Interim Richmond Police Chief William “Jody” Blackwell stepped down Friday afternoon.
Hours later, at a news conference shortly before 9 p.m., Mayor Levar Stoney announced he had hand-picked a new police chief to take over the department under fire for its handling of Black Lives Matter protests that have gripped the city for the past four weeks.
Stoney said he had hired Gerald Smith, deputy police chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, as the department’s new chief. Smith will be introduced at a news conference Saturday, Stoney said.
“He is a reform-minded change agent who I think is going to be able to bring the sort of re-imagining of policing and public safety that I think we need in the city of Richmond,” Stoney said hours after news of Blackwell’s resignation leaked.
The revelation left even members of the City Council questioning who was in charge of the department amid its most tumultuous period in decades. A spokesman for the Richmond Police Department said Friday that Blackwell was “no longer interim chief” in a statement.
Two hours later, Stoney said Blackwell would remain in command until Smith takes over July 1. He thanked Blackwell for his work, and said he would return to his previous role with the department.
The abrupt change in leadership was the coda on a week that saw the department fire tear gas and other so-called “less lethal” weapons at protesters decrying police brutality, drawing condemnation from some City Council members, demonstrators and residents.
The actions prompted a new lawsuit against the department and the city Friday.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department also faces legal action over its use of “riot control” agents during a peaceful June 2 rally, according to local media reports.
The announcement of a new permanent police chief put Stoney at odds again with social justice groups, who have demanded a seat at the table as city leaders have promised changes.
“While we welcome [Blackwell’s] resignation, we are calling for meaningful community input into the selection of both the interim and permanent police chiefs. Our city cannot move forward unless the community has reason to trust that the police force is truly here to “serve and protect,” according to a joint statement from five community and social justice organizations: Justice & Reformation, Richmond for All, Second Baptist Church — West End, Southerners on New Ground, Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality
Blackwell’s resignation came less than two weeks after Stoney tapped him to replace former Police Chief William Smith, who Stoney asked to step down as protests sparked by the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd neared their third week. Stoney said the department needed to rebuild trust with residents, and that Blackwell was the person to lead that effort while a national search took place.
However, Blackwell immediately drew sharp criticism from residents and protesters. He fatally shot a man while on the job in 2002. A grand jury later cleared him of wrongdoing.
In an email Blackwell sent to officers Friday evening with the subject line “What’s up Troops?”, he said he was longer in charge.
“I want to start off by saying that you all have done an amazing job,” Blackwell stated. “Under unprecedented times your commitment and professionalism has been phenomenal. Now for the hard part. As of now I am not [sic] longer the Interim Chief of Police. I ask that you all keep up the good fight and I pray that I didn’t serve as a disappointment … Unfortunately I have not been made aware of who will be appointed as the new Interim Chief. The one thing that is for certain is, that we didn’t allow the current state of this city to define us.”
News of Blackwell’s resignation, which leaked hours before Stoney’s announcement of Smith’s hire, spurred disbelief among some city officials.
“I’m just wondering who’s in charge and what’s happening,” said Kimberly Gray, the 2nd District Councilwoman whose district has been the epicenter for many of the demonstrations. “It’s concerning because coming up on this weekend, we’re expecting more incidents.”
She added: “I just know that stuff is out of control in our city and something’s got to happen at some point to get it back under control.”
The sight of police in riot gear has become commonplace on city streets the past four weeks, as the department and its partnering agencies have responded to daily demonstrations downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods.
Clashes between police and protesters have been frequent. Police have used tear gas, pepper spray, “less lethal” bullets and flash-bang grenades to break up gatherings and enforce unlawful assemblies they have declared.
Police have defended the use of force, saying protesters have thrown rocks and other projectiles and engaged in vandalism and other lawbreaking. Dozens have been arrested.
Protesters have said the use of force is proof positive that policing in the city must be overhauled, if not abolished. Their refrain — “defund the police” — has dashed political consensus about the future of a department to which city leaders have long been deferential.
Councilman Michael Jones has sharply criticized the department’s handling of the protests, and its use of the weapons on protesters exercising their First Amendment rights. The sudden shift in leadership did not change what Jones believes must happen, he said.
