the pandemic and protests over police violence.
Critical staffing shortages in Roanoke Police Department
While making the effort to decrease incidents of violent crime, the RPD, like forces all over the country, has struggled with a shortage of officers since 2020.
From January 2020 to October of this year, 108 officers have left the RPD, according to data provided by the city manager’s office. “We are dramatically down in personnel,” Roman said.
In 2019, the department had 249 officers and nine vacancies. As of October of this year, the department had 202 sworn officers and 43 vacancies.
Experts attribute the staffing shortages in police departments nationally to a number of factors. For one, police officers were not immune to the same issues that prompted the Great Resignation among civilians in 2021, such as wanting a better salary, struggling to find childcare and seeking work-life balance.
On top of that, police officers also heard the massive calls from the public for police accountability in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020.
“I know some of our officers here in Roanoke felt as though that for years we have been as transparent as possible,” Roman said. “We have been trying to work with our community . . . and I know some officers felt that because, for lack of better words, some idiot across the country did something really, really stupid, we were held accountable for that stupid action.”
Or as Mayor Sherman Lea put it: “I think we missed it when we started talking about defunding the police,” he said.
Officers issuing fewer summonses
In 2020, a year when the RPD had 31 vacancies, Roman dissolved the traffic unit division, “to get back to our fundamental priority of answering the 911 calls.”
“We don’t want people in our traffic division, when we have citizens waiting 20 or 30 minutes to get a police response,” Roman said.
When the pandemic first arrived, the RPD — like departments all over the country — relaxed traffic enforcement in order to limit virus exposure. Fewer cars also took to the highway.
The number of traffic cases heard in Roanoke City’s General District Court in 2020 decreased by about 41% from 2019, according to an analysis using data from Virginia’s Court System. In 2021, city judges heard about 59% fewer traffic cases than in 2019.
In comparison, Roanoke County’s General District Court heard about 6% fewer traffic cases in 2020 than in 2019. In 2021, however, judges at Roanoke County’s General District Court heard more traffic cases than in 2019.
As far as the RPD’s chief is concerned, however, it’s unfair to set traffic enforcement in the city side by side with the county.
“The amount of calls for service that we have here in Roanoke far exceeds the call for service in Roanoke County,” he said. “So it’s like comparing apples to oranges, even though you’re comparing the same commodity — traffic tickets.”
The General District Court for the city of Roanoke seems unlikely to get back to pre-pandemic numbers of traffic cases any time soon. From January to September of this year, the city of Roanoke’s General District Court heard 7,394 traffic cases — about 50% fewer cases than heard during the same time frame in 2019.
In addition to the department’s laser focus on reducing violent crime and coping with staff vacancies, Roman points to a law passed by Virginia’s General Assembly in late 2020 as a reason behind the city’s decline in traffic summonses. The law bans police from pulling over drivers for minor traffic infractions like having an object dangling from a rearview mirror, or driving a car with tinted windows or a broken tail light. The law also prohibits police from searching a car because they smell marijuana.
Lawmakers wrote the bill to reduce racial profiling. Police say it ties their hands.
“It’s not holistically responsible for the reduction in traffic summonses, but it certainly plays a part,” Roman said.
Since Roman came aboard as chief of the RPD in early 2020, he’s worked in particular to build relationships between the police and residents of Northwest Roanoke, a quadrant of the city that, Roman said, “has been disproportionately exposed to violent crime.”
“You’re trying to establish a rapport and create a culture in which people are comfortable talking with police,” Roman said, “When someone forgets to signal when they pull away from the curb from a parking spot, does our officer stop and give them a ticket for that? I don’t think that’s rapport building. But at the same time, if someone is speeding through a school zone, I think that person deserves a ticket. Officers do have discretion.”
When schools started in August, the RPD partnered with the Virginia State Police for traffic enforcement in school zones. All together, officers issued 303 summonses for speeding and other violations.
