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Project Exile: Still the Model for Firearms Crime Reduction Strategies

By Ross Arends, Supervisory Special Agent, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; IACP Fellow

Project Exile was, by most accounts, one of the most successful violent crime reduction strategies in the United States. The initiative started in February 1997 and was a coordinated effort between the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office, Richmond Police Department (RPD), the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), to target felons carrying firearms and prosecute them in federal court where they would receive stiffer sentences, no bail, and no early release. As a result, at the end of 1998, firearms-related homicides had decreased almost 40 percent in Richmond, Virginia.

Now that Project Exile is nearly 15 years old, is it still a useful model for law enforcement executives to employ? Did other cities similar to Richmond ever replicate the Project Exile model successfully? This article attempts to answer these questions and interviews several significant participants in the implementation and management of the Project Exile program in Richmond to obtain their current perspectives of the program.

Implementation of Project Exile in Richmond and the Results

During the 1990s, the city of Richmond, Virginia, experienced large increases in violent crimes and homicides. The homicide rate was among the highest in the United States for cities with populations of 100,000 or more.

Recognizing the need to combat the violence immediately, Helen Fahey, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia; James Comey, then-Criminal Division Chief in Richmond; and Assistant U.S. Attorney David Schiller conceptualized an innovative federal initiative. Working with Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver, they developed plans to increase the federal prosecution of firearm crimes, particularly the ATF bread-and-butter charge of 18 U.S.C. 922(g), Felon in Possession of a Firearm. Richmond Police Department cases involving firearm recoveries would start being referred to federal court in cases where clear possession of the firearm could be proven in court and the possessor was a previously convicted felon.

In 1998, Assistant U.S. Attorney Comey said of Richmond, “It’s an amazingly high [gun] carry rate…I have never seen a place like Richmond. Dealers in cities like Chicago, New York, or Cleveland have access to guns, but they’re not standing on a street corner with a gun.”1

The ATF and the RPD coordinated to ensure that ATF agents responded to crime scenes upon the recovery of firearms, particularly when in the possession of previously convicted felons, in order to facilitate the transfer of the firearm or ammunition evidence into federal custody.

The United States Attorney’s Office, the RPD, ATF, and the Richmond Commonwealth Attorney’s Office worked together to enlist community-wide support for these enforcement efforts. Community organizations and citizen groups—churches, the Boys and Girls Club of America, newspapers, public school leaders, and others—were contacted to enlist their support to build a citizen-based coalition for this crime reduction strategy and to fund a media and public service announcement campaign. The Project Exile Citizen Support Foundation was formed in July 1997 and raised financial and other contributions to advertise the Project Exile message of “An illegal gun will get you five years in federal prison.” Billboards were posted around the high-crime areas of Richmond and city buses carried advertisements announcing the mandatory prison sentences for felons who were arrested in possession of firearms. The buses were rotated along numerous routes to advertise the program to many of Richmond’s communities.

Former ATF Group Supervisor William Dunham, who supervised the ATF portion of Project Exile in Richmond, recently said that though Project Exile was very successful, its implementation was not always popular. “The Eastern District of Virginia federal courts were clogged with ATF gun cases involving mandatory minimum sentences, which were not popular with all federal court judges. Also not popular to many federal judges were mandatory minimum sentences.” Mr. Dunham also said that he thought the results of Project Exile were a clear success in reducing homicides, reducing firearmsrelated crime, and reducing the firearms-carry rate of criminals. He recalled one ATF undercover operation where an undercover ATF agent had arranged to purchase a firearm from a convicted felon. During face-to-face negotiations between the ATF undercover agent and the convicted felon about price—and moments from the deal culminating—the Project Exile bus drove by with the advertisement that said, “An illegal gun will get you 5 years in a federal prison.” The felon saw the bus and called off the transaction.2

In an interview in 1999, SA Dunham said,

“We looked at the typical defendants here, and you get arrested with a gun as a felon or with a gun and you’re dealing drugs, if you’re convicted the sentences were very low,” Dunham told Law Enforcement News, a publication of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, “You could have a six-year sentence with 5½ years suspended. You serve six months. There was just a big disparity in what could be sentenced and what time people were actually serving. There was no deterrent.” But under Exile, with its no bail, out-of-state incarceration, and few plea-bargaining options, a message had been sent, Dunham said. Each case that met the minimum criteria was prosecuted under its guidelines. Even if defendants were able to plead down their cases in return for cooperation, “They still got a good whack,” he said, with a “good, substantial firearms charge.”

