In 2016, 336 violent crimes were reported in Danville.
That year saw 17 homicides, 76 robberies, 211 aggravated assaults.
The city of 40,000 had the highest homicide rate per capita in the state that year. Property crimes, too, had reached a concerning level: 1,537 cases in that year alone.
But since then, the city has seen a drastic reduction in crime across the board.
A primary reason, according to local leaders: heightened collaboration among the city, the community and the police.
A new policing model has been implemented. Programming has been created for at-risk youth. The city has partnered with other localities and organizations to benefit from their expertise.
“Collaboration is the new currency,” said Robert David, the city’s youth and gang violence prevention coordinator.
“A lot of the success has to do with agencies working together. City council, law enforcement, community collaboration. And if you don’t work with the individuals living in the communities, you have no influence.”
A new policing model, and an apology
By 2018, crime in Danville hadn’t improved much. But that was part of the reason Scott Booth was attracted to the city. He wanted to work somewhere that provided a challenge, he said.
Booth became police chief that year, after a brief stint with the federal government and almost 20 years with the Richmond Police Department before that. Since coming to Danville, he has been working with city government and community members to lower the crime rate.
“[In 2018], Danville and the police department had no community policing model,” Booth said. “There were some things that we really needed to do. One of those was build a robust community policing model, and the other was focus on crime.”
A community policing model is a set of strategies to address conditions that lead to crime through partnership and problem-solving, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Danville has seen a 52% average annual reduction in violent crime since the policing model was implemented, according to data from the police department. From 2021 to 2022 alone, violent crime decreased by 21%.
In 2022, the city saw the lowest number of reported burglaries since data tracking began in 1985, with 76 total. It was the fourth year in a row that a new low had been set.
Homicides also decreased — to seven in 2022, down from 17 in 2016, a number that was “astronomical,” according to David Kennedy, a professor of criminal justice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
“That’s a higher rate than Chicago, which is not unheard of for smaller jurisdictions,” Kennedy said. “They don’t get the attention that Chicago does, but on a per-capita basis, you can find relatively small places that have shockingly high homicide rates.”
Not only has the crime rate itself decreased in Danville, but the case clearance rate has increased. Cleared crimes are those that have been solved, or “cleared,” by arrests.
Of the 260 burglaries in 2016, only 38 were cleared. In 2022, 56 out of 76 burglaries were cleared.
In fact, the Danville police department has exceeded the FBI’s national clearance averages since the policing model’s implementation in 2019.
About 71% of homicides in Danville were cleared between 2019 and 2022, which is 17 percentage points higher than the FBI’s national clearance rate of about 54%.
This drastic reduction in crime wasn’t achieved by simply increasing police activity, Booth said.
“I truly believe that you can’t arrest a problem away when it comes to crime,” Booth said. “I don’t believe in over-policing neighborhoods. I don’t believe in just throwing officers out into entire neighborhoods and stopping everything that moves.”
Booth called that an “old way” of policing, saying that he believes in being more strategic.
The police department began to home in on violent offenders, Booth said, adding that a small percentage of people usually commit the majority of violent acts in any given community.
So the department focused on chronic violent offenders who had already been identified, as well as places in the city that were producing the highest numbers of criminal instances.
To do this, the Danville Police Department partnered with the U.S. attorney’s office in Charlottesville in 2018 to begin implementing a program called Project Safe Neighborhoods.
The goal was to identify violent offenders using data to create a comprehensive database of the most criminally active and violent people in Danville, said Maj. David Whitley, the department’s assistant chief of services.
The data came from criminal investigations, charges, street gang participation, violent crime convictions and other legally sourced information, he said.
“Each element was used in an objective scoring system to identify the most violent and active individuals committing crimes of violence,” Whitley said.
Once these people and places were identified, the police department and city government could address “systemic and societal challenges” that lead to crime in these areas, like “poverty, lack of resources, and family structure or lack thereof,” Whitley said.
At the same time, the department made an increased effort to build rapport and trust with the community, said Matt Bell, the police department’s public relations specialist.
Rebuilding the relationship was critical, Booth said.
Many residents harbored resentment for and distrust of the police, feelings that sometimes went back decades, to Bloody Monday, a series of attacks and arrests by Danville police in June 1963, during a civil rights protest.
Police attacked nonviolent protesters with clubs and fire hoses, injuring 47 and arresting 60, according to a historic marker outside the Danville courthouse.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the U.S. Department of Justice and national media outlets condemned the actions of the police and court system in Danville.
