The 1999 people of the year:
Gun control equals crime control, and everyones happy
first, said Comey. You dont have time as a local prosecutor to say, Hey, if I get these guys on the other side of the room, maybe I wont have any murderers, robbers and rapists.
As a Federal prosecutor, Comey said he believed his office would have the time and ability to help the local criminal justice community. To let us focus on the left side of the room, while theyre focusing on the right side.
Key to establishing the kind of program Comey had in mind, he recalled, were Oliver; Deputy Chief Fred Russell; who provided the departments support under the Chiefs direction; Bill Dunham, the resident agent in charge of the Richmond field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and Commonwealth Attorney David Hicks, who provided critical support.
A madmans genius
Put in charge of the project from the U.S. Attorneys office was David Schiller, who Comey fondly referred to as a madman. It was Schiller, he said, who came up with what is roundly recognized by the participants as the stroke of genius that has made the program so successful the involvement of the business community in a massive advertising campaign that magnified the message a hundredfold.
Our idea was, Lets do a lot of cases, well incapacitate the worst gun carriers in Richmond and maybe will scare the rest of them through word of mouth into not carrying guns, said Comey. What Dave Schiller did was put on the advertising piece which really made it special.
Added Russell: I think while I was involved and expressed the support of the Police Department, Schillers the guy who made it happen.
The programs goal was to cripple that faction of Richmonds criminal element who consistently used weapons and to break the link between drugs and guns. In other words, to make drug dealers view carrying a weapon as a greater liability than leaving it at home.
It is very hard to convince them not to sell crack, no matter how high we jack up the penalties, said Comey. Theyre selling for economic needs, for addiction, who knows the reasons. But the decision to carry a gun in your pocket is really a discretionary decision; it is not essential to your function as a drug dealer, he said. My goal was to make Richmonds drug dealers like New Yorks. They have access to guns, they kill people unfortunately but someone is in charge of storing the guns and they are stashed. We are at that point in Richmond.
No bail, no bargaining
Project Exile accomplished those objectives, and continues to do so, simply by trying the vast majority of the firearms violations in Federal court, where the penalties for such crimes are harsher than state laws permit (although in July, Virginia toughened up its gun-possession statutes under the Virginia Exile legislation). In addition, offenders quickly found, the Federal courts have a no-bail provision, and Federal statutes make it extremely difficult to plea-bargain for a reduced sentence. Those convicted draw an automatic five-year term at a Federal prison as far away as Oklahoma or Kansas, keeping them out of contact with other local criminals.
From 1994, when Richmond virtually led the nations per capita homicide rate, to 1998, the murder total fell from 160 to 94 a drop of 41 percent. Violent crimes also fell by 22 percent during those four years - from 3,594 to 2,804. In the two years that cases have been prosecuted under Project Exile guidelines, some 438 defendants have been indicted, 74 percent of whom were detained without bail. As of March, 228 defendants had been sentenced to an average of 4½ years under the program, and 512 guns have been removed from the street as a result.
There has been a change in mindset, noted Russell, who managed the Police Departments effort to get Project Exile off the ground. With the carry rate down, what normally would have ended up as a gun fight is now ending up as an assault. There are still a lot of guns, but not as bad as there has been, the deputy chief told LEN.
Police are recovering more guns as found property, said the ATFs Dunham. In 1999, police recovered about 100 fewer guns than they did in 1998 approximately 1,200 versus 1,300. But between 230 and 250 of those were not found on the person. I think [Exile] kind of drove guns away from people. Maybe they didnt get rid of them completely, but they are not carrying them as often, he said.
YOUVE BEEN BUS-TED! A city bus in Richmond gets Project Exiles message across loud and clear: an illegal gun can be your ticket to a five-year stay at a Federal prison far, far away from home.