“We’ve got to look to reallocate funds and reimagine public safety in the city, I don’t think that’s necessarily tied to whether Jody Blackwell is there or not,” Jones said. “I just have a larger vision for what this all about.”
Stoney, when asked about the 2002 shooting last week, said that he knew of the incident but felt Blackwell was the right person for the transition.
“I like his record of service,” Stoney said of Blackwell last week. “He is a former Marine who brings discipline and the sort of composure necessary to be a chief of a police department during these uncertain times. I believe in his leadership and I know that he’s the man to get the job done.”
According to police, Jeramy O. Gilliam pointed a gun at Blackwell, who swept Gilliam’s arm to the side and then grappled with him. While they wrestled, Blackwell — fearing for his life — fired his own gun into Gilliam’s back, police officials contended.
The encounter unfolded after police responded for a report of a burglary and Blackwell saw Gilliam walking roughly three blocks from a burglary scene, according to Times-Dispatch coverage of the incident. Blackwell asked to see Gilliam’s identification, though he didn’t match the description of the suspect, before Gilliam reportedly pointed the gun at Blackwell.
A Richmond grand jury heard evidence in that case and did not return an indictment against Blackwell.
“I appreciate his service over the course of the last 11 days for stepping up in transition between Chief William Smith and now Chief Gerald Smith,” Stoney said of Blackwell on Friday night. “We appreciate his service.”
This story has been updated.
In the early morning hours Wednesday, members of the Virginia Department of General Services combed through the grassy area around the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue and confiscated the tents, books and a broken basketball hoop that had been left there for the past week.
But crews let a large forest green sign on the western corner of the grounds remain undisturbed. It reads “Welcome to Beautiful Marcus-David Peters Circle, Liberated by the People MMXX.”
Maybe officials left the sign because of its size and weight — it’s nearly 8 feet long and anchored in the ground with wooden posts.
Or maybe it’s because of the widespread acceptance the name has gained among visitors in the past month for the area that has become Richmond’s hub for protests against racial prejudice.
“Our crews went in after law enforcement cleared the property and worked in darkness to quickly remove the items we had requested people not place on the grounds,” said Dena Potter, spokesperson for the DGS. “The signs and memorials were left in place, at this time.”
Protest organizers have unofficially renamed the grassy area around the statue for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who lost his life in 2018 when he was shot by a police officer.
Peters’ sister, Princess Blanding, said she loves the idea of naming the circle for her brother because of how organically it came about.
“I love it, and the reason why I do is the family had no idea this was going to happen,” Blanding said. “We love it so much because it was done by the community.”
The commonwealth owns the land around the statue and gets the final say if Peters’ name will be officially adopted. Gov. Ralph Northam has pledged to take down the Lee statue, but the effort to do so is locked in a legal battle that could take months to settle. A spokesperson for the governor said Northam hasn’t made a decision on whether to publicly adopt the new title.
“He is looking forward to discussions about how to make the area more welcoming, inclusive and representative of Virginia,” said Alena Yarmosky, the governor’s press secretary.
Griffin Green, who lives in the Richmond area and visited the statue last weekend, spent several seconds gazing at the sign. He didn’t immediately recognize the name Marcus-David Peters, but he was familiar with the man’s story once he was told.
Peters, a biology teacher at Essex High School, was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was seen unclothed and unarmed, running onto Interstate 95/64 in downtown Richmond, where he was hit by a car and then rolled on the pavement. His psychological state was later described by his family’s lawyer as “excited delirium.”
When Peters stood up, lunged at and threatened to kill an officer, the officer unsuccessfully attempted to use his Taser on Peters before shooting him twice in the abdomen. Peters died later that day at VCU Medical Center. Blanding has said repeatedly that her brother needed help, not death. Michael Herring, the city’s commonwealth’s attorney at the time, ruled the officer’s action a justified shooting.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney now supports a “Marcus Alert,” which would require mental health professionals to be first responders to a mental health crisis, not police officers, who would serve as backups.