“Just because we have focused on violent crime doesn’t mean that everything else that we’re responsible for doing goes by the wayside,” Roman said. “We’re just more strategic in how and when we do those things.”
Increased traffic fatalities, same number of crashes
The number of crashes in Roanoke City has stayed relatively level since 2019, according to data from the Commonwealth of Virginia Traffic Crash Facts, provided by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the Virginia Department of State Police and the Virginia Department of Transportation.
However, the city did see an increase in traffic fatalities. Only five people died in traffic cases in 2019, but 13 died in 2020 and 10 died in 2021, according to Virginia Traffic Crash Facts.
However, increasing traffic deaths is not just a Roanoke City problem, stressed city manager Bob Cowell.
“Nationally, there’s been this increase of crashes even as vehicle miles traveled has kind of stabilized,” he said. “They’re all related to speeding, not wearing seatbelts and alcohol, and they all tend to have that same commonality, whether it’s in Roanoke County, City of Roanoke, the state of Virginia or across the country.”
Virginia had 968 fatalities in 2021, a 17% increase from 2019 traffic fatalities.
In May, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released its estimate of traffic fatalities for 2021, projecting an estimated 42,916 people died in traffic crashes, a 10.5% increase over 2020. The projection is the highest number of fatalities since 2005.
Researchers are still studying what’s behind the increase. In 2021, the NHTSA released findings indicating speeding and drivers not wearing seatbelts had increased since pre-pandemic times.
“Something significant has changed across the state, across the country and, obviously, we’re seeing that here as well,” said Cowell.
High visibility of enforcement (HVE) of traffic and safety laws does make highways safer, according to a synthesis of research examining 80 studies published in May by the NHTSA. HVE improved seat belt use and reduced handheld phone use, according to researchers. Additionally, researchers reported a program known as Ticketing Aggressive Cars and Trucks (TACT), which is designed to reduce fatalities and injuries caused by vehicles cutting off other vehicles, tailgating and speeding around commercial trucks, and aggressive driving.
Addressing critical staffing shortages
Roanoke leaders are working to make public safety a more attractive career.
City council raised the starting pay for individuals entering the Roanoke Police Academy from $38,639 in 2020 to $42,500. Once they graduate and complete required field training, officers make $43,775, according to Cowell.
Members of council also approved a comprehensive compensation increase package for all public safety personnel, resulting in a total increase in compensation for police officers of more than $4 million since Fiscal Year 2022, he said. Additionally, council members approved four bonuses for current officers between September 2020 and June 2022, which totaled more than $1.5 million.
In December 2021, council members unanimously elected to pay $5,000 sign-on bonuses to 25 recruits joining the police department. Additionally, certified law enforcement officers coming from other areas receive a $7,000 sign-on bonus.
“If you looked at our budget, you would think our number one priority is public safety,” said Lea.
Money alone won’t fix the city’s police staffing shortage when localities all over the nation are also desperate to fill officer vacancies, Cowell said. But, “certainly it has been valuable in us trying to kind of right this ship and turn it around.”
In late 2020 or early 2021, Roman said, the RPD went from holding one or two police academies a year to holding an academy every three months. “I’m happy to say that, fortunately, we are getting people again interested in the profession,” he said.
“We’ve been able to put [school resource officers] back in every one of our middle and high schools,” Roman added. “Hopefully, pretty soon, we’ll be able to restore our community resource officers. Hopefully, pretty soon, we will be able to restore, at least in part, our traffic unit.”
In mid-October, Lea and Roman stood with other officials as Gov. Glenn Youngkin announced Operation Bold Blue Line, a plan to reduce violent crime with a series of specific measures that include a $30 million campaign to recruit officers, providing resources to victims and witnesses as well as funding community partnerships designed to stop violent crime.
While Lea is a Democrat, he didn’t hesitate to stand beside the governor as he unveiled the initiative.
“To me, it’s not about the politics of it,” Lea said. “It’s about making people safe and sometimes you have to meet with people, put ideology out of the way and go forward.”