Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney announced Tuesday afternoon that, at his request, Richmond Police Chief William C. Smith has resigned.
Stoney, who also announced longer-term police reforms, did not address whether the change at the top of the Richmond Police Department would immediately temper what appeared to be escalating clashes between protesters and police officers in recent days.
Just before the impromptu news conference Tuesday afternoon, large concrete culverts were seen being erected outside RPD’s headquarters at 200 W. Grace St.
“I have high expectations for the Richmond Police Department, our law enforcement,” Stoney said. “At a very minimum, I expect them to be willing to come around the table with the community to reform and reimagine public safety. So it boils down to whether the leadership of RPD embraces the change or stands in the way.”
Stoney did not directly address which approach applied to Smith, but he followed that statement by announcing Smith’s resignation and adding: “Chief Smith is a good man. He has served this city with grace. But we are ready to move in a new direction.”
Smith, who held the chief’s position on an interim basis for about seven months before he was installed as chief last year on June 26, declined to comment Tuesday.
Smith was the first police chief in more than 50 years to be promoted from within RPD’s ranks and was well-regarded by fellow officers. His father retired as a Richmond police lieutenant the same day that the younger Smith graduated from the police academy.
Stoney immediately appointed Maj. William “Jody” Blackwell as interim chief and said a nationwide search would take place.
“Interim Chief Blackwell is willing and able to focus on necessary public safety reforms,” Stoney said. “He will lead our healing and trust-building within our community.”
The announcement came three days after a Richmond police officer drove an SUV through protesters blocking the vehicle’s path on Saturday night at the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue, and two weeks after Richmond police dispensed tear gas into a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Lee monument without warning, more than 20 minutes before mandatory curfew.
Saturday night’s incident sparked two consecutive days of standoffs outside RPD headquarters, where police said in a statement Monday afternoon that the demonstration had “escalated into rioting and violence.” Protesters were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and flash bangs.
“I believe that the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and nonlethal recourse should be the last resort,” Stoney said Tuesday when asked about their deployment over the previous two nights. “When I hear last resort, that means that violence of some sort has occurred, and I think that’s what happened at some of the protests at RPD.”
Later in the news conference, Stoney defended the actions by saying: “I think we’ve done everything possible that we could have done to ensure that this city has stayed safe.”
Officers shot rubber bullets on three separate occasions Monday night after protesters shined a flashlight and laser pointer at police in the parking garage of the headquarters. At roughly 10 p.m., protesters relocated from the corner of Madison and West Grace streets to a parking lot facing the headquarters — the location of a standoff the night before, which saw one woman arrested and charged with felony assault on a law enforcement officer and conspiracy to incite a riot.
Within minutes of the protesters’ arrival, officers lining West Grace Street deployed tear gas canisters, flash bangs and pepper spray into the crowd.
At the news conference Tuesday, Stoney was surrounded by members of his administration — though representation from the police department was notably absent — as well as three members of the City Council: Council President Cynthia Newbille, who represents the 7th District, along with 9th District representative Michael Jones and 6th District representative Ellen Robertson.
“That was not easy for Mayor Levar Stoney,” said Jones, who has called for greater police accountability. “That was not. When you ask for someone’s resignation, you are impacting their life, their career. I think about their children, their spouses, it’s so easy to cry for [resignations], but it’s much different to go out and do it yourself.”
Jones, who along with 5th District council representative Stephanie Lynch attended demonstrations where officers deployed chemical agents and shot projectiles into crowds, said the police response outside RPD’s headquarters Monday night left him afraid.
“That stuff was scary,” he said in an interview outside council chambers after Stoney’s announcement. “We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.”
The community policing model pitched for decades as a solution to building trust has failed, said Jones, who added that he shouldn’t have to have the talk about interacting with police with his son, or his grandson after him.
To Jones, justice looks like shifting money from the police department to pay for reading programs and other community needs.
“I want that money back,” he said of lobbying efforts from former Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham that secured funding for police initiatives.
It also means an oversight board with subpoena power.
“The protesters have shown, we have to do different,” he said. “That’s what today is about — where are we going to be 20 years from now?”
Though he didn’t offer specifics Tuesday, Stoney also hinted that budget adjustments would have to be made, to align funding with priorities other than policing.
