RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Major crimes in the City of Richmond have increased slightly in the first quarter of 2023, as compared with the same time frame in 2022, according to Acting Chief of Police Rick Edwards.

During Wednesday’s public safety and crime briefing, Edwards said that there has been a minimal year-over-year uptick in homicides, including those committed with a firearm, but that the larger increase in overall crime stemmed from additional property crimes.

“It’s still too high for me, but the percentage is not as large when we look at it,” the acting chief said. “The big trend that’s driving our violent crime is commercial robberies.”

In additional to larcenies and auto thefts, data showed that there has been a 48% increase in shoplifting during the first quarter of 2023, compared with the same quarter last year, with more than half of those shoplifting crimes happening at Virginia ABC stores.

“This is what’s killing us right now,” Edwards said. “We’ve we’ve conducted seven operations to arrest shoplifters. We partnered with ABC on those cases with their law enforcement division and has made five arrests on shoplifting. It’s important for us to have a comprehensive strategy to ensure that we’re able to drive some of these numbers down because it’s pushing all of our crime. It’s such a such a big number.”

The acting chief also highlighted a concerning trend with the potential to increase the number of violent crimes in the city: firearms thefts from motor vehicles. So far this year, Edwards said that there had been 136 guns reported stolen from cars. He added that most of these thefts happened with motor vehicles where the doors were unlocked.

“One hundred thirty-six firearms are now in our streets in the first quarter from these thefts, and it’s a nationwide trend,” the acting chief said. “They end up in the hands of folks that aren’t supposed to have them. So, we’re, again, imploring the community to not leave your firearms in your cars, and we saw a really poignant example of that. So, in this case, the 13-year-old young man that was killed on Stockton Street on March 10, Marquan Mitchell, was killed with a firearm that was stolen out of a car 18 hours earlier, just four blocks away.”

The Richmond Public Schools (RPS) student was killed last month in what city leaders called an accidental shooting. Authorities said that they responded to the 1600 block of Stockton Street, between E 16th and E 17th Streets, just before 10 p.m. that Friday for the report of a person down. Upon arrival, officers reportedly found the 13-year-old boy with a gunshot wound, and he died at the scene.

That’s why Edwards said that the Richmond Police Department (RPD) was using federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to purchase gun safes to distribute to the community for safe but accessible firearm storage.

“We’ve purchased 70 of those safes,” the acting chief said. “It’s something that we’re trying to do to think outside of the box to try to help our community avoid these kind of tragedies, so that no mother has to go through what Marquan’s mother had to go through.”

Edwards also provided updates on the department’s hiring efforts, as well as the city’s violence interrupter program and the search for Richmond’s next chief of police.

Speaking with 8News on Tuesday, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said that all of the city’s violence interrupters — an idea first announced publicly by Stoney and then-Police Chief Gerald Smith back in February of 2022 — had been hired.

“They’re, obviously, doing some training because this is some serious work that they’re dealing with,” Stoney said during a news conference. “In the coming weeks, in the coming months, you’ll see them, obviously, working in the community. Obviously, I can’t tell you where exactly, but they’re going to be involved in the prevention-intervention front.”

During Wednesday’s crime briefing, Edwards echoed that sentiment, stating that background checks needed to be completed, but that it would only be a matter of weeks before violence interrupters would be out doing work in the streets. He also addressed concerns about the violence interrupters’ safety, after those in similar positions were killed in Baltimore, Md. last year.

“They have contingent, conditional officers,” the acting chief said. “I do know that there have been concerns about safety in the past. I think there’s ways for us to mitigate that. But best practice around the country is for it to almost be a black box in the sense that when we learn of concerning, retaliatory behavior or information, that we share that with the group. With no expectation of getting information back there’s no reciprocity there.”

Moreover, Acting Chief Edwards provided updates on the department’s hiring challenges. On April 7, Richmond Coalition of Police (RCOP) President Brendan Leavy told 8News that RPD was short approximately 160 police officers. But on Wednesday, Edwards reaffirmed previous goals of hiring back officers who had recently left the department, and said that 17 individuals had been brought back on board so far.

Also on the hiring front, Edwards announced that Major Sybil El-Amin-Jones had been promoted to the role of Acting Deputy Chief, replacing former Deputy Chief John Hayes, who resigned in March. As for the role of Richmond’s top cop — which was formally posted earlier this month, more than five months after former Chief Smith resigned — Edwards said he had submitted his application.

“I haven’t heard back,” he said Wednesday. “Once I know when the interview is, if I’m selected to interview, I’ll wear my shiny shoes and do my best.”