A well-oiled machine
Behind the seeming simplicity of the Exile concept is some well-oiled law enforcement machinery. A Project Exile Task Force headed by a senior ATF agent and composed of two other agents, three Richmond police officers, two Virginia state troopers and an FBI agent, receives the paperwork on every local gun arrest. Task force members go over the cases to decide which ones fit the criteria for Federal involvement under 18 United States Code 922 and 924. This includes any category that would prohibit an individual from possessing a firearm, such as a prior felony conviction, a restraining order, involvement with narcotics, a prior domestic violence incident, being a fugitive from another state and possessing a weapon the individual knows to be stolen. It also flags cases in which a weapons serial number has been obliterated or sawed off as in the case of a shotgun or rifle. Then the team follows up with the arresting officers, verifying the facts in the report and making the determination of whether it was a good stop.
The team then writes up the report and gets certified copies of conviction records, as well as determining where the gun was manufactured. The accumulated information is brought to Comeys office in groups and the individuals are indicted in groups. Once they are indicted, a list is sent to Hickss office and those cases are dismissed by the state if state charges have been filed.
In 1996, the ATF designated Richmond one of its Youth Gun Crime Interdiction Cities, where firearms in the possession of youths are tracked to try and determine any pattern of trafficking in the source of the weapons. The interdiction program acts as the mechanism for the adoption of firearms cases by the U.S. Attorneys office, said Comey. Richmonds designation as both a special city by the Attorney Generals office and its involvement in the ATF weapons-tracing program formed the groundwork for Project Exile.
Slaps on the wrist
We looked at the typical defendants here, and you get arrested with a gun as a felon or with a gun and youre dealing drugs, if youre convicted the sentences were very low, Dunham told LEN. You could have a six-year sentence with 5 ½ years suspended. You serve six months. There was just a big disparity in what could be sentenced and what time people were actually serving. There was no deterrent.
But under Exile, with its no bail, out-of-state incarceration and few plea-bargaining options, a message has been sent, Dunham said. Each case that met the minimum criteria was prosecuted under its guidelines. Even if defendants were able to plead down their cases in return for cooperation, they still got a good whack, he said, with a good, substantial firearms charge.
No-bail has proved to be one of the most effective components of the program, easing reluctance among community members to testify against gang members.
When we started giving some heavy hits to gang members here, people saw they were just sentenced to 17 years and thought Theyre not going to hurt me, so Ill come forward to testify, said Dunham. And they have come forward. Weve now convicted several guys on a number of homicides and I dont think that cooperation would have ever existed if they hadnt seen that those people are safely away in jail for a while.
It is one of Project Exiles spin-off effects, said Chief Oliver. We had some problems, and we still do, with this presumption of bail, he said. We had some people who committed heinous crimes with guns and got bailed out with $50,000, $100,000, even $250,000. The moment theyre back there in the community, their presence intimidates the victims, the witnesses, and speaks to a certain type of hopelessness and helplessness in the community.
When police started to make arrests because of guns and transfer offenders into the Exile program, the certainty that they would not be released on bail created the confidence to come forward.
Fear as fringe benefit
Another fringe benefit has been the fear that getting Exiled creates in defendants. Trying to reduce their sentences, they end up giving authorities a wealth of information on their fellow criminals. While some of it is just jailhouse rumor, said Dunham, other information on homicides and drug gang activity has been put to good use.
Added Oliver: When they knew they were going to be locked up, they didnt want to go away forever, so they started ratting on each other. It was just fertile ground. It was the thing we needed to turn the corner.
Oliver views Project Exile as the linchpin in the departments aggressive enforcement strategy that includes a wide variety of community partnership programs and initiatives. In addition to Exile, the RPD has Operation RIP (Residential Intensive Patrol); Street Heat, which deals with loiterers, and Blitz to Bloom, which follows up police action with human and social service activities. Exile was hitting them high, while we were hitting them low, he said.
