Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Before the state’s top elected officials called on lawmakers to address what they called Virginia’s gun violence emergency over the summer, Attorney General Mark Herring decided not to reapply for a federal grant to pay for a long-running violence reduction program in the state.

Instead, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police is overseeing the roughly $665,000 grant which will continue to be used to support community outreach efforts to reduce violence. Herring’s office is overseeing a separate $1 million violence reduction grant.

Political opponents, including the National Rifle Association, have accused the attorney general of playing politics with funding. They say a new clause in the grant acceptance paperwork for Project Safe Neighborhoods grants that would require Herring to say the state will cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has caused the Democrat to distance the state from that grant.

Attorney General’s Office spokesman Michael Kelly said it’s “flimsy” to tie the office’s decision to the ICE requirement. The decision to forego the grant that is now the VACP’s responsibility was “mostly logistical,” he said.

However, in the federal paperwork transferring the grant from the purview of the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services to the VACP, it’s noted the department wouldn’t be able to take the money specifically because the agency wouldn’t be able to comply with the clause requiring ICE cooperation.

“The attorney general and governor and everybody seems to say day in and day out that we’re having a gun violence emergency in Virginia, and if we are having an emergency, then by golly, we should do everything we can to address it,” said Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, House majority leader.

“My primary concern here is that we’re not bringing every possible resource to bear on this problem,” Gilbert wrote in an email to the Attorney General’s office in July.

“From what I’ve learned of the program’s history and its success in Virginia, it seems to me that even the chance of obtaining more resources — which if I understand correctly, could be used to add relevant staff — is worth taking, especially given the surge in violence in Richmond in recent months.”

In a document that officially transfers the grant money to the Association of Chiefs of Police, officials note “the proposed award to the Virginia Association of the Chiefs of Police will not change the scope or purpose of the project, increase the dollar amount needed to carry out the terms of the existing grant or the amount of time needed for its performance.”

Various state agencies and the VACP have received Project Safe Neighborhood grants several times since at least 2010, according to a federal database of grant recipients.

In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office received $500,000 for a violent gang and gun crime reduction program.

In 2010, the Department of Criminal Justice Services received $167,317 and the VACP received $94,051. The next year, DCJS got $128,672 and the VACP got $79,769.

Funding for gala appearances, meetings and data

Project Safe Neighborhoods is a federal gun violence reduction program inspired in part by the 1990s-era Project Exile, which started in Richmond and was later introduced in Norfolk. President Donald Trump’s administration added the ICE clause to the paperwork for Project Safe Neighborhoods in 2017.

Gilbert accused Herring of having “squandered many opportunities to use the Safe Neighborhoods grant to make our communities safer places.”

Virginia received about $660,000 in 2018 through Project Safe Neighborhoods

In Virginia, the current Safe Neighborhoods grant expires in 2020 and is focused on the Richmond area. Past grants have been used in Newport News, Norfolk and parts of Northern Virginia.

By September 2020, the state wants to reduce the crime rate of 16 to 25 year-olds by 25%; decrease family incarceration rates by 10%; and decrease overall crime in the project area by 10%, according to paperwork submitted to the federal government explaining how the grant was used from July-December 2018.

The Attorney General’s Office said it was working toward those goals by revamping a Respect Richmond website; attending a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority gala that had “a showcase of public housing residents in PSN focus areas who are active participants in the community, working to make a difference”; participating in a Richmond Homicide Memorial, “which aims to celebrate the lives of those lost to violence and promote community healing”; and scheduling various meetings and appearances with Richmond schools and police.

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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.