No-bail has proved to be one of the most effective components of the program, easing reluctance among community members to testify against gang members. “When we started giving some heavy hits to gang members here, people saw they were just sentenced to 17 years and thought, ‘They’re not going to hurt me, so I’ll come forward to testify,’” said Dunham in 1999. “And they have come forward. We’ve now convicted several guys on a number of homicides, and I don’t think that cooperation would have ever existed if they hadn’t seen that those people are safely away in jail for a while.” It is one of Project Exile’s “spin-off effects,” said Chief Oliver in 1999. “We had some problems, and we still do, with this presumption of bail,” he said. “We had some people who committed heinous crimes with guns and got bailed out with $50,000, $100,000, even $250,000. The moment they’re back there in the community, their presence intimidates the victims, the witnesses, and speaks to a certain type of hopelessness and helplessness in the community.”

When police started to make arrests of those illegally possessing firearms and transfer the offenders into the Exile program, the certainty that they would not be released on bail created the confidence for witnesses to come forward.3

Former Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver recently said that not only were the enforcement, media, and community foundation pieces unique, there was another background story that led to the success of Project Exile in Richmond, much of which has been forgotten. When he came to Richmond in 1995, he began a ramp-up of non-traditional policing to include a robust community outreach program. Chief Oliver invited some of the most vocal critics of law enforcement and the police department to meet with him at his office and voice their concerns. Chief Oliver said, “These outreach efforts were not only an opportunity for us in law enforcement to listen to the community, it was an opportunity for us to let the community feel that they were able to have their say and maybe even change the police department.”4 Chief Oliver feels that the years of community outreach before Project Exile began was a big part of the later successes. He does stress, however, that the intense media campaign also had a big part in the reduction of the homicide rate and the reduction in the number of guns carried by criminals.

Evaluations of Project Exile

In a historical context, Project Exile has been viewed overwhelmingly as a huge success. Newspapers from the local newspaper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, to the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and USA Today ran articles about the successes of Project Exile. Hearings were held before the U.S. House of Representatives Government Reform Committee in 1999 with testimony from National Rifle Association (NRA) President Charlton Heston and U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey. The NRA was an outspoken advocate of Project Exile, supporting the strong enforcement of existing firearms laws at a time when national federal firearms prosecutions were dropping. NRA Director of Federal Affairs Chuck Cunningham said the following in a letter to all members of the U.S. House of Representatives:

We strongly believe that enforcement of current law and dealing effectively with criminals is directly related to the reduction of violence as well as stemming illegal gun commerce. If violent criminals are in jail, not only are they not buying guns, but they are also not in a position to harm or kill others, with or without a firearm. Tellingly, however, such prosecutions of violent street-level offenders are termed “garbage prosecutions” by one defender of the Administration’s record…”5

Even the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, then called Handgun Control, Inc., agreed with the NRA. In a letter to U.S. Attorney Helen Fahey, Handgun Control Chairwoman Sarah Brady wrote “Your work is succeeding in getting guns out of the hands of criminals….the results in Richmond are impressive.”6

But not all evaluations of Project Exile were positive. Researchers Steven Raphael from the University of California at Berkeley and Jens Ludwig, Georgetown University and Brookings Institution, found the following:

We argue that the reduction in Richmond’s gun homicide rates surrounding the implementation of Project Exile was not unusual, and that almost all of the observed decrease is likely to have occurred even in the absence of the program. This conclusion is based on a very strong empirical regularity observed in city-level homicide rates: cities with the largest increases in homicide rates during the 1980s and early 1990s also experienced the largest decreases during the late 1990s. Richmond happened to be among the handful of cities that experienced unusually large increases in homicide rates during the 80s. Consequently, nearly all of the reduction in murder rates experienced by Richmond following Project Exile may be attributed to this large increase in gun homicides occurring prior to Exile’s implementation. We also find nearly identical results for trends in other felony crimes.7

