Roanoke Police Chief Scott Booth was sworn into office Tuesday, vowing to reduce crime in a city that this year has seen the most homicides in decades.
“We will move the needle, we will reduce crime here in this community, make no mistake,” Booth told reporters after the swearing-in ceremony at city hall. “My pledge to you is that when we stand here next year, we'll be standing in a safer community.”
Booth takes the helm as the city suffers from high rates of gun violence and a department that has been hampered by officer shortages and low morale.
Roanoke police have recorded 27 homicides this year, one more since mid-September, when then-interim chief Jerry Stokes said figures rivaled those in any year going back to the 1970s.
An external assessment of the police department, released last month, also found morale issues, “very poor” internal communication and “open dissension” among top police leaders.
Booth said his new boss, City Manager Bob Cowell, shared a copy of that report with him “once the decision was made for me to come here.”
“The things that stood out for me was really, you know, about the morale and the communication piece, and I don't say that's easy to fix, but I can talk, and I like to talk, and I like to connect with officers,” Booth said.
“I will connect and I will listen to them, and I will build that morale, and they will be heard,” the chief added. “But they need to understand that we're going to be more focused and accountable and more engaged with our community than ever before.”
Booth said he anticipates carrying out many of the recommendations laid out in that 210-page report from Center for Public Safety Management, a consultant based in Washington, D.C.
“We will enact many of those things that are in that document, because I think most of them, they make really good common sense to me,” he said.
City officials have praised Booth’s leadership in Danville, which saw a reduction in violent crime since he joined that city’s police department in 2018. Before then, Booth served for two decades in Richmond’s police department.
“This is a great day for our city and I’m proud of Chief Booth coming in,” Mayor Sherman Lea said. “I got a lot of friends in Danville — Danville’s my hometown — and they don’t want to speak to me now for some reason.”
In poaching the chief from Danville, Roanoke will pay Booth an annual salary of $200,000.
Circuit Court Judge David Carson swore Booth into office before a crowd of law enforcement officers and city officials. The chief wore what appears to be a characteristic three-piece suit.
Booth said his first steps will be to improve communication within the police department and to build on the agency’s community policing model.
“We have to be out, engaged in our community, building relationships,” he said. “And when we're doing that, violence will start to go down and the trust will start to go up. … If we have a tragedy or somebody has died or has been shot, people are not going to talk to us unless they have relationships.”
Booth also nodded to City Council’s desire and efforts to reduce crime, such as through a youth and gang violence prevention coordinator.
“Your elected officials here want things to get better,” he said. “They’re actively engaged in conversations about gun violence on a daily basis, more so than Danville was at the time.”
Another challenge facing the new chief will be improving officer shortages.
While departments nationwide have struggled with hiring and retention since 2020, following the pandemic and George Floyd racial justice protests, Roanoke’s department has lagged its peers, according to the outside assessment.
The consultant counted 38 vacancies for sworn officers as of May this year, down from 45 in 2020, before which there were routinely no vacancies.
Cowell said he will work with Booth to determine what he needs to do his job effectively.
“My expectations are not necessarily that he has a magic wand, not necessarily that immediately things can change,” Cowell said. “My expectation is that he brings his experience and he brings his drive and he applies it every single day.”
While police chiefs reported directly to assistant city managers in the past, Cowell said Booth will report directly to him.
“It just allows me more direct interaction with what they're having to deal with and what changes they're looking to apply,” he said.
Booth acknowledged to reporters Tuesday that the community has high expectations of him.
“It's a lot, and this might be the best day that I ever had with you guys. But I will tell you this, I am optimistic,” he said. “We will reduce crime together. We will engage the community together. This is just not a one-person job. I need everybody in the department and everybody in the community with me as we move forward with reducing crime and making this a better community.”
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