“That was a community trauma,” Booth said. “I’ve worked in larger cities, and I never could remember one incident really having a hold on a city like Bloody Monday did in Danville.”
While researching the event, Booth said he found that it was “a real deterrent” to rebuilding a relationship between the community and the police department. It was the reason many residents thought crime would never improve, he said.
This is textbook, said Kennedy.
“Homicide and gun violence are an American problem, and almost the overwhelming preponderance of that violence is felt by and occurs in historically damaged communities of color,” he said.
And a good relationship between a community and its police department is absolutely critical in remedying this, Kennedy said.
If the relationship is solid, then “when people are contemplating violence, they should understand that their own community rejects it, that they don’t want it to happen,” he said. “Then it’s not just the police saying it shouldn’t happen, but the community itself saying it shouldn’t happen. That’s way more powerful.”
And if there is a crime, the good relationship between the community and law enforcement can address that.
“There’s a community expectation that there will be accountability if violence occurs,” Kennedy said.
A step toward this good relationship is acknowledgement of any historical division, he said; other police outreach efforts will seem superficial without it.
“If you have historical division between the community and the police that goes back to police violence against community members in the civil rights struggle, and everybody knows it, and nobody’s ever acknowledged it or done anything about it, then sending police officers to talk to kids in schools or having community meetings or having barbecues or having basketball leagues or something like that, not only is that a shallow perspective, it’s insulting,” Kennedy said.
“Because it is the authority saying to the community, ‘We’re going to pretend that this never happened and we expect you to like us and work with us anyway.’”
In 2019, the Danville Police Department offered a public apology for police actions during the summer of 1963.
“I think for the community, it did speak that we’re willing to take steps in the right direction,” Booth said.
City programming for at-risk youth
Another effort to decrease crime was increased collaboration between the police department and the city government.
Local officials and law enforcement had a common goal of reducing crime, so working together was in everyone’s best interest, said David, the city’s youth and gang violence prevention coordinator.
David has been doing this kind of work for the better part of four decades, he said, starting when he volunteered at an alternative school in California. In 2017, when Danville was in the throes of high crime, the city created his position.
He runs a program called Project Imagine, which is targeted toward at-risk and gang-affiliated youth.
When the program first started in 2018, it involved a nine-week work readiness program to provide paid work experience and mentoring. Now, it’s more focused on life skills and support.
It takes a holistic approach, he said, and helps not only the youth but their families.
There’s a big focus on increasing stability in the lives of the young people they work with, David said, because lack of stability is often the impetus for an individual’s involvement with crime.
“If you’re 16 years old and you have a child, and that child is hungry, and you live with a parent and don’t have your basic needs, it’s hard to go to school,” he said. “But if we can create a level of stability in a youth’s life, they can move forward. That seemingly has nothing to do with gang violence or crime, but it does.”
Project Imagine works with local organizations and businesses to create job opportunities. But it also can help with problems at home, like getting a new refrigerator or fixing a broken air conditioner.
“We work with every aspect of the family, the girlfriends, the baby mamas, everybody,” David said.
Since it began, Project Imagine has graduated about 100 people.
An outreach worker continues to mentor each graduate for at least a year. And again, collaboration and partnership with the police department plays a role.
Sometimes instead of charging a young person, David said, police will refer them to Project Imagine.
He got emotional talking about the graduation ceremony at the end of each Project Imagine course.
“I cry almost every graduation, no lie,” he said. “I get teary-eyed because, like I tell them, you really didn’t have to be here. And I thank them for their time, I thank their parents for allowing them to be there. We applaud them for making that decision to change their lives.”
David said the work amplifies local voices that otherwise might go unnoticed.
“There was a population of people whose voices weren’t being heard,” he said. “All I did was turn on the mic.”
Project Imagine didn’t get formal funding until 2020. Before that, David said he tapped into community resources. There was some existing money in the city for youth jobs, he said, and he also built relationships with local business owners.
In 2020, Project Imagine got a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and David used it to hire outreach workers.
The police department, too, has created programming to engage youth and community members. One event series in particular, called Pass the Perspective, invites kids to get an inside look at police work.
The new police department building, which opened last year, is a good place to hold events and community meetings, Booth said. Outreach has played an important role in bolstering trust in the police department.
