ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Gun violence and homicides are surging both nationwide and locally. In the City of Roanoke, the number of homicides and aggravated assaults involving a gun in 2021 already exceed the total from 2020.

Last year, there were eight homicides where the killer used a gun. As of late September, there have already been 12 for this year.

In addition, there were 31 aggravated assaults last year involving guns, compared to the 42 that have already taken place this year.

Roanoke Police Chief Sam Roman says his department is doing what it has always done to try and curb violence in the city.

“Our job is to try and interrupt the cycle of violence that we have seen, not only here in our city, but across our country. That’s what we’re trying to do: use every tactic and means available to us to interrupt that cycle of violence,” said Roman.

When asked what that means, Roman replied, “That could mean working with our federal partners to bring prosecution through our U.S. Attorney’s Office. It could mean also working with our Commonwealth’s Attorney to bring prosecution to those who continue to willfully participate in violence. You know, the officers that’s working on the street, you know, making traffic stops and trying to intercept those who are involved in wrongdoing in our city.”

WFXR News asked Roman specifically if Roanoke has a gang problem.

“You know, I’ve said before and I will continue to say that we see activity that certainly has a gang culture to it,” Roman answered. “And it’s our job to try to do everything we can to not only independently interrupt those cycles of violence, but work with every other organization in a collaborative posture to make sure that we are complimenting the work that so many other agencies are doing as well, from the gun violence commission all the way to our RESET coordinator.”

According to the Crime in Virginia report released by Virginia State Police for 2020, there were 15 murder and nonnegligent manslaughter crimes committed within The City of Roanoke. However, only six arrests had been made in the cases. WFXR News asked Roman what he feels is causing the lack of arrests and solved crimes.

“Case resolution has a very intricate component to it, you know. We have to make sure that when we bring cases, these cases are good cases, left no stone unturned, very intricate cases, especially with what we are seeing again not only in our city but in the country,” said Roman. “You know when you have a large number of violent crimes occurring you need the personnel to make sure that each of those crimes are being investigated to the fullest and that is very daunting. It is a very exhaustive task that we have asked the members of our team to do. They are doing that and they are doing that well, but certainly the intricacies of these cases, it just it takes time to make sure that we bring prosecutable cases forward.” 

Roman noted two specific things that contribute to the issue. The first is a need for more officers and the second is a lack of cooperation from victims and witnesses.

“Well, we have found, obviously there is some hesitation on behalf of community members whether it be witnesses, victims, or otherwise,” Roman said. “There’s a hesitation to come forward and be willing witnesses if you would and we understand some of the reasoning that are associated with that; but any successful prosecution is dependent upon, not only law enforcement but is dependent upon viable witnesses who can attest to what happened in that crime. We are always engaging our community to ensure that they are a part of the criminal justice process as well.”

When speaking to WFXR News’ Kathlynn Stone, Commonwealth’s Attorney for the City of Roanoke, Don Caldwell, said the reluctance to cooperate is the main thing they are all facing.

“Well, I think probably Kathlynn, the main thing that we face and it’s not specifically this office, it’s actually the police department because any crime, any criminal act threads up to our office through the police department, and right now we are seeing a reluctance of people to cooperate with a police investigation and then in those instances where people initially cooperate by the time it reaches our office they’ve backed up on their level of cooperation. So I think what I would say is under the general heading of reluctance of many witnesses including victims themselves to cooperate in the prosecution of crime.

However, according to Caldwell, the issue of why so many cases remain unsolved is more complex.

“It’s hard to say Kathlynn, because it’s not as simple. You can have reported crimes that may or may not have a basis. So the base is always going to be very broad. You don’t know how deep it’s going to be, but out of that broad base of reported crimes you then start narrowing the pyramid, because you’ve got cases that are prosecutable first on a probable cause basis, which is very low, and then ultimately, if you can get beyond the basis of probable cause, you get to proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that’s a very high standard of proof,” Caldwell explained. “I guess the word I would use is there’s a winnowing effect to where you get to your cases that are strong enough to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. You can have many many cases where there’s a lot of suspicion. there’s a lot of probability that someone did something, but you just can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt to either the satisfaction of a judge or a jury of 12 people.”