But the findings of Raphael and Ludwig were contradicted by Richard Rosenfeld, Robert Fornango, and Eric Baumer of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, in a 2005 National Institute of Justice–funded study that concluded the following:

The Richmond story differs from those in Boston and New York. The unconditional model shows that Richmond’s firearm homicide rate fell by nearly 16 percent per year after Exile was introduced in 1997, but that decrease is not significantly greater than the almost 10 percent average reduction in firearm homicide for the sample. However, after controlling for other factors, Richmond’s firearm homicide rate exhibits a 22 percent yearly decline, whereas the average reduction for the sample remains about 10 percent per year. That difference is statistically significant (p < 0.05).

This finding differs from those obtained by Raphael and Ludwig (2003) in their evaluation of Exile, which concluded that the intervention had little effect on Richmond’s firearm homicide rate. The discrepancy may be from the use of a longer firearm homicide series in the current study. Raphael and Ludwig (2003) analyzed firearm homicide rates through 1999, whereas the series used in this study extends the intervention period two additional years to 2001. Raphael and Ludwig (2003) also omitted the year 1997 from their analysis, on the grounds that the unusually high rate of firearm homicide in Richmond that year constitutes an unreliable base on which to gauge the effectiveness of Exile.8

Other Cities That Implemented Project Exile

It seems that though many cities have adapted firearms crime reduction strategies, few have implemented an identical Project Exile strategy. The Boston Police Department instated the well-documented Project Ceasefire in 1997, which featured a “pulling levers” deterrence strategy meant to influence the behavior and environment of the habitual offenders involved in the city’s youth violence problem. “Pulling levers” refers to specific actions taken by law enforcement, the courts, social services units, and others, should offenses take place by the suspected violators. A media campaign similar to the Richmond Project Exile was absent.

In early 1999, the Northern District of Alabama established Project Isolating the Criminal Element (Project I.C.E.) to address the high level of gun homicides in Birmingham. Project I.C.E. included vigorous prosecution of all federal firearms violations, identified through a partnership with the Birmingham Police Department, ATF, and the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office. Project I.C.E. also provided for intensive training of local law enforcement officers on federal and state firearms laws and procedures. A community outreach component of Project I.C.E. included television, radio, and billboard advertisements, as well as bumper stickers and yard signs.

In 2002, the Montgomery Police Department, ATF, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Middle District of Alabama initiated a firearms reduction strategy modeled after Project Exile that resulted in a 13 percent reduction in gun assaults per year, and a 23 percent reduction in homicides per year.9 As with Project Exile in Richmond, a media campaign was organized in Montgomery with United Way spearheading this effort. A veteran ATF special agent in Montgomery, who was assigned to supervise the Montgomery Project Exile task force, recently said, “A local television channel ran free advertisements for several months announcing the effort and the fact that if you were a felon and caught with a gun, you would serve Federal time. Those of us in federal, state, and local law enforcement observed the reduction in homicides and the general reduction in the number firearms carried by criminals.”10

Also in 2002, Lowell, Massachusetts, began a firearms violence reduction strategy that concentrated on the ATF adapting cases from the police department for referral to federal court. However, the strategy was more weighted with an intervention strategy to target at-risk youth in order to steer them away from participating in violent crimes.

In 2010, a firearms reduction strategy initiative was implemented in Rochester, New York, with an added emphasis on mentoring and counseling by case workers deployed in high-crime areas. The program was called Operation SNUG. There are several cities in New York, which received state grants to implement the program, still running Operation SNUG. Integral in each city is the employment of ex-gang members as case workers to act as mentors and interveners, mediating disputes as they occur in high-crime areas.

