DANVILLE, Va. – Gangs shooting at police — that’s how bad things were in Danville, Virginia when violent crime hit all-time highs less than a decade ago.
It’s taken years and a lot of work to turn the city around. The solutions they found could work for other cities battling gun violence.
“I remember waking up to a homicide just about every day. You know, the streets were not safe,” said Tyquan Graves, a Danville police investigator who grew up in the city.
A convenience store owner shot and killed, a shootout at Buffalo Wild Wings, and police officers and delivery drivers shot at.
From 2016-2018, Danville was violent and deadly — with 800 reports of things like homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
“A gang war kind of broke out here. Something the police department and the community had never seen between two different groups and it led to a major investigation, probably one of the largest police departments undertaken,” said Danville Police Captain Steve Richardson, who was a lieutenant with criminal investigations at the time.
“There was a set calling themselves the Danville Police Department killers, DPDK, over on the south side of town, and they were associated with a National Blood set,” Richardson said. “We actually had two incidents of police car shot in 2016. One with an officer in the car and one during a traffic stop was outside. It was things that we hadn’t seen here.”
The city has a population of about 40,000. At one point, Danville had Virginia’s highest homicide rate per capita, and that’s when they needed to call other people like the FBI, and other agencies.
“The United States Attorney’s Office, the Western District, some of their prosecutors and leadership there were here with us almost daily,” Richardson said.
“Young men were losing their lives, were getting shot here on a regular, fairly regular basis. And you also had a community that was gripped by fear, fear of that crime,” Danville Police Chief Scott Booth said.
That’s what Booth walked into in his first day on the job in 2018. Soon after, he did the first community walk at Cardinal Village, something that’s become a staple of the Danville policing model.
“A number of young men had lost their lives over there and there was also an inherent mistrust of the police. Also, from the police officer side, they really felt that the folks that lived there did not like them, that did not want anything to do with the police,” Booth said.
They knocked on doors and had conversations.
Two hours later, “I could tell the officers really felt better. They were like, ‘Hey, not everybody hates us over here’. The community was like, ‘Hey, not all police are bad’. And that was really foundational for us,” Booth said.
They’ve added to what they do in the community. Holding events for kids, like summer camps.
“You see engagement, getting young people engaged to get the parents engaged. You get to come in and engage, then everyone in the community feels like being part of the community,” said Mayor Alonzo Jones, who added positive events like this make a difference. “It’s not all about stop and frisk and arrest people. But it’s building a relationship.”
The police chief also stresses focus and accountability. The city is divided into four parts and they talk about those sections weekly.
“I want it to be very conversational. It’s not adversarial,” Booth said. “We’re going to talk about any unsolved crimes that are out there. We’re going to talk about what we’re doing to solve those crimes. We’re talking about our clearance rates.”
Those rates have skyrocketed:
- Since 2018, there have been 29 homicides in Danville, 26 of which are cleared by arrest.
- Clearance rates on other crimes are higher than all the national averages. Danville’s clearance rate for robbery in 2019-2021 was at least 66%, whereas the national clearance rate is 30%. The city’s aggravated assault clearance rates were more than 71% and the national average is about half.
- Violent crime and burglary have dropped by about 50% over the last three years.
“When we have a homicide, and we have a shooting incident, aggravated assault here, my team mobilizes and they identify retaliatory threats, both people and areas that we can stay focused on to ensure that further incidents don’t happen,” Booth said.
Richardson said now when there is a gang shooting, officers will go door to door, explaining to both sides of the violent act that they know what happened.
“We can’t change what’s been done, but trying to deter the next act and make sure they know that we’re going to have officers out,” said Richardson, who added he hasn’t found a limit to what they can do. “We get better every day. I don’t think there’s a limit to where we can go.”
“This is a model like no other,” said Graves, who believes other cities with gang violence or violent crime could replicate what Danville has done.
“Every community has different challenges and different opportunities. I think the basic template would work. Any type of focus and accountability system that you use in policing will work,” Booth said. “I don’t want to say we have a template, but I think it absolutely works for our community. I think any department that is focused on crime and focused on building relationships, almost equally, because they’re both so important to reducing crime will be successful.”
There are other things they point to that are working to reduce crime too. A program at the Adult Detention Facility called Incarceration Doesn’t Define Us (IDDU) helps people re-enter the community after serving time — getting housing, jobs, and mental health services. They say that’s helped cut down on people getting in trouble again.
“It gives people an opportunity to restart their lives with some help, with the goal of reducing recidivism and that cycle of jail and prison for the members of our community who want to change,” Richardson said.
The police chief said the community feedback stands out.
“They’re not afraid to go outside anymore. That’s important to me when I hear that -- when they’re thankful for the relationship that they have with the police. That’s important to me. When they feel that their community has changed, I’ve heard that a couple of times,” Booth said.
This story is part of a program at WSLS 10, ”Solutionaries.” Solutions offer hope and that’s the belief of Solutionaries, a show from our parent company, Graham Media Group, focusing on those who are taking on some of our biggest challenges. Each episode focuses on effective responses to problems and offers viewers ways they can join the effort for positive change.
We tackle one topic at a time, highlighting problems many of us are dealing with and the solutions that are out there. The solution could be in our backyard, or something else that’s working across the country.