In early June, about a week after George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis, the first sign appeared near the Lee statue. It was small, written on white plastic, stuck into the ground with wires and read “Welcome To Marcus-David Peters Circle.”
There was later a second white sign in purple ink and red hearts and then a larger green professional-looking sign. But it didn’t last long. It was removed and soon replaced by the sign that stands there today.
It looks similar to the work of a certain local sign maker, multiple individuals have said. But when the man was contacted by The Times-Dispatch, he declined to say if the work was his. Earlier this week, purple, red and white violas were planted around the sign’s base.
Because many still do not know Peters’ name, his uncle, Jeffrey Peters, comes to the Lee statue nearly every day and places a large photo of Marcus on the ground leaning against the statue. In the photo, Marcus is smiling, his head shaved, a black beard wrapping under his chin.
Next to the photo is a white sign that says “My Name Is Marcus-David Peters” and tells the man’s story in four dense paragraphs, written in the first person.
“This October, I should be turning 27 years old,” the story begins. “I miss my family, I miss laughing and playing with my nieces and nephews, I miss cracking my corny jokes,” it continues.
Blanding has asked that her brother’s case be reopened. To her, it doesn’t add up: How can her brother’s death spur a potential remodeling of how mental health crises are addressed and still be considered justified? she asks.
“We can’t bring Marcus back. We know that,” Blanding said. “But we can fight for a better tomorrow for everybody.”
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Virginia Senate Democrats said Friday that they are unified behind a long list of police and criminal justice reform proposals they hope to see the General Assembly pass during a special session this summer.
The measures include bans on “no-knock” warrants and the use of chokeholds and strangleholds by police; a ban on the hiring of officers who were fired or resigned during a use-of-force investigation; the cancellation of supplemental funding for police agencies with disproportionate use of force incidents in their jurisdiction; and more.
During a virtual news conference Friday, caucus leaders said they have been urged to action by a statewide and national conversation over racism and police brutality.
“This is what people are saying that they want to see happen. They want police reform; they don’t want to see us kick the can down the road. They want change to happen,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the chair of the caucus.
The proposals, Senate Democratic leaders said, were culled from more than 100 measures caucus members pitched over the past few weeks. A committee led by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, made up of members of two key Senate panels, led conversations on the issue.
Senate Democrats’ proposals also include: the creation of a “duty to intervene” for police officers witnessing misconduct; a ban on police searches based on perceived smell of marijuana; and eliminating traffic stops for such things as dangling objects on a rear-view mirror or a busted taillight.
Not on the list are proposed changes to the state’s qualified or sovereign immunity laws, which protect police agencies and officers from lawsuits over civil rights violations. Surovell said the idea is the topic of ongoing conversations within the Senate Democratic Caucus.
In the House, a new committee will immediately take up police and criminal justice reform, with hearings planned for July and August. The committee will be comprised of members of the courts and public safety panels.
House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn announced the creation of the new committee on Friday, saying that the new platform will allow for public, transparent discussions on reform ahead of the special session planned for late summer.
“The stories of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd continue in our minds to have all of us realize that we need to do something. Clearly people of color are not treated the same as people that look like me,” said Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax. “There is a lot of frustration and dismay, but a lot of desire and energy to act.”
House Majority Leader Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, and Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, will jointly lead the panel.
Democrats in the House and Senate have signaled interest in addressing police reform and systemic racism in the criminal justice system, following protests in Richmond and across the nation.
Gov. Ralph Northam, too, has said he hopes the issue will be addressed during a special session on the budget planned for late August or September.
Lawmakers are looking at boosting police training in excessive use of force, calling for citizen review boards to boost oversight of police misconduct, expanding avenues to fire or punish misbehaving officers, and rethinking the presence of police in schools.
Many of those proposals were part of a wide-ranging list of measures published Wednesday by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, which is urging “a bold swing” toward racial equity and social justice in the state.
Broadly, the caucus is urging greater accountability and transparency from law enforcement agencies, and the reallocation of funding from law enforcement budgets to community services. It is also calling for a declaration of racism as a public health crisis in Virginia.
Senate Democratic leaders said their initial list only includes measures for which the 21-member caucus has expressed support. They are likely to debate and introduce other measures in the coming weeks.