Behavior, not race
Given the recent emphasis within law enforcement on the role that race plays in police tactics, it would seem inevitable, perhaps even natural, that the issue would come up with regard to Project Exile. In Richmond, noted Oliver, more than 90 percent of victims are African American, as are approximately 97 percent of suspects in violent crimes. But whatever program one points to, whether Project Exile, Blitz to Bloom or another, he said, the focus is on behavior.
I know there are many historical and sociological reasons for having primarily young African American males involved in these crimes, said Oliver. But at the point that Exile meets them on the street, meets them with a gun on a corner selling drugs, or a gun robbery, or a gun involved in domestic violence of any sort, at that point it has nothing to do with race it has a lot to do with behavior. Oliver said he tells those who are critics of Exile that if they want to attack something, attack the reasons why young black men get involved in criminal activities.
One of things I always say is any arrest is a failure, not a success. It is an indictment of every other institution in the food chain to have done their job before the police department is called in to do its job, he said.
One could hardly underestimate the role that advertising has played in making Project Exile a success. The programs message is reinforced by 15 billboards, dozens of radio and television spots and a 40-foot-bus that crisscrosses the city emblazoned with the words, An illegal gun gets you 5 years in a Federal prison. When Schiller, of the U.S. Attorneys office, set about arranging the support of Richmonds business community and raising the money for the ad campaign, one of the parties to climb aboard was the National Rifle Association, which contributed $125,000 to the citys efforts.
The NRA got on the Project Exile bandwagon about a year after the program was implemented, and has lobbied Congress to appropriate $2.3 million for similar programs in Camden, N.J., and Philadelphia. As unlikely as it sounds, the groups ideological opposite, Handgun Control Inc., also endorses Project Exile, having supported it from the get-go, according to Nancy Hwa, a spokeswoman for the gun-control group. One of the reasons it has been so effective, she said, is that law enforcement has made the commitment to follow up and enforce it.
Of course, Handgun Control does not see Exile as a cure-all. While it packs a great punitive punch, it does not address prevention issues, Hwa told LEN. If you look at a lot of shootings we had recently, Project Exile would not have effected those incidents, whereas other laws, such as preventing gun trafficking or sales at gun shows, sales to minors, might have.
As often happens with even the best anti-crime initiatives, Project Exile has raised its share of judicial eyebrows, particularly from some of Richmonds Federal judges, who complain that the program makes a Federal case out of matters better handled by state courts.
In a letter to Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Senior District Judge Richard L. Williams wrote that More than 200 gun-possession cases totally lacking in Federal significance had been processed through our court. Not only does the program do violence to concepts of federalism, he wrote, but the cost to national taxpayers is three times more than if the Commonwealth of Virginia handled the cases.
William Vizzard, a former ATF supervisor and a professor of criminal justice at the University of California-Sacramento, is inclined to agree, He said that while he supports the concept of Project Exile, not all of the gun cases now being heard in Federal court really belong there.
On the plus side of the ledger, said Vizzard, Project Exile appears to be targeting the right individuals. We have some pretty solid data that there is a sub-population of offenders in the U.S. who, for whatever reason, are particularly drawn to firearms and who are also particularly injurious to the community because they commit more crimes and they commit the kinds of crimes were concerned about, he told LEN. These offenders are particularly vulnerable to firearms violations, since they are frequently parolees who are subject to search at any time.
But Vizzard believes that programs like Exile are putting a strain on Federal resources that are better used to focus on firearms trafficking while the state takes on individual violators. The Federal courts do not have the resources to handle every firearms violation that comes down the pike, he said. And to do this temporarily as a showpiece might serve some purpose to say, Look, it works, now states, get off your butts and get out there and pass some firearms legislation.
Thats exactly what happened in Virginia. Under the Virginia Exile laws, which were enacted on July 1, convicted felons caught with a firearm face an automatic minimum sentence of five years. The same minimum would apply to anyone with gun or in possession of any amount of cocaine or heroin, making it even tougher than Project Exile, whose minimum sentences only kick in when drug dealing is involved. Like Federal statutes, Virginia Exile also has a no-bail provision. Although a General District Court judge ruled it unconstitutional in August, the finding was reversed by a higher court.
