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RRHA hires private security to patrol public housing

Children play on a grass field at Creighton Court.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Children play on a grass field at Creighton Court during May in Richmond. Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, which manages Creighton and other properties across the city, announced Thursday it hired a security firm to patrol public housing neighborhoods.

Richmond’s housing authority did not use competitive negotiating process.

The Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority has hired a private security company to patrol the city's public housing neighborhoods, the organization announced Thursday. The move comes as part of CEO Steven Nesmith's program of "hope, jobs and security."

Nesmith became CEO in 2022, after working for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Since his arrival at one of Virginia’s largest public housing authorities, he’s touted a holistic approach to change — one that he’s said will address the full range of residents’ needs, including job training, a recently announced homeownership program and safety.

The plan also includes hiring Sentry Force Security — headquartered in Fairfax, with offices in Richmond and Virginia Beach — to patrol its properties.

Sentry Force currently works with the Norfolk housing authority and in the past has worked with Charlottesville's as well.

RRHA previously employed its own security team, but that force was disbanded in 2014 after HUD changed rules governing housing authorities’ use of funds to pay for security.

Standing in the City Hall Chambers, Nesmith chats with an attendee.
Shaban Athuman
VPM News File
Steven Nesmith, CEO of the Richmond Redevelopment & Housing Authority, attends an event at Richmond City Hall.

In an interview earlier this year, Nesmith said money for the nine guards who would be hired for the organization’s new team “won't be a one-time funding stream,” but didn’t share specifics.

“Currently HUD allows for the payment (not of a police force) but of a security force through a different means of funding which RRHA will be taking advantage of in the hiring of the security force that we will be bringing on,” an authority spokesperson wrote in an email after being asked to clarify the program’s budget and funding compared to its previous arrangement.

Nesmith declined to disclose what other security companies RRHA approached. But emails obtained by VPM News through a Freedom of Information Act request show RRHA and Sentry Force representatives had been in touch as far back as March.

According to state code, public entities like RHHA are required to put projects out for competitive sealed bidding when making significant purchases and contracting for services. The process aims to ensure government and public organizations find not just the best deal, but the best qualified group to fulfill its needs — and the public’s.

The housing authority, under different leadership, previously has had questions raised about its procurement procedures.

In this case, RRHA did not engage in a competitive negotiation process. Nesmith referred to a section of the Virginia Public Procurement Act allowing government organizations to “piggyback” on other public entities’ contracts, but didn’t specify which section of the law applied.

“You’ll get that at the announcement,” he said.

It’s possible he was referring to one of several provisions in the act. One part of the law indicates the authority can forgo the competitive negotiation process “for the purpose of combining requirements to increase efficiency or reduce administrative expenses in any acquisition of goods, services, or construction.” Another says a public housing authority can skirt the requirement if certain “public funds other than special assessments and incremental real property taxes” aren’t being used.

Sentry Force President Tim Sansone exchanged emails with multiple RRHA employees beginning at least as far back as May, according to emails VPM News reviewed. They indicated RRHA, Richmond’s then-interim Police Chief Rick Edwards and a city representative met with the security firm.

Creighton Court housing
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Richmond's Creighton Court is shown during late May.

In response to a note from Leondra Brown Turner, RRHA’s special projects coordinator, Sansone wrote on May 30 that he wasn’t “sure if we'd be able to start 100% coverage by the end of June, but what we could do is start partial coverage by then with whichever officers we have hired and trained by that time … .”

Sansone sent another email on June 29.

“With the contract still not signed, we will not be able to meet our previously discussed mid July start date. Over the last few weeks we have invested several thousand dollars in recruiting costs to bring in Level II officers in preparation for the upcoming contract,” he wrote.

Both Sansone and William Swafford, Sentry Force’s director of operations, did not return multiple calls from VPM News seeking comment.

Sansone reached out following this story being published and said the company's policy is to refer questions to its clients.

Public housing residents

The Richmond housing authority has not reached out to people living in its communities, but has scheduled meetings at various public housing locations to hear from residents beginning Aug. 21.

The authority also said in July it hasn’t determined if guards patrolling Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods will be armed. In an earlier conversation with VPM News, Nesmith said that they would be. A post on RRHA’s site refers to Sentry Force as “a private firm specializing in armed and unarmed uniformed security services.”

Brandon Collins, who works for the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, spoke broadly about how he sees security firms functioning in public housing communities.

“They weren’t effective or able to provide the kind of services that residents wanted,” he told VPM News. “And the services they did provide — for the money — weren’t able to provide what residents were expecting.”

Omari Al-Qadaffi, a community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said despite RRHA calling its approach holistic, more attention and resources are generally focused on policing than other programs residents might benefit from.

Omari Al-Qadaffi is photographed in front of a green background in his office
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Omari Al-Qadaffi works on housing issues for the Legal Aid Justice Center.

“I think it's common to say, ‘Oh, the police, just get these police,’” he told VPM News. “But it's never resulted in a reduction in those types of activities.”

Earlier in the summer, multiple Creighton Court residents expressed mixed feelings on having guards patrol their neighborhood. Some told VPM News that police or guards would help make their community safer. Some said it wasn’t worth the money and effort. And others expressed both sentiments in the same conversation.

Linda said she’s lived in Creighton for about two decades and raised her kids there. She asked that her last name not be used.

She told VPM News that RRHA always tried to provide activities for children, and during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic helped ensure students had supplies. Linda recognized an increase in violence during her time as a Creighton resident and remembered when a security team previously patrolled the neighborhood.

“Some people liked it, some people didn’t,” she said. “You know, it was either/or for me. I didn't bother them, they didn’t bother me.”

Patresha Red, a former public housing resident who is currently working to address access to healthy food at RRHA properties, offered a different perspective on bringing back a security team.

“They did this before. And when this did this before, the patrol was always at the wrong times,” she said. “When the patrol needs to be out there, they’re never out there … . After they gone, that’s when everything’s going on. To me, it ain’t no point. And if you can set up all these cameras, put ’em to use.”

An official announcement of Nesmith’s "hope, jobs and security" plan — an event he said will include members of the Richmond Police Department and city officials — is planned for Aug. 30 at the authority’s offices along Chamberlayne Parkway.

“Once we stand it up, we gotta own it,” he said.

Updated: August 8, 2023 at 4:13 PM EDT
Added information regarding Sentry Force Security's communications policy.
Corrected: August 7, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misstated what type of officer Sentry Force Security sought. The company was aiming to hire Level II officers.
Dave Cantor has been an editor with VPM News since 2022, juggling daily digital and broadcast stories.