On the one hand, I guess I’m glad that the usual suspects on the Richmond City Council and mayor’s office aren’t trying to enact any new local gun control ordinances. But as the father of a Richmond, Virginia resident and someone who’s well aware of the city’s struggles to get its violent crime in check, I have to say I’m less than impressed with the council’s latest idea to combat violence; cracking down on convenience stores.
According to council members, there are a number of shops open late at night that have attracted a criminal element like moths to a flame. And statistics do seem to back up the argument that convenience stores are especially inviting for crime.
In fact, data reported from Richmond Police to the FBI showed convenience stores were the fourth most common location for violent crime in Richmond last year with 122 reported incidents. The top three locations for violent crime were streets/sidewalks, homes, and parking lots.
So why are convenience stores prone to crime? According to William Pelfrey, a professor of homeland security and criminal justice at VCU, there are lots of reasons.
“They’re designed to be easy in and easy out,” Pelfrey said. “Convenience stores are open all night. Crime happens at night, not during the daylight, so you want to be running away at night when people can’t see you. Convenience stores hold cash, so they’re great places if you’re looking to commit a crime.”
Additionally, he said the stores are places where people congregate, can buy and drink single beers, and are typically located in areas deemed as food deserts.
“Food deserts are low socioeconomic status neighborhoods with few retail establishments. Convenience stores are the grocery stores for those neighborhoods, so they’re the places where people go,” Pelfrey said.
Despite the inconvenience that would come from restricting convenience stores, the council moved forward with a plan to study changing zoning laws to make it more difficult to open one, and though council members say they plan to grandfather in existing stores that’s a pledge that’s always subject to revision in the future, especially if their new zoning laws don’t actually improve anything. Just like with gun control, the failure of one policy is only an excuse for even bigger restrictions going forward, and the VCU professor of homeland security and criminal justice doesn’t see this having an impact.
“I don’t see how that makes any sense,” Pelfrey said. “There are going to be the same number of perpetrators. If you reduce the number of convenience stores from 280 to 250, that’s a reduction, but there’s still going to be people who will walk an extra block, who will run another couple of blocks to knock off a convenience store because they know it’s a prime victim. Unless you reduce the number of convenience stores by a tremendous margin, it’s not going to make much difference.”
He suggested the council could take more impactful legislative action by requiring stores to change their environmental design to include “double entry doors, really good lighting inside and out, security cameras inside and out, and direct access to the police like a buzzer system that you find at banks that hits an alarm at one button.”
All of those are good ideas, which are in short supply on the city council from what I’ve seen living an hour away. Mayor Levar Stoney has directed hundreds of thousands of dollars towards worthless gun “buybacks” while black pastors have pleaded with him to direct funds towards gun violence intervention programs to no avail. Thankfully, the group Richmonders Involved in Strengthening our Communities has found state and federal funding to help bring programs like Operation Ceasefire to the city.
Dr. Sarah Scarbrough, director of REAL Life, said they were dedicated to an evidence-based model of fighting gun violence that wouldn’t increase incarceration.
“In over 90 cities throughout the country, GVI has significantly decreased not only shootings, but arrests,” she told 8News. “That’s huge, and we don’t want people filling up our jails, we want them alive and well and thriving in our community.”
GVI itself is a framework backed by the U.S. Department of Justice, which its proponents say is backed by strong empirical evidence. A 2010 study of Project Ceasefire in Boston, which used the GVI framework, found that it contributed to a 63% reduction in youth homicide.
But while REAL life has received just over $300,000 to jump start the program from Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for Eastern Virginia, RISC said they’ve been stonewalled by Mayor Levar Stoney, who’s pushing forward with his own gun violence plan.
“We had proposed [GVI] to the mayor back in 2020,” Pastor Hodge said. “Since that time, nearly 200 individuals have been killed and more than a few families have been shaken up.”
I’m a big believer in Operation Ceasefire, which has proven to be greatly effective at reducing shootings and homicides without trying to create new criminal offenses out of a constitutionally-protected right. It also tends to lead to lower arrests and less incarceration while reducing violent crime, which I consider a win-win that should draw support from across the political aisle. Stoney, however, has adamantly opposed the pastors for some reason, and the two sides have been fairly public in their feuding.
“If RISC is really serious about gun violence prevention, they will focus their energies on working with us in the community, not against us, and abandon the misguided and shameful strategy of trying to use gun violence victims as pawns to advance their position by bullying and intimidating public officials when they don’t get what exactly they want,” Stoney write.
Yeah, I’m not a fan. I think Stoney has been a terrible mayor for the city of Richmond, but given the city’s status as one of the state’s Democratic strongholds I’m not sure that whoever ends up replacing him will be any better. After all, the vote in favor of convenience store control was unanimous, even though it’s a ridiculous way to combat crime. The eagerness to cast a wide net of ordinances and regulations over law-abiding citizens instead of seriously addressing the city’s most violent and prolific offenders goes far beyond the man who sits in the mayor’s office. That fundamentally flawed view is the prevailing wisdom in Richmond politics, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. I’m glad that groups like RISC have been able to find a way to work around Stoney’s roadblocks, at least for now. I just hope that will continue to be the case going forward.