Caldwell used the case of Quante and Quinton Dillard as an example. A jury found Quante Dillard guilty of aggravated malicious wounding last month, in a violent fight. His brother, Quinton Dillard, pleaded guilty to the charge last week.

“The jury came back with a conviction of malicious wounding. Based upon that we offered the same conviction to the brother. He pled guilty earlier this week so both of those cases are awaiting sentencing. But in that case, even though you have a man who was horribly beaten, he would not come to court. He would not cooperate in the prosecution,” Caldwell said. “The one question the jury had, in that case, is where’s the victim? The victim said ‘I don’t want to come to court. I’m not going to help you.’ And that’s very frustrating for us. And so that would be my most classic recent example of somebody who was the victim of the crime and really had really horrible results in terms of the injuries done to him, but yet doesn’t want to cooperate in the prosecution.”

Stone also asked Caldwell about how to fix the issue of a lack of cooperation by witnesses.

“Our society is really at a crossroads in where we want to go. We’ve spent the last four or five years sort of, I have to choose my words careful here, in sort of portraying the police and the prosecution in an unfavorable light and blaming many of the ills of society on that group. When in fact your police and your prosecutors I think are trying to do the right thing, but we need the help of the people involved to do that, and how you change the direction of a ship is not done on a dime,” Caldwell responded. “It’s done over a course of time, but I think we’re going to have to get back to a point where society itself wants more law and order. It wants to demand, or expect not demand, but expect people will participate in the resolution of criminal cases by coming to court and testifying.”

“I do want to say, this is all doom and gloom right now, Kathlynn, but we do have a lot of people who are victims of crime who come in, do the right thing. People who witness crime do the right thing, but the example I gave you is a good example of the frustration,” the Roanoke City Commonwealth’s Attorney added. “I think you’ve seen several shootings in the city over the past six or eight months where the police report itself will say the victim was uncooperative. The victim represented they didn’t know what happened or wasn’t willing to talk to police and those are the frustrating cases.”

A number of efforts are taking place across the City of Roanoke aiming to convince more people to come forward and help solve violent crimes.

On Aug. 9, city leaders announced the establishment of a $50K grant as reward money for information leading to the arrest and conviction of offenders.

“You use every mechanism available to you. That works for some people and the people it works for we want them to use that process and the folks that that reward money may not be as appealing to, it’s not for them,” said Roman. “But if we can just get one additional person to come forward and attest to what they saw or heard in a criminal case, to me, you know it’s worth it.”

Then, on Aug. 21, Roanoke held its first ‘Gun Buyback’ event. Gun owners were able to turn in guns to local law enforcement in exchange for grocery gift cards valued at up to $250.

“I think anytime we remove access to firearms that would be otherwise or potentially used in violent instances is a success,” said Roman.

Members of the Roanoke Gun Violence Prevention Commission announced on Sept. 16 the new Youth and Gang Violence Prevention Coordinator, Christopher Roberts.

There have been shootings — some deadly — in the Star City where minors were involved. Roman told WFXR News that reaching young people before they turn to a life of violence is a critical action to take.

“I think that this is one of the most important pieces of work that any community can do, which is ensuring that they are reaching the at-risk juveniles and interrupting the cycle that may be leading them toward a path of violence. And so, this is very important work, not only for law enforcement but as a whole, as a community,” said Roman. “So my message would be, what are we doing individually? There are a host of programs, processes that have been implemented or have existed for a long time that we can attach ourselves to, to make sure that our individual work as citizens of this great city is complimenting the overall work of reaching every at-risk youth. To ensure that we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure that we interrupt the cycle that may be leading to a juvenile being involved in either a gang or violent behavior.”

In a conversation with Stone about how to change people’s mindsets and persuade more people to come forward to put away violent criminals, Roman said, “Once we build a synergy when not just your sibling is standing up, but when you have many people standing up and saying we’re not tolerating this anymore if it means me going to court, that’s what I’m doing. And when everyone begins to do that, that’s when we make an impact. that’s when the tide begin to turn on those who are involved in violence and engaged in intimidating those who are willing to stand up. It’s when the minority is not standing up, the majority of the community is standing up and saying this is my community, no more.”

If you have information about any criminal incident in the City of Roanoke, you are urged to call 540-344-8500 and share what you know. You can also send a text starting with “RoanokePD” to 274637. Both calls and texts can remain anonymous.

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