HOLMBERG: Police respond to neighborhood complaints

RICHMOND, Va (WTVR)-  Twenty years ago, the neighborhood surrounding South Richmond’s Blackwell housing project was one of the most troubled in the city.

Now that it’s on the rebound, residents like Mecca Williams who have invested their lives there aren’t about to let it slide back.

“I definitely think they’ve put this neighborhood on the back burner,” Williams said last week about the police presence in the area.

A Dinwiddie Avenue resident, Williams contacted CBS-6 a week ago, angry that it took a shooting practically in her front yard for police to listen to complaints from her and other neighbors about suspected drug activity and reckless behavior that had increased in recent months.

Another resident told us she was thinking about moving out, it had gotten so bad.

CBS-6 requested the records of 911 calls for service in these blocks and, sure enough, the neighbors have been begging for help – 42 times in the past five months.

Calls for trespassing, disorderly conduct, larceny, breaking and entering, an armed person.

Richmond police say they were responding before, but they’re definitely listening now.

“We responded to every call,” said Richmond police Lt. Sybil El-Amin, who reviewed the calls for service requested by CBS-6. “I reviewed the arrests for those calls, and we made approximately 29 arrests in that same time period.

After the recent shooting, RPD’s Focus Mission Team – sort of like a strike force – has been brought in to deal with some of the drug complaints in the area, El-Amin said. They were able to execute a search warrant at one of the suspected drug houses. Undercover narcotics officers have also been working the area.

El-Amin said the department appreciates the calls from the community. “But when we get here, just a neighbor saying ‘that’s a drug dealer right there’ – it takes more than that. We have to see the person doing it  or we have to have a confidential informant” or a surveillance operation.

Does RPD have the neighborhood back under control?

“For right now,” El-Amin said, “I would say definitely. What I’m interested in is the community knowing that we heard their voice.”

During the late 80s and 90s, the Blackwell area was so bad, the state police were called in to try to turn the volume down. It was a nasty combination of federally controlled and Section-8 slums mixed in with older homes and vacant houses.

The national “48 Hours” show filmed there. The home of one of the women who talked on camera about the problems there was shot up.

There was a thriving drive-through drug market that left the streets so bloody, the city finally managed to tear down much of Blackwell 12 years ago.

A good portion of the revitalization plan has stalled, leaving the area a curious mix of subsidized housing, new and old privately owned property and lots of vacant lots.

But make no mistake, these blocks are a huge improvement over what they used to be.

And Mecca Williams says the picture has brightened a little in the past week. “I saw a tad bit increase in police presence,” she said. “I feel like maybe things will look up and we’ll see some positive changes in the neighborhood.”

The other neighbor who said she was thinking about moving in now leaning more towards staying.

“This is setting an example for Richmond in general,” Williams said. “This is just one section, one part of town. But it’s happening everywhere, and we call just can’t run.”

Back when it was one of the city’s deadliest neighborhoods, many Blackwell-area residents were reluctant to call the police out of fear of reprisal.

Clearly, that’s no longer the case.

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