“We started engaging the community with community walks, we built programs like our youth police academy and Pass the Perspective,” Booth said. “Anything that we can do to open our doors and let the community in.”
The police department also began to put community members on its interview panels for police hires and promotions, as well as on a review board for use-of-force cases, Booth said.
Targeting gangs by empowering communities
Between 2016 and 2018, the majority of Danville’s 484 aggravated assaults and 41 homicides had direct ties to street gangs, Whitley said.
“In almost every community, gang participation is an issue due to systemic and societal challenges such as poverty, lack of resources and family structure, or lack thereof,” he said. “Danville has these challenges.”
Around 2017, Danville began implementing a comprehensive gang model, a program with some of the same strategies and goals as Project Safe Neighborhoods.
Once criminally active individuals and places are identified through Project Safe Neighborhoods methods, a community can use its comprehensive gang model to reduce or prevent youth gang violence.
It takes a multifaceted approach to address these issues, Whitley said.
“Criminal street gang activity still exists, but we have become much better at addressing the issues before violence occurs and stemming further violence after an incident has occurred,” he said.
The model that Danville employed was developed by social researcher Irving Spergel and tested by the DOJ’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which now houses the National Gang Center.
The model has several components, said Sean Baldwin, a senior research associate at the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, which contracts with the National Gang Center.
It focuses on empowering communities that are plagued by violence and providing opportunities for their youth. It seeks to move youth away from gang violence — and to provide close supervision of at-risk kids.
And it requires organizational change, he said.
“We’ve found, with this model being developed over decades, that a lot of times it’s not enough to have a great program,” he said. “You’ve got to have a program that’s accessible and that is delivered with equity so that the people that need it most can get it.”
Collaboration and a sustained effort
In 2020 and 2021, 100% of homicides were cleared by the Danville Police Department. And between 2018 and 2022, seven previous cold cases were solved.
Between 2016 and 2018, before Danville implemented its new policing model, the city saw 41 homicides, with an average of about 13 per year. From 2019 to 2022, after the model was launched, there were 20 homicides, or an average of about six per year.
Baldwin has worked with both Booth and David in Danville’s implementation of the comprehensive gang model, and he said he thinks the city “has got a good hold on the problem.”
Danville has taken a long-term approach to many initiatives, specifically economic development and revitalization. And a long-term strategy is a game-changer when it comes to crime, too, Baldwin said.
“These types of strategies fail when they’re not sustained over time,” he said. “A community might have some early success until other priorities come up.”
Plus, many of the problems that Danville has been working to solve are intertwined. When there’s success in one area, it can help bring about success in another.
Education and poverty influence a city’s crime rate, for example, Baldwin said.
“Some of the risk factors for youth joining gangs include poverty, kids growing up in neighborhoods that have high rates of violence, and academic performance. Even how a child is doing in school can affect that,” he said. “So, anything that a community can do to improve economic and educational conditions for their residents … can reduce or eliminate those risk factors.”
Baldwin said he’s been to Danville several times, and he was a police chief in a community that had similar economic hardships.
“It is impressive, the sort of holistic approach that Danville seems to be taking to address not only the violence, but those things that may be leading, either directly or indirectly, to the risk factors,” he said.
One overarching thing that Danville has done well is focus on collaboration, Baldwin said. The communities that see the most success with crime reduction are those that focus on partnerships, he said.
“Regardless of how perfect or imperfect a model may be in implementation, we find that the most success comes from those partnerships,” he said. “It would be difficult for me to point out another community where the relationship between the police chief and the director of intervention and prevention is so strong.”
In 2020, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the deaths of other Black Americans at police hands, Booth and David collaborated to write a book expressing their two distinct perspectives with a central message.
“Bigger than Black and Blue: Candid conversations about race, equity, and community collaboration” was released in December 2020 and can be found on Amazon.
Both Booth and David have been recognized for their efforts to reduce crime.
In February, David was named among the Top 100 Influencers in Local Government by a nonprofit called Engaging Local Government Leaders. And in April 2022, Booth received the Excellence in Virginia Award for Innovation in Government from Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs.
But both say there’s still work to be done to further decrease crime.
“Everything that we’ve done, we’re going to keep doing,” Booth said. “We don’t let up on anything.”
The change since 2018 is something that Booth said he’s very proud of. And Baldwin said that Danville can be a model to other communities that are also looking to lower crime.
“This really is an incredible story of success for Danville,” Baldwin said.