I know that the judges here [in Richmond] were not happy when we brought these cases in, said Dunham. They were disgruntled with that. But they dont dictate what cases are brought to them. I think as a lot of these cases are being prosecuted under state laws, thats going to ease the docket and I think the judges will be happy.
Not a cookie-cutter
One important test of any criminal justice strategy is whether it is replicable, and a number of cities across the nation are now trying similar, if not identical programs. But while the central tenets of Exile are eminently transferable, the programs principals still hesitate to say whether it can work outside of Richmond with the same degree of effectiveness.
What will be tricky for other cities, said Comey, is recreating the precise mix of Federal and local involvement. Even in Richmond, the spectrum has shifted from Exile cases being heard in an exclusively Federal forum to one that includes state courts. The U.S. Attorneys office still gets approximately one-third of the cases, he said, with the Commonwealth of Virginia court system getting the remainder. Since July 1, a committee has met several times a month to decide which cases will go where, depending on which jurisdiction will impose the harshest penalties.
It scares me to some degree, said the RPDs Russell. Everybody is coming here and looking at this as a cookie-cutter approach. I think Richmond had a unique combination of people at the U.S. Attorneys office, in our Commonwealth Attorneys office under David Hicks. They were willing to put egos aside and interdepartmental concerns aside to look towards a common goal. A lot of places dont have that luxury.
And while there was always an unusually high degree of cooperation among local, state and Federal authorities in Richmond, having the U.S. Attorney General take on the city as a special project did not hurt, either. People saw the writing on the wall, said Russell. A lot of the squabbles you might see in other locations do not occur here. People are smart enough to know that.
Exile shows its mettle in other cities versions, too
We were very enthusiastic about the coordination of resources relating to guns and decided to copy everything we could from Richmond.
Despite concerns by Project Exiles creators that other cities would find it difficult to duplicate the programs success without those elements that make Richmond unique particularly the high level of cooperation among jurisdictions there other cities that have given Exile-type programs a shot have found that even as a transplant, the model works quite effectively.
In Birmingham, Ala., for instance, where city and Federal officials collaborated to create Project ICE (Isolate the Criminal Element) in February 1999, police have already seized 1,566 firearms, according to Police Chief W.M. Coppage. Of those, 626 came from arrests and 311 were considered found.
Its kind of interesting, he told Law Enforcement News. What our officers are reporting is after we did our big publicity campaign, theyd see them chucking guns out of cars and things like that.
Though a spin-off of Exile, ICE differs in that it does not focus exclusively on Federal prosecution. If a firearms violation does not meet Federal criteria, then the case is tried in state court. If it does not meet the guidelines under state laws, then it goes to municipal court, said Coppage.
One of the most successful cases tried so far under ICE, he noted, involved a domestic batterer who had three complaints against him when police found him in possession of a weapon as he tried to break into his girlfriends house. The case was tried in Federal court and the defendant was sentenced to 27 months. In city court, he might have gotten a fine and been back out on the street, said Coppage.
In addition, those who are sentenced under ICE in municipal court, Coppage said, serve their sentences in Birminghams city jail. They wear special uniforms, are restricted from the facilitys general population and are not assigned to work details. That sends a message to the population that the police are serious, said the Chief. And the message has apparently gotten through. During a drug investigation, police found one individual trying to flush a .357-magnum down the toilet. The offender did not want to get Iced, said Coppage. We think it has helped us with a drop in our assaults and aggravated assaults, he said.
In Monroe County, N.Y., a Project Exile-type program centered in Rochester has helped reduce homicides countywide by 41 percent in just one year, bringing the murder rate down to its lowest level since 1986, said District Attorney Howard Relin. Ive been in the DAs office for 32 years, both as an assistant and as District Attorney, and Ive never seen a more successful project than Exile, he told LEN.