“Due to poor budgeting and policy decisions at all levels of government in the past, we have asked our police officers to respond to every type of crisis, from homelessness to mental health issues to substance abuse,” he said. “We can’t expect our police officers to serve as social workers, psychologists and juvenile trauma experts.”
On Tuesday, Stoney requested that the council begin to create legislation for a civilian review board, “a law enforcement oversight mechanism independent of the police department and representative of the entire community,” he said.
Such a board has been a rallying cry from activists in the city for years, but the idea has been largely ignored by city leaders.
The mayor said police have also reviewed their use-of-force policy, “strengthened RPD’s long-standing ban on chokeholds” and “re-evaluated and strengthen RPD’s officers’ duty to intervene,” meaning that officers hold each other accountable for excessive use of force or inappropriate behavior. He also announced a task force of up to 20 people from “activists, legal, academia, RPD, mental and behavior health and other” fields to agree on “a set of actual steps” forward within 90 days of initially meeting.
“One thing is clear after the past two weeks: Richmond is ready for a new approach to public safety,” he said. “There is work to be done, and we’re ready to do it.”
Some community members, who continued to protest for the 19th straight day Tuesday night, seemed skeptical that one change at the top would have any impact.
Frank Hunt, who lives in Richmond and was at the Lee monument gathering signatures to appear on the mayoral ballot, said: “I feel a small bit of liberation that he resigned. However, that’s just a small portion of what is going on [with] love versus hate and freedom and equality versus racism.
“We can’t take our minds off the bigger picture — just because he resigned doesn’t mean the situation is resolved. What makes anybody that comes in behind him any better? If they’re not holding their officers accountable, we’re still in a lose-lose situation. He may have resigned, but that doesn’t change nothing. That’s just one less person we have to worry about beating us across the head.”
On Tuesday night, more than 150 protesters gathered in Monroe Park despite a steady rain.
Speakers called for the removal of all Confederate monuments, defunding of the police, reopening the Marcus-David Peters death investigation, and the establishing of a civilian review board.
The crowd cheered when one of the speakers brought up Smith’s resignation.
The group started marching just before 9:30 p.m., with a group of about 30 cyclists leading. As of press time, it wasn’t clear where they were headed.
Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery in the U.S., could soon become a state holiday in Virginia.
Gov. Ralph Northam announced Tuesday that he would introduce legislation to make June 19 a paid holiday for state employees. The governor has ordered that executive branch employees will have the day off Friday in recognition of the day.
Juneteenth, recognized annually on June 19, marks the day in 1865 when formerly enslaved people in Texas were belatedly told of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect in 1863.
“It’s time we elevate this,” Northam said. “It finally shut the door on the enslavement of African American people and while it did not end racism, black oppression or violence, it is an important symbol. By commemorating it, we push people to think about the significance of Juneteenth.”
Virginia Beach native and musical artist Pharrell Williams and top Democrats in the General Assembly joined Northam to back adding Juneteenth to the list of paid state holidays.
“This is a big display of progress and I am grateful for Virginia for leading the way,” Williams said. “From this moment on, when you look at the vastness of the night sky, and you see those stars moving up there, know that those stars are our African ancestors dancing. They are dancing in celebration because their lives are acknowledged.”
Williams encouraged businesses in the state to also observe Juneteenth. Capital One said Tuesday that it will close all of its U.S. offices and branches at 2 p.m. Friday in observation of the holiday.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney said at a separate news conference Tuesday that the city would also start observing Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
Virginia has previously marked Juneteenth with a proclamation, but June 19 has not been considered a state holiday. The day has gained increased attention over the past several weeks during protests over police brutality and racial injustice in Virginia and elsewhere.
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, called a Juneteenth state holiday “an important step toward affirmation” of African American history in the state.
“There are many steps Virginia can take to advance justice and equity, and that includes adding a state holiday to mark an event that was critical in the lives of millions of Black people,” Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, the chairman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, said in a statement.
Said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton: “We are done with slow and inconsistent. The time has come for us to begin to move forward with laws and policy changes that makes freedom and liberation a reality in this country. Having Juneteenth recognized for the sacredness that it is for us as African Americans is one huge step forward.”
Virginia has had a fraught history at the intersection of state holidays and race.
It has marked a state holiday for Robert E. Lee’s birthday since 1889. It added Stonewall Jackson to the Lee holiday in the early 1900s.
