To stem killings, GOP lawmaker wants to boost violence intervention programs in Virginia

By: - August 12, 2019 11:38 pm

A police car in Richmond, Va. Police currently provide the vast majority of transports to psychiatric hospitals across Virginia. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Taking cues from other states and cities that have implemented them, Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, wants Virginia to establish more programs that encourage people to leave violent lifestyles in order to curb shooting deaths.

Weeks after the General Assembly abruptly adjourned a special session called to address gun violence after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, Gilbert, the House majority leader, filed legislation to create new group-violence reduction or intervention initiatives.

Gilbert’s bill would create a new state board, a new division in the state Department of Criminal Justice Service and a pair of grant funds called Project Exit and Project Ceasefire. The bill will be evaluated by the State Crime Commission, along with the other legislation filed for the special session.

The General Assembly plans to reconvene Nov. 18 – after legislative elections – to consider bills, which ranged from universal background checks, allowing localities to decide how to regulate guns in governmental buildings and new mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes.

Project Ceasefire is based off a program implemented in the 1990s in Boston to reduce youth gang violence. The city provided resources to people trying to transition out of a gang while warning people who were committing violence in the city that if they didn’t stop, they’d be punished as harshly as possible.

After the second year of implementation in Boston, youth homicide numbers fell by more than 60 percent, according to the National Institute of Justice.

“In Boston, violent gangs were put on notice: until the shootings stop, there will be a heavy police presence in your neighborhood. Law enforcement targets the worst offenders, and sends a clear message: Until the shooting stops, ‘business as usual’ is over,” said Gilbert, a former prosecutor, in a statement.

Gilbert’s proposal would allow money from a new fund to be disbursed to localities, social services providers, law enforcement agencies, commonwealth’s attorneys offices and nonprofits to implement programs “substantially similar to Operation Ceasefire as implemented in Boston,” the legislation reads.

The other part of Gilbert’s proposal is Project Exit, an effort to allocate money to nonprofits, social services agencies and localities to assist former gang members or people transitioning out of a gang. With the state money, those groups could offer people mentoring services, job training, GED classes or other education, housing assistance and gang-related tattoo removal.

“There’s something here for everybody across the political spectrum, I would hope,” Gilbert said in an interview. “I would hope when a program shows how well it is able to work in improving the lives of people especially in communities of color … that everybody would be willing to come to the table.”

Violence reduction programs, especially those targeted to urban areas, are among the recommendations the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence made to reduce the number of gun deaths in Virginia. The liberal organization was created in the early 1990s under a different name and merged with an organization formed by former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords after she seriously wounded in a 2011 mass shooting.

In Virginia, the Giffords center wrote, gun violence has a disproportionate impact on communities of color.

Richmond topped the list for the most gun-related murders last year, with 49. Norfolk was second, with 26 and Newport News was third, with 20, according to State Police crime data.

The data also shows Newport News had the most firearm violations last year (1,407). The count includes murders and general weapons law violations. Richmond had the second-most firearm violations (1,396), then Norfolk (859).

House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gilbert said he expects his proposed programs would be targeted to the state’s metro areas that show the “most serious and immediate need.”

Gov. Ralph Northam called the special session for gun violence within days of a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that killed 12 and injured four others. But he made clear he expected the General Assembly to do something to deal with day-to-day gun violence.

Less than a week before the Virginia Beach shooting, one person was killed and nine were injured at a house party in Chesapeake. The same week, 9-year-old Markiya Dickson was shot and killed during a Memorial Day weekend party at a Richmond park.

“Every life lost is a tragedy, but this most recent wave of violence has fallen disproportionately on communities of color, and the economically disadvantaged,” Gilbert said in a statement. “Children should be able to play in the park without fear. Real-world results show that these programs work. They save lives, and stop shootings before they happen.”

Virginia already has a number of small-scale violence reduction programs often funded by federal grants, said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation. 

The money can flow through a number of agencies and offices, like the Department of Education to implement programs for children or state behavioral health offices, Schrad said. And the money is used in a number of different ways, depending on what part of the state it goes to.

“We have such a variety across the state because it depends a lot on the kind of crime happening in different areas,” she said. “Every area is specific and complex, whether it’s gang-related or some kind of organized criminal activity.”

One of the more well-known violence reduction programs implemented in Virginia was Project Exile, Schrad said. It launched in Richmond and later Norfolk in the 1990s. 

Project Exile educated communities about the consequences of using illegal weapons and required people in violation of those laws to be punished with a mandatory five-year prison sentence. In Richmond, homicides decreased by 50 percent (though some attribute that to a nationwide trend of falling violent crime at the time). 

Unlike Project Exile, Gilbert’s idea includes a social services component, which is key to the effectiveness of violence reduction, said Mike McLively, spokesman for the Giffords Law Center.

“It’s most effective when it’s not just police going in and saying, ‘We’re aware that you’re a risk and if the violence continues there’s going to be a consequence,’” he said. “It’s that combined with a very robust social services component.”

“It’s not just a talking-to from police, it’s engagement from the community.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.