BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE – Violent crime fell overall in the first half of this year compared to last year’s statistics for the city, even as the homicide rate rose due to the mass shooting in May at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, according to a briefing by Police Chief Jim Cervera to the City Council.
The chief spoke on Tuesday, Aug. 6, following a weekend in which two mass shootings elsewhere – in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio – were fresh on the minds of people here, and he made a point to note the response of public safety in those communities — how police head toward danger while many people go the other way.
That was the case here in May. Four Virginia Beach officers rushed into Building 2 amid the mass shooting and stopped the gunman, who died after the confrontation. One police officer was wounded.
The department reported 19 homicides in Virginia Beach this year, compared to seven in 2018 over the same period.
“We had an increase in our homicides the first six months,” Cervera said. “Twelve of those were as a result of the incident in Building 2.”
Larcenies and motor vehicle thefts are up this year, to date, compared to 2018, while burglary and arson cases are down. There have been 243 motor vehicle thefts, and 61 percent of those incidents involved cars that were unlocked or had a key inside.
“One-hundred forty-eight had a key in the vehicle or the vehicle was unlocked,” Cervera said. “This is basically an education thing for our citizens. In 94 of these cases, the victim stated they didn’t know if the car was locked.
“We’re in a period of time where everybody carries a fob as opposed to a key,” the chief noted. “And if the fob is in your pocket, the car starts. Well, lots of people are leaving the fob in the car, and then they leave the car unlocked. So the bad guy opens up the door, sits inside … and the car drives away.”
Some cases involve vehicles left running, too.
“We’re tracking these,” the police chief said. “We’re doing the best we can. A lot of this has to do with education for the public.”
The department also has recovered 396 guns this year, including 23 handed over for safekeeping.
Cervera said police officers had nearly 130,000 contacts with citizens, and there were only 301 use of force incidents, 26 complaints and a single citizen complaint related to a use of force.
A “use of force” can range from taking control of someone during an arrest or pointing a taser or weapon at someone, the chief said. Context matters in such cases, he noted, and police work hard to “de-escalate” difficult situations.
Weapons were fired by officers six times during the period. Four of those instances involved the police response to Building 2 on May 31, in which the officers engaged the gunman.
Following the discussion, City Councilmember Michael Berlucchi, who represents the Rose Hall District, asked about a rise in larcenies, which include larcenies from motor vehicles.
“What beyond that could the police department do … to somehow intervene with these people who are roaming our neighborhoods at 3 a.m. to check cars?”
Cervera said the department uses data to seek trends and adjusts patrol plans to address such issues.
Officers also investigate and connect cases with other cases, and they also rely upon home surveillance systems when crimes occur, Cervera said.
Additionally, the department has used a public information campaign to remind citizens to remove valuables, guns and keys from cars and to lock vehicles. Some of those efforts, as The Independent News has reported, have been in the First Police Precinct, which includes much of the newspaper’s coverage area.
“We are still the safest city for a city of our size in this nation because of the efforts of your folks … the cops who do the job,” Mayor Bobby Dyer said before asking for a progress report on the investigation into the mass shooting.
Cervera said the department had two investigations – one for the incident itself and another for the officer-involved shooting of the gunman, who died from his injuries in a gun battle.
The investigation of the officer-involved shooting has been completed, Cervera said, and the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office found “no issues” with the police actions.
The department has interviewed more than 280 people in its investigation of the mass shooting at Building 2. He said some work remains, including evidence work by the FBI, and he added that the department is working with the independent investigation of the shooting.
“The bottom line is we’re close to being finished without the piece from the FBI,” he said.
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