The first federal holiday to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was observed in January 1986. In the mid-1980s, Virginia began marking the federal holiday to the civil rights martyr on the same day, as Lee-Jackson-King Day.
In 2000, Gov. Jim Gilmore, a Republican, called for splitting them into separate holidays. The General Assembly voted this year to remove Lee-Jackson Day as a state holiday, replacing it on the calendar with Election Day.
Northam’s proposal already has bipartisan support, with House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, backing the to-be-introduced legislation.
“July 4th is the birthday of our nation, but Juneteenth is the day where it truly began to fulfill its promise of freedom for all,” Gilbert said. “For the first time since enslaved Africans landed at Jamestown in 1619, the chains of bondage were finally cast off.”
Gilbert added: “The Republican Party was founded with the express goal of ending slavery, and it still celebrates the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to this day. As the greatest part of that legacy, Juneteenth is the day that the God-given gift of liberty for all Americans was finally proclaimed throughout the land, and it is deserving of its own special recognition and observance.”
The legislation could be taken up as soon as August, when the General Assembly is expected to reconvene to address COVID-19’s impact on the state budget and police reform.
If legislators take up Northam’s proposal during the 2021 session, it would need an emergency clause, which requires 80% support in both legislative chambers, in order to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature so that it will be in place for Juneteenth 2021.
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Virginia will not enter its third COVID-19 reopening phase this week, Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday.
Much of Virginia entered Phase Two on June 5, with Richmond and Northern Virginia lagging behind by a week. Under that phase, restaurants can be filled to 50% capacity indoors and gyms can open at 30% capacity.
The state will remain in that phase for the time being.
“I want to have more time to see how the numbers look before we make changes, especially as we see surges in other parts of our country,” Northam said.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to climb in Virginia. The governor encouraged residents to continue practicing social distancing and wearing face masks.
“We know these things work,” he said.
Regarding plans for Phase Three, Northam said he will share more information Thursday during his regularly scheduled news conference.
The Virginia Department of Health reported Tuesday that the statewide total for COVID-19 cases is 55,331 — an increase of 445 from the 54,886 reported Monday.
The 55,331 cases consist of 52,917 confirmed cases and 2,414 probable cases. There are 1,570 COVID-19 deaths in Virginia — 1,465 confirmed and 105 probable. That’s an increase of 18 from the 1,552 reported Monday.
VDH defines probable COVID-19 cases as people who are symptomatic with a known exposure to COVID-19 but whose cases have not been confirmed with a positive test.
As the overall number of positive COVID-19 test results in Virginia grows, data from the VDH coronavirus dashboard show the percentage of positive results from testing is down. The seven-day average for percentage of positive test results was at 7.4% as of Friday, which is the most recent figure provided by the VDH. That’s down from a peak of 22.2% on April 19.
VDH data shows most cases (79.7%) are occurring in adults between the ages of 20 and 69. The majority of deaths (76.6%) are among Virginians over the age of 70.
In the Richmond area, there are 6,793 cases: 2,311 in Henrico County, 2,259 in Chesterfield County, 1,848 in Richmond and 375 in Hanover County.
Also, the region has 230 deaths attributed to the virus: 137 in Henrico, 39 in Chesterfield, 29 in Richmond and 25 in Hanover.
Fairfax County, the state’s most populous locality with more than 1.1 million people, has the most cases with 13,103 and 428 deaths.
VDH said there are 419 outbreaks in the state, 228 in long-term care facilities. These facilities also account for 898 of the state’s deaths attributed to the virus.
State health officials have said there’s a lag in the reporting of statewide numbers on the VDH website. Figures on the website might not include cases or deaths reported by localities or local health districts.
Health Brigade, a charitable clinic, will be offering free COVID-19 walk-up testing on Saturday for the uninsured and members of the local Spanish-speaking community.
Testing will be from 9 a.m. to noon at the clinic at 1010 N. Thompson St. in Richmond. In a news release, the clinic also said free testing would be available every Saturday from June through August, except for July 4.
Health Brigade has been providing health services for low-income Richmonders for more than 50 years and was known as the Fan Free Clinic for many of those years.
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Five protesters who attended a June 1 protest where Richmond police officers deployed tear gas at the Robert E. Lee monument are suing the officers for their actions.
