RICHMOND, Va. -- Major public safety staffing woes in Richmond continue to cause breakdowns in how police respond to emergencies.
Southside resident Christopher May felt the impact over the weekend when he called on the police to respond to a dangerous situation in his Oak Grove neighborhood. However, he said the police response time was unacceptable.
“I just need to know, is this a common standard or is this a series of failures?" May asked Richmond's City Council's Public Safety Committee on Tuesday. “I hear more gunshots and see less police in my neighborhood than anywhere else in the city.”
In the early hours of Sunday morning, May said he woke up around 1:30 a.m. to the sound of loud music, honking cars, and unruly crowds on Edwards Street.
About ten minutes later, he said he called 911 to report the out-of-control party, noting that the party house has a history of gun violence. May said someone was shot and killed in front of the house earlier this year.
Officers did not respond to his call.
Then about an hour later, around 2:40 a.m., May said someone opened fire in the neighborhood. He shared photos showing bullet holes that went through a home and a vehicle.
When gunshots rang out, May said he immediately called 911 again. He said it took fifteen minutes for a sergeant to then respond.
“It makes no sense where a home that had someone shot in front it from a street that has a series of problems to take an hour to get someone out there, and only because someone shot a gun. This could’ve been prevented. All of this could have been prevented. I’m sorry, I’m frustrated," May said.
Richmond's Department of Emergency Communications investigated the slow response and found protocols were properly followed on its end. A DEC spokesperson said the delay was due to Richmond Police having no available units at the time of May's calls.
A Richmond Police spokesperson said DEC categorized May's initial call as a "loud party complaint" and not an emergency.
Interim Richmond Police Chief Rick Edwards was in attendance at Tuesday's meeting and addressed May's concerns directly.
He said the problem boiled down to being "very short on officers" which is forcing the department to change how it prioritizes calls.
“We are just struggling with staffing, and I hate to hear that it took gunfire to bring an officer," Edwards said. "The priority on calls for a party, that would normally maybe three years ago have had an officer there in ten minutes, now gets put on the back burner until it becomes a more public safety risk with violence.”
Currently, the department is down more than 150 officers out of 755 total positions.
Edwards said he's looking at data to figure out how to rearrange limited resources in more efficient ways. He's also developing plans on how to bring back officers who previously left RPD or retired.
“We don’t get to go to work every day with the police department I wish we had. I have to go there with the police department I currently have," Edwards said.
Edwards said he would also re-evaluate how the city's four police precincts are staffed and how the district lines are drawn based on population and crime rates.
Councilors Reva Trammell and Kristen Nye, who sit on the public safety committee, said they would work together with the police to figure out what went wrong in May's situation.
"Those first calls are so important because even though it might seem like something little, a lot of times it leads to something more significant," Nye said.
May's concerns aren't unique. Last month in a CBS 6 report, multiple city residents complained that slow police responses, a lack of officers patrolling their neighborhoods, and long 911 wait times, problems stemming from staffing dilemmas, were causing them to feel less safe.
CBS 6 reached out to Mayor Levar Stoney's Office Wednesday to ask about his plans to try and improve staffing levels. The following statement was shared:
Public safety remains the utmost priority for Mayor Stoney. He continues to prove this with the $17M investment in FY23 and $5.7M investment in the FY24 budget for public safety officers, which aligns our police department with other agencies regionally and nationally in competitive compensation. Additionally, he supports the hard work that Acting Chief Edwards does every day to think outside of the box related to policing and recruitment/retention.
Unfortunately, the staffing shortages in Richmond are also a national problem. Our police department is similar to other departments struggling with retention and recruitment. The face of policing has changed, and the City of Richmond is making the necessary changes to meet today's and tomorrow's challenges. Realistically, no city can replace 100-plus officers overnight.
May said he hopes citizens don't have to "come to expect" similar emergency responses due to what he considered "years of bad leadership" in the city.
Police said they scheduled a conversation with May, which councilmembers will also attend, to figure out how to best serve the Oak Grove neighborhood.
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