HOPEWELL — It was billed as a "crime summit" where citizens' concerns and frustrations over the rising tide of crime would be heard.
Boy, did the organizers get an earful. By the time the two-hour meeting was done, those in attendance made their points known on everything from the upturn in gunshots fired around town to the relatively short time someone who is arrested is back out on the streets.
For several in the audience, one of the major issues is lack of communication between citizens and police whenever crimes are occuring.
"It is scary even to go to the grocery store because we're hearing about the shootings and we're hearing that from the TV stations first, not from y'all," former Hopewell Mayor Jackie Shornak said. "Better communication has got to be given to us.
"We're crying out to y'all. We want answers, we want updates and communications better."
Diane Tubins said she has called police numerous times about a person loitering in front of her apartment complex, but nothing has been done about it other than talking with responding officers.
"We have children," Tubins said. "We feel so invaded and violated, and this person is getting away with it."
Unless citizens see a change in how the police department is addressing the crime increase, Tubins said, "we feel like nothing is being done."
Much of the frustration expressed Wednesday night was aimed at the prosecutorial side of Hopewell law and order. Citizens said they were annoyed that many of the people arrested were back out on the streets within hours.
Police Chief A.J. Starke, who led the forum, said citizens were not alone in their frustration. Since taking the job about a year ago, Starke said it has been pointed out to him by his officers about the volume of so-called repeat offenders coming through the police station.
"If you look over here," Starke said, pointing to the row of area law-enforcement personnel beside him, "they're actually applauding with you because it's very frustrating. It's frustrating when we make an arrest and we do our job, but yet we still deal with the same offenders over and over."
The key, Starke said, is to garner support "from our judges, from our commonwealth's attorneys, from our legislature" to bolster more aggressive prosecution methods.
"You know, 23,000 residents in the city of Hopewell, and we're really here tonight because of a very small number of people that are creating havoc for the commnity," Starke said. "That is unacceptable."
"You know, 23,000 residents in the city of Hopewell, and we're really here tonight because of a very small number of people that are creating havoc for the commnity. That is unacceptable."
Hopewell Police Chief A.J. Starke
Hopewell Commonwealth's Attorney Rick Newman did not attend the summit.
So what are the answers?
Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 125 calls for "shots fired" across Hopewell. More than 30 of those calls have involved some kind of physical injury, including eight murders. There have also been several "drive-by" shootings that account for those calls where targeted houses and vehicles are sprayed with gunfire.
There is definitely a problem with gang activity in Hopewell, Virginia State Police Captain Norman Gray told the crowd. He called it a "phenomenon" with some participants between the ages of 14-16 years old.
"Some of them may be your kids. Or your grandkids," Gray said in a remark that brought down a momentary curtain of silence over the community center's basketball court. "And what have you done to assist in this violent crime?"
Gray urged the crowd to get more involved in the kids' lives and make them understand that illegal activity bears consequences.
"The most important factor in this equation is you," he said.
As part of Gov. Glenn Youngkin's "Bold Blue Line" crime initiative, Gray said Hopewell residents can expect to see an immediate increase of state troopers in the city to assist local police, and that includes undercover operations.
As far as better communications between police and residents about activity as it happens, Starke said the department has improved its turnaround time for getting out news releases and updates. He also pointed to Hopewell now involved with the Nixle system that offers real-time text alerts about areas to avoid, plus why and low long you should avoid them. After the meeting, he invited residents to bring their mobile phones to the podium to assist in signing up for the alerts.
D'Archie Lewis, a former felon who now counsels at-risk youth and adults in Hopewell, said the business community needs to step up irs efforts to keep the violent element at bay.
"These stores and gas stations, they should be held accountable for letting these drug dealers and thugs hang out in their parking lots and hang out all day long," Lewis said.
Wednesday night's summit was actually a special City Council meeting that was gaveled open and closed by Mayor Patience Bennett. Five of the seven councilors sat in a row of chairs at the front of the meeting, and for the most part, listened to the concerns. No actions were taken, though.
Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Hopewell officials hold town hall to hear citizens' crime concerns