Exclusive: Portsmouth’s police chief talks about 52% drop in homicides

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Police records show a drastic drop in the number of people killed on the streets of Portsmouth in 2016 compared to the previous year.

The 13 homicides reported in 2016 is 52 percent lower than the 27 police investigated in 2015.

Chief Tonya Chapman, who took over the department in February, believes the relationship between officers and citizens continues to improve.

The chief admits the department was plagued with negative public perception in 2015, which is why she says “99 percent” of her initiatives last year were focused on rebranding the department.

“I think it’s been a very rewarding year,” said Chapman. “My purpose was trying to restore that confidence, especially in our community.”

Chapman says the take down of two gangs helped in decreasing crime. With the help of area and federal partners, Chapman says they broke up the Nine Trey Gangsters and Corna Sto Boys.

The chief, who calls community policing her “passion”, also launched two different kinds of community walks.

A neighborhood is selected each month for the community enhancement opportunity walk. The chief, joined by the city manager and department heads, have gone door-to-door to hear the concerns of residents. RE.S.E.T. walks, or rapid engagement of support in the event of trauma, are aimed at immersing the police department in a particular community after a homicide or other violent crime. Chapman says the department did 12 R.E.S.E.T. walks in 2016.

A geographic policing model was also rolled out, which keeps the same officers in the same neighborhoods.

“It is working,” said Chapman. “It was a seamless transition. The officers become familiar with their area. They get to know who the citizens are, who the business people are, who belongs [and] who doesn’t.”

Violent crime numbers have dropped each month since September, according to Chapman, who says that month she started a new Street Crimes Unit. A Violent Crimes Task Force, initiated earlier in 2016, has worked to pinpoint causes for crimes such as armed business robberies.

“[Thieves] tend to target businesses that have the cash on hand. Some of it may be inside information that [suspects] are receiving,” said Chapman.

Police have solved six of the 13 homicides in 2016. Chapman says she hopes they will close more cases with the community’s help.

“They are our eyes and ears,” she said. “We can not do this alone. We need them to step forward.”

Chief Chapman says the biggest challenge since taking her oath has been recruiting and retaining staff. The Portsmouth Police Department is currently down about 20 officers.

Starting salaries in the department are the lowest in Hampton Roads, according to the chief, who hopes new city leadership will take measures in 2017 to make it more enticing for officers to stay in the city.