Which reforms lawmakers might take up and seek to pass in the House is yet to be determined. Filler-Corn and Del. Lamont Bagby, D-Henrico, chairman of the caucus, said the topic is part of ongoing discussions.
Filler-Corn said in an interview Wednesday that the new joint committee will bring transparency to that process, and help decide which measures lawmakers will take up this summer, and which will wait until the regular session in January.
“It’s time to do it now in a more formalized fashion before the special session,” Filler-Corn said. “There are so many ideas, and obviously, during the special session we’ll have the biennial budget, our response to COVID-19 and police and criminal justice reform. That’s a lot in August.”
Late-night clashes between police and protesters led to more than three dozen arrests in Richmond this week, including 15 Thursday night when protesters apparently picketed outside the home of the city’s top prosecutor.
On Friday, the ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against the city, the police department and Virginia State Police alleging the agencies’ use of tear gas and other force overnight Monday violated organizers’ constitutional rights to free speech, assembly and protest.
On Friday evening, news broke that interim Police Chief William “Jody” Blackwell would be stepping down after just 11 days on the job, capping a turbulent week for the department.
Police declared unlawful assemblies in the city every night between Sunday and Wednesday and broke up the protest in a residential area on Thursday.
Protesters have most often clustered around the Robert E. Lee monument and areas of downtown Richmond, but some have targeted the homes of elected leaders. Those arrested Thursday for picketing and other charges were in a Huguenot neighborhood, reportedly at the home of Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin.
McEachin said in an email that she could not comment on the protests because she is “a potential witness.” Police were not commenting Friday on whether the protest was at McEachin’s home.
A week before, a crowd of 200 or more protesters gathered outside Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney’s downtown apartment building, shouted for him to come out and tagged the building with graffiti. Some entered the building’s lobby.
Police and protesters have reported injuries from this week’s encounters, in which authorities have used tear gas and other projectiles. Police say they have been hit with rocks, bricks and other objects.
The tear gas deployed to remove protesters from Monument Avenue and City Hall this week led to calls from two City Council members and a group of doctors for police to stop using it.
The ACLU in its lawsuit is representing a group of youth organizers who are part of the Virginia Student Power Network. The complaint addresses the sit-in in front of City Hall on Monday night, which was attended by 150 people who intended to stay overnight and teach those in attendance about police violence and community advocacy.
At around 12:42 a.m., police declared an unlawful assembly and fired tear gas, flash bangs and other projectiles. In a news release, Richmond police said protesters threw rocks and other objects but made no mention of their use of force. They arrested a dozen people.
It’s the second lawsuit filed this month over police tactics. Five people who attended a June 1 protest where Richmond officers deployed tear gas at the Lee monument more than 20 minutes before a mandated curfew have sued a group of unnamed officers for their actions.
The City of Richmond and Richmond and state police declined to comment, citing that they do not release public statements on ongoing or pending lawsuits.
The ACLU is seeking a declaration from the court that police have been acting unlawfully and ask the court to prohibit police from “engaging in activities that violate protesters’ constitutional rights.”
“When these young people tried to educate their community about racism in Richmond and how to dismantle it, police stormed in and turned their positive space into a war zone,” said Eden Heilman, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “City leaders have a responsibility to protect our constitutional rights; instead, they have encouraged the escalation of violence by police against protesters.”
Taylor Maloney, a senior at Virginia Commonwealth University who is named in the affidavit, said the suit takes a stand against the “unchecked violent and outright malicious behavior exhibited by the Richmond police.”
“I want space for us to mourn and be angry at the system we didn’t ask to live in,” Maloney said.
Protesters, the ACLU and others have called on McEachin to drop all charges related to the protests. The ACLU said Thursday that the strategy of forcing people away from the monuments invites violence when the focus should be on de-escalating.
Since the demonstrations began on May 29 in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, police have arrested more than 250 people in Richmond.
Earlier this month, Stoney told McEachin he believed that charges of violating a curfew order against peaceful protesters should be dropped. McEachin has said each case will be considered and resolved appropriately based on the evidence.
“The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorneys’ Office does not respond to demands from individuals