The class action lawsuit, filed in federal court Tuesday afternoon, seeks undisclosed monetary damages for violating the protesters’ First Amendment, Fourth Amendment and 14th Amendment rights and for assault, battery and gross negligence.
The plaintiffs are Richmond residents Jarrod and Megan Blackwood, Ryan Tagg, Christopher Gayler and Keenan Angel. They are being represented by Thomas H. Roberts & Associates, a law firm that handles personal injury and civil rights claims. The plaintiffs are suing individually and “on behalf of a class of similarly situated individuals,” meaning anyone who was at the June 1 protest.
The defendants are the police officers, who have not yet been identified, who participated in, encouraged or authorized the attack on protesters.
“We have not specified an amount that we’re asking for. We believe it’s more appropriate to focus on the wrongful nature of the conduct rather than just the number we would list in the complaint,” said Andrew T. Bodoh, one of the firm’s attorneys, in an interview Tuesday.
The police department on Wednesday said the agency does not respond to questions about active lawsuits.
On June 1, Richmond police officers tear-gassed kneeling demonstrators at the foot of the Lee statue 20 minutes ahead of the-then 8 p.m. city curfew. The police department tweeted an apology nearly two hours later that called the gassing “unwarranted action.”
Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith, who was forced to resign Tuesday, apologized the next day and promised to discipline the officers.
“It should not have happened,” Stoney told an angry crowd that had gathered at City Hall on June 2.
The suit claims police tried to encourage violence by peaceful protesters when they formed a “skirmish line” around Lee Circle and “assumed aggressive shooting stances, and trained their rifles or sidearms in the assembly, causing many in the peaceful assembly that witnessed this to fear these armed individuals were about to fire upon them.”
“At no time prior to the ambush was the assembly at the Lee Circle violent, there was no property destruction or any attempts to deface, destroy, damage the memorial or other public or private property,” the suit states.
Three plaintiffs — Tagg, Gayler and Angel — were tear-gassed, while the Blackwoods, who are married, were not, the suit alleges. The Blackwoods represent other protesters who may have left unscathed but witnessed police pointing guns and deploying tear gas.
Tagg, who also was pepper-sprayed, stumbled across the street to get away from the officers, the suit alleges.
Before being pepper-sprayed at close range, Tagg’s eyes and mouth began to burn from the tear gas, resulting in him saying to nearby officers “I am leaving. Don’t shoot me,” the suit states. An officer then jogged toward Tagg and sprayed pepper spray in his face at close range, the suit claims.
Next steps include identifying the unnamed officers, as the suit is directed at the individual officers and not the police department as a whole, Bodoh said.
If Richmond police do not provide the names willingly, the law firm will ask the court to issue subpoenas and possibly dispositions to identify the officers, Bodoh said.
“We want to hear the officers’ side of the story,” he said. “Why they think they were justified for the conduct that they did.”
Earlier in June, Thomas H. Roberts & Associates filed a civil lawsuit against unidentified officers on behalf of Jonathan Arthur, an attorney with the firm. Arthur, who attended the June 1 protest, was tear-gassed twice, according to the civil suit.
At this time, the two cases remain separate, but they may be joined together, Bodoh said.
Stoney announced Tuesday that he had asked for the police chief’s resignation, three days after another incident at the Lee monument in which an officer driving a department SUV struck protesters blocking his path.
Police deployed tear gas again Sunday and Monday nights at protesters who were gathered at police department headquarters. Police said they were attacked before using the tear gas, a claim disputed by protesters.
This story has been updated to include a response from the Richmond Police Department.
WASHINGTON — Following weeks of national protests since the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said would encourage better police practices. But he made no mention of the roiling national debate over racism spawned by police killings of black men and women.
Trump met privately with the families of several black Americans killed in interactions with police before his Rose Garden signing ceremony, and said he grieved for the lives lost and families devastated. But then he quickly shifted his tone and devoted most of his public remarks to a need to respect and support “the brave men and women in blue who police our streets and keep us safe.”
He characterized the officers who have used excessive force as a “tiny” number of outliers among “trustworthy” police ranks.
“Reducing crime and raising standards are not opposite goals,” he said before signing the order, flanked by police officials.
