Roanoke City Leaders Express Concern About Murder Crisis – But Get No Results

Leadership guru and author John Maxwell says, “Everything rises and falls on leadership.”

Roanoke City, with about 97,000 residents, has suffered a record-breaking 31 murders in 2023, causing some to question the City’s leadership and direction.

Based on public announcements and appearances, how concerned are Roanoke’s leaders about the Star City’s murder pandemic?

In Mayor Sherman Lea Sr.’s (D) announcement that he will not run for re-election in 2024, he made no mention of the gun-violence / murder crisis or work that needs to be done to address it. His only reference to “guns” was touting the “Formation of the Gun Violence Prevention Commission.” He also boasted the “Removal of Robert E. Lee Memorial,” even though Lee died in 1870.

Mayor Sherman Lea sr. (D). During his administration from 2017-2023, Roanoke City has had an unprecedented 123 murders.

Lea ignored these bloody Roanoke benchmarks since he won election as Mayor in 2016:

  •  2017, record-breaking 17 murders (up 41.6% from 2016)
  • 2022, record-breaking 18 murders (up 5.8% from 2021)
  • 2023, record-breaking 31 murders (up 72.2% from 2022)
  • Not counting 2016, 123 murders 2017-2023
  • First Mayor in Roanoke history where every year in office had double-digit murder rate.

When Mayor Lea was asked about this situation, a staff member emailed: “Mayor Lea is unable to offer comments and would like to direct you to the City Manager’s office.”

As reported here in Aug. 2020, the State Parole Board, of which Lea was a member, was breaking many state laws. In one 30 day period, they granted parole to 95 violent felons, including 35 convicted murderers–a 735% increase over the release rate of 2019.

That Parole Board scandal triggered an audit by Attorney General Jason Miyares (R) that blasted the rogue board for committing “abuse of power.” Those findings are summarized here from Jan. 2023. The Roanoke Star sought a statement from Lea then, but nothing was ever received.

Because the statute of limitations had passed, no one from the rogue Parole Board was ever held accountable for their crimes.

Police staffing, budget, and morale have long been questioned in Roanoke. As pointed out here as early as 2021, the Drumstick Dash once had to be moved from Downtown to the Greenway due to a lack of RPD personnel.

(Note: While many cities jumped on the “Defund the Police” bandwagon during the throes of Covid and BLM riots, Roanoke County bucked the trend and increased police funding and staffing.)

In Lea’s defense, his tenure as mayor fell at a challenging time nationally. Beginning in 2020, the US struggled with Covid, the lockdowns, unemployment, BLM riots, “defund the police” calls, forced isolation from families and churches that broke human bonds and unleased emotional havoc, etc.

Clearly, those were national trends, and Roanoke City was not immune.

Nevertheless, Roanoke’s murder numbers have been trending up including a 41% jump in 2017, Lea’s first year as mayor, but three years before Covid.

Moreover, as reported here, City Manager Bob Cowell in a Dec. 21, 2023 email claimed: “Unfortunately, what we are experiencing here in Roanoke is becoming all too commonplace across the Nation.”

However, as reported here, Chicago’s murder rate in 2023 fell 13%, murders in urban areas nationwide fell about 13%, but Roanoke’s murder numbers shot up. Moreover, the Star City’s 31 murder rate is higher than the per 100k murder numbers for bigger cities such as New York City (4.6), Los Angeles (8.5), Chicago (23.2), and Philadelphia (26).

Put another way, Roanoke’s per capita murder rate is 6.7 times higher than that of New York City.

City Vice Mayor Joseph Leslie Cobb (D) has announced he is running for mayor this year. Although Cobb has played a high profile role in the “Gun Violence Prevention Commission,” that body seems to keep missing its target, as murders in Roanoke have kept climbing since Cobb was first elected to City Council in 2018. For example, there were 17 murders in 2017, the year before the Kansas-transplant was elected to City Council. The jump from 17 to the 2023 record of 31 murders is a shocking 82.3% increase.

Around the time of Lea’s Parole Board scandal, Cobb had his own scandal. As reported here, here, and here, Cobb was embroiled in a controversy in 2022 where he used $658 of taxpayer money from the “Gun Violence Prevention Program Grant” to treat himself and 16 other still-unnamed people to a dinner including steak and swordfish at an exclusive Wasena restaurant and wine bar. Cobb never responded to Roanoke Star requests for any explanation or statement.

Receipt for Joe Cobb’s $658 dinner. Note the upper right corner says “Gun Violence Prevention Commission” and “Intervention Program Grant.”

Cobb’s campaign website claims one priority is “Keeping [sic] the Star City a safe place to live, work, and play.”

“Keeping” implies Roanoke is already safe, and nowhere does the website refer to the current record-breaking murder crisis or his proposed solutions for it.

Until July 2023, Sam Roman was Roanoke City Police Chief during years while murders increased. However, as reported here, the City promoted Roman to a newly-created Assistant City Manager position, with an even higher salary. Some observers may reach the conclusion, in Roanoke City, not only is failure tolerated, it is rewarded.

In late 2023, the City hired a new police chief, Scott Booth, and hopes are high that he can stop the spiral of murders and crime.

Compare Roanoke with East Palo Alto, California. With about 25,000 residents, roughly the size of Salem, that Bay Area city was the “Murder Capital of America” with 39 reported homicides in 1992. However, after concerted efforts, the murder rate dropped to four in 1993. In 2023, East Palo Alto celebrated zero murders.

The Epoch Times quotes the mayor of East Palo Alto: “‘astute decision-making’ on the part of city officials also contributed to the drop in homicides,” in addition to community involvement.

“‘The city council voted to hire more police officers in 2022 after cutting back over the previous two years due to the pandemic. It also voted to increase police officers’ pay and budget in 2023,’ according to Mayor Lopez.

“’In 2023, the Council voted to increase police pay and budget after the city endured significant staff turnover,'” the East Palo Alto mayor said in a statement.

The next elections for Roanoke mayor and some members of City Council will be in November 2024.

–Scott Dreyer

Note: In response to a Jan. 11 request for information, the RDP emailed The Roanoke Star on Jan. 16, submitting data claiming 26 homicides in Roanoke City in 2023, but 31 murder investigations, two involving unclear causes of death, and one involving Bedford County. The Roanoke Star has requested the RPD provide clarification.

You can read The Epoch Times’ “‘Murder Capital’ in ’90s Reports Zero Homicides in 2023” here.

Updated Feb. 8, 2014. As explained here, based on responses from Roanoke City Police, the confirmed number of murders in the City for 2023 is 28. There were 26 murderous incidents, two of which had two victims each, for a total of 28 killed. The deaths of two children are under investigation and have not been ruled homicides, and one murder occurred in Bedford County and is thus recorded by State Police and is not included in the City’s total. That equals 31 murder investigations. 


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