Project Exile versus Project Safe Neighborhoods

Project Safe Neighborhoods (PSN) is a more overarching, nationwide, firearms crime reduction strategy started after Project Exile that encompasses the national goals of reducing firearms-related crime. It is a Bureau of Justice Assistance–funded campaign whose goals include the following:

The PSN initiative integrates five essential elements from successful gun crime reduction programs, such as Richmond’s Project Exile, the Boston Operation Ceasefire Program, and DOJ’s Strategic Approaches to Community Safety Initiative. Those elements are: partnerships, strategic planning, training, outreach, and accountability. The partnership element requires that the local U.S. Attorney create workable and sustainable partnerships with other federal, state, and local law enforcement; prosecutors; and the community. Strategic problem-solving involves the use of data and research to isolate the key factors driving gun crime at the local level, suggest intervention strategies, and provide feedback and evaluation to the task force. The outreach component incorporates communication strategies geared at both offenders (“focused deterrence”) and the community (“general deterrence”). The training element underscores the importance of ensuring that each person involved in the gun crime reduction effort—from the line police officer to the prosecutor to the community outreach worker—has the skills necessary to be most effective. Finally, the accountability element ensures that the task force regularly receives feedback about the impact of its interventions so that adjustments can be made if necessary.11

These elements of PSN are clearly identifiable with Project Exile goals but are applicable to a nationwide strategic effort of gang and firearms crime reduction.

The Future

Many of the firearms crime reduction strategies implemented throughout the United States from 1999 onward adapted an “integrated” violence reduction strategy to acknowledge that each judicial district and city is unique and requires a unique adaptation of strategies. However, Project Exile demonstrated that the implementation of certain concrete steps can dramatically reduce firearms crimes.

For example, in the nearby jurisdiction of Prince Georges County, Maryland, where IACP Firearms Committee Chair Mark Magaw is chief, his department works closely with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the ATF, the FBI, and the Maryland State Police, in their own Project Exile program that is called the Violent Repeat Offender (VRO) task force. This group meets regularly and is coordinated by an assistant U.S. attorney who brings law enforcement and federal and state prosecutors together to identify the most violent offenders in the area to ensure they are prosecuted in whichever court allows for the maximum sentencing available.

Project Exile remains a viable firearms crime reduction strategy that small and medium-size cities should consider when faced with high rates of firearms crime. The key principles of Project Exile can be implemented in any city with a population similar to Richmond: a coordinated prosecution effort between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and District Attorney’s Office; a coordinated enforcement effort between the ATF and the local police department; a community outreach effort to build coalitions willing to support a media campaign that delivers the message that felons carrying firearms will be prosecuted in federal court; and, finally as former Richmond Police Chief Jerry Oliver enacted, a strong community outreach effort that builds trust in the community between the police and the citizens in the target area. ♦

1R.H. Melton, “Richmond Gun Project Praised,” Washington Post, June 18, 1998.
2William Dunham, telephone conversation with the author, November 14, 2012.
3“Get Out of Town! Richmond’s Project Exile Stems a Spiral of Violence with Its Focus on Gun-toting Felons,” Law Enforcement News, 25 (December 1999), (accessed September 30, 2013).
4Jerry Oliver, telephone conversation with the author, October 24, 2012.
5Project EXILE: A Case Study in Successful Gun Law Enforcement, Hearing before the Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources, 106th Cong. (November 4, 1999) (letter from Charles H. Cunningham), 152.
6144 Cong. Rec. 14005 (1998) (quoting an article by R.H. Melton, “Richmond Gun Project Praised” from the Washington Post, June 18, 1998).
7Steven Raphael and Jens Ludwig, “Prison Sentence Enhancements: The Case of Project Exile,” in Jens Ludwig and Phillip J. Cook, eds., Evaluating Gun Policy: Effects on Crime and Violence (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 217-251.
8Richard Rosenfeld, Robert Fornango, and Eric Baumer, “Did Ceasefire, CompStat, and Exile Reduce Homicide?” Criminology and Public Policy 4, no. 3 (August 2005), 436.
9Edmund F. McGarrell, Natalie Kroovand Hipple, and Nicholas Corsaro, Project Safe Neighborhoods: Strategic Interventions: Middle District of Alabama: Case Study 5 (East Lansing, Mich.: Michigan State University, February 2007), 2.
10Anonymous ATF special agent.
11Scott H. Decker et al., Gun Prosecution Case Screening: Case Study 1, Project Safe Neighborhoods: Strategic Interventions (May 2006), i, (accessed September 30, 2013).

Please cite as:

Ross Arends, “Project Exile: Still the Model for Firearms Crime Reduction Strategies,” The Police Chief 80 (November 2013): 56–59.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 11, November 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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