The countys program traces its roots to 1998, when Relin met with U.S. Attorney Denise ODonnell, Rochester Police Chief Robert Duffy and other state, local and Federal officials to discuss implementing a similar anti-gun initiative. We did some conference calls with the U.S. Attorneys office in Richmond, he said. We were very enthusiastic about the coordination of resources relating to guns and decided to copy everything we could from Richmond and thats what we did.
After forming a task force that brought together every criminal justice entity in the county, the program began in October 1999 with results that Relin described as awesome, including a 30-percent reduction in robberies and more than 300 gun violations prosecuted by state and Federal courts. Moreover, sentences have been doubled in state court. The average sentence before the project was less than a year, he noted. Now the average sentence on the state side is over two years, and the federal sentence is around the four years.
An indirect benefit of the countys Exile program, Relin said, has been a reduction in the number of shots fired at police officers. Two years ago, the city of Rochester had a series of incidents in which nine different officers were fired on during a three-month period. In one episode, three officers were shot at by a defendant using an illegal handgun. Since Exile, not a single shot has been fired at police, Relin told LEN.
As in Richmond, community involvement in Monroe Countys Exile program has perhaps been as important to its success as enforcement, said Brad Tyler, an Assistant U.S. Attorney for New Yorks Western District. I say that because if you include the citizens in this process, so that they understand how it works, if they in their particular position work to raise consciousness and money, that is really important.
Rochester, he said, has embarked on a full-scale advertising campaign reinforcing Exile. When the people came up from Richmond, he told LEN, they were just blown away by how quickly and how much we had in air time, billboards and buses.
Tyler also noted that unlike Virginia, New York already has strict gun laws in place. On a weekly basis, cases are steered to either state or Federal court. In effect, New York was able to start out where Virginia has ended up with the enactment of its state Exile laws last July.
The state of Texas has also created its own firearms-law enforcement program called Texas Exile. The most established of these programs to date is in Fort Worth, where the local strategy is called Safe City USA. According to Paul E. Coggins, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, more than 60 cases have been referred to his office in the past three or four months, and 50 have been accepted for prosecution under the Exile program. In addition, more than 200 firearms have been sized during that short time.
We got into this with our eyes open, Coggins told LEN. Fort Worth, as is true of most Texas cities, is not going to be able to show the dramatic decreases that Richmond did, because Richmond was off the charts in terms of homicides. Forth Worth didnt have near the number of homicides Richmond did to start out with. But we do believe that we will be able to make a measurable difference.
Safe City USA, which was folded into the Texas Exile program, got an enormous push from the citys private sector. Wealthy Texans Lee and Perry Bass raised several hundred thousand dollars for the advertising campaign, and a public relations firm was hired to run focus groups aimed at getting the message across to the citys youths.
In addition to a media blitz, Cogginss office was able to convince the Texas Attorney Generals office to get on board with the Exile program. Through that office, he was able to get an outlay from the state Legislature to hire eight prosecutors. The two assigned to Cogginss district, he said, will do nothing but gun possession cases. Were basically going to screen these cases, were going to have an assistant District Attorney and an assistant U.S. Attorney and an assistant Attorney General to act as a committee to decide where these cases will go.
For now, the vast majority will be sent to the U.S. Attorneys office because Federal penalties for gun violations in Texas are far harsher than state laws.
Closing that gap, Coggins said, is something that he and the state Attorney General have spent a great deal of time discussing. If in Forth Worth and other cities the Exile program could be shown to have made a difference, he said, then when state lawmakers next meet nearly 18 months from now there will be bills brought forward to toughen up state penalties. Perhaps [they will be] as tough as Federal penalties, in which case a lot of cases now flowing into my office will flow back into the District Attorneys office which would be a good thing in my book.