Trump and Republicans in Congress have been rushing to respond to the mass demonstrations against police brutality and racial prejudice that have raged for weeks across the country in response to the deaths of Floyd and other black Americans. It’s a sudden shift that underscores how quickly the protests have changed the political conversation and pressured Washington to act.
But Trump, who has faced criticism for failing to acknowledge systemic racial bias and has advocated for rougher police treatment of suspects in the past, has continued to hold his “law and order” line. At the signing event, he railed against those who committed violence during the largely peaceful protests while hailing the vast majority of officers as selfless public servants.
Trump’s executive order would establish a database that tracks police officers with excessive use-of-force complaints in their records. Many officers who wind up involved in fatal incidents have long complaint histories, including Derek Chauvin, the white Minneapolis police officer who has been charged with murder in the death of Floyd. Those records are often not made public, making it difficult to know if an officer has such a history.
The order would also give police departments a financial incentive to adopt best practices and encourage co-responder programs, in which social workers join police when they respond to nonviolent calls involving mental health, addiction and homeless issues.
Trump said that, as part of the order, the use of chokeholds, which have become a symbol of police brutality, would be banned “except if an officer’s life is at risk.” Actually, the order instructs the Justice Department to push local police departments to be certified by a “reputable independent credentialing body” with use-of-force policies that prohibit the use of chokeholds, except when the use of deadly force is allowed by law. Chokeholds are already largely banned in police departments nationwide.
While Trump hailed his efforts as “historic,” Democrats and other critics said he didn’t go nearly far enough.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said, “One modest inadequate executive order will not make up for his decades of inflammatory rhetoric and his recent policies designed to roll back the progress that we’ve made in previous years.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the order “falls sadly and seriously short of what is required to combat the epidemic of racial injustice and police brutality that is murdering hundreds of Black Americans.”
Kristina Roth at Amnesty International USA said the order “amounts to a Band-Aid for a bullet wound.”
But Trump said others want to go too far. He framed his plan as an alternative to the “defund the police” movement to fully revamp departments that has emerged from the protests and which he slammed as “radical and dangerous.”
“Americans know the truth: Without police there is chaos. Without law there is anarchy and without safety there is catastrophe,” he said.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that many tears were shed at the meeting with the families of men and women who have been killed in interactions with police and “the president was devastated.” Trump listed the families’ relatives who died and said: “To all the hurting families, I want you to know that all Americans mourn by your side. Your loved ones will not have died in vain.”
White House adviser Ja’Ron Smith said it was “a mutual decision” for the families not to attend the public signing.
“It really wasn’t about doing a photo opportunity,” he said. “We wanted the opportunity to really hear from the families and protect them. I mean I think it’s really unfortunate that some civil rights groups have even attacked them for coming.”
The White House action came as Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been rolling out their own packages of policing changes. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the sole African American Republican in the Senate, has been crafting the GOP legislative package, which will include new restrictions on police chokeholds and greater use of police body cameras, among other provisions.
While the emerging GOP package isn’t as extensive as sweeping Democratic proposals, which are headed for a House vote next week, it includes perhaps the most far-reaching proposed changes ever from a party that often echoes Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric.
It remains unclear whether the parties will be able to find common ground. Though their proposals share many similar provisions — both would create a national database so officers cannot transfer from one department to another without public oversight of their records, for instance — differences remain.
The Republican bill does not go as far as the Democrats’ on the issue of eliminating qualified immunity, which would allow those injured by law enforcement personnel to sue for damages. The White House has said that is a step too far. As an alternative, Scott has suggested a “decertification” process for officers involved in misconduct.
At the Senate hearing on Tuesday, the debate among the senators reflected the broader reckoning unfolding nationwide as Americans come to grips with the country’s legacy of racism and its modern police structure.
The committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., shared his own experiences of rarely being pulled over by the police and never being afraid if he was — in sharp contrast to Scott’s own stories as a black man being stopped by law enforcement officers even as he entered the U.S. Capitol.
“Hopefully we can all understand that problem and fix it. But it is a problem,” Graham said.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., a co-author of the Democrats’ bill, said it’s the responsibility of all senators to understand the nation’s racial history.
A former attorney general in California, Harris said “more police” does not equal “more safety” especially as teachers and others compete for scarce local funding.
“We must reimagine what public safety looks like,” Harris said.