Amid creeping carnage, one Virginia police chief keeps spotlight on black men as crime victims – and suspects

September 5, 2019 12:05 am

Police investigate a shooting in Richmond in 2019. (NBC12)

Chief Larry Boone has taken to begging.

As young black men continue to wield guns to settle differences, rob and murder each other, Norfolk’s top cop has repeatedly criticized, cajoled and complained this past year in community gatherings, press conferences and through social media. 

Boone is urging everyone to approach gun crimes the same way public health officials and lawmakers are now fighting the opioid crisis across America. He wonders why more residents aren’t fired up about the firearms-related violence.

He’s right, sadly. 

You’ve probably heard more about rival, fast-food chicken sandwiches than about the recent loss of human life in violence-plagued communities across the state. Too few people give a damn about the creeping carnage. The killings have become far too commonplace.

Norfolk Police Chief Larry Boone. (City of Norfolk)

“Systems create this,” Boone said at a news conference late last week, suggesting city leaders look at poverty, education and more. His campaign to keep the crisis front and center followed a week in which 10 people were shot and five killed – including a stabbing – in Norfolk, the commonwealth’s second-largest city; it’s behind only Virginia Beach in population. 

Boone is bewildered, and rightly so. Mass shootings are driving plenty of national attention, including the Virginia Beach municipal building killings and the Aug. 31 rampage in Texas. But the persistent gun violence in communities across the nation is a larger scourge and exacts a much heavier toll.

The Norfolk slayings are largely intraracial, as are many crimes in the country. And it affects African-Americans disproportionately. 

I wonder if gun-rights groups would be so resistant to new laws if whites were the victims in such lopsided percentages. That’s a topic for another day. 

Goodness knows, Chief Boone hasn’t been silent. He’s hosted several “Guns Down” rallies around the city. He’s gone on radio. He’s partnered with a local artist and rapper on an anthem urging young men to reject gun violence. The chief has challenged city officials to do more.

He now says he’ll form a committee to attack the problem, and he’ll ask judges, lawyers, school officials, medical professionals and others to be on it. Boone wants state lawmakers to do their part by passing legislation forcing people to notify officials when their guns are lost, stolen or sold – though that’s not the major focus of his initiative.

Statistics reveal why he’s so adamant:

The Virginian-Pilot reports: “Black men are either suspect or victim in 93 percent to 94 percent of shootings in Norfolk, Boone said — and often both. The chief added that those demographics have persisted throughout his 30-year career in the department.”

Blacks, though, make up just 42 percent of the city’s population. The disparity is stunning. Reducing that ratio – and violence in general – would improve the lives of countless numbers of Norfolk residents.

That wide disparity is also true in crime stats statewide. 

Whites comprise 69.5 percent of the population in Virginia and blacks are 20 percent. But among the homicide totals in 2018, blacks comprised 60 percent of the 391 victims.

The same Virginia State Police report noted that blacks accounted for 60.4 percent of suspects in homicide cases last year.

Some perspective is needed about the homicide totals. It’s important to note that we are nowhere near the bloodshed that was all too common in Virginia – and around the country – during the height of the crack epidemic decades ago. Norfolk suffered a record 86 homicides, among all races, in 1991. Richmond’s record was 162 in 1994. 

Currently, there have been 26 homicides in Norfolk, about the same number as this time last year. As of Sept. 3, Richmond had 39 homicides, roughly the same total for the period in 2018. 

Yet so many of these crimes are pointless, fueled by male bravado, drug-dealing and other nonsense. Too many lives are lost because of foolishness.

It’s why Chief Boone keeps speaking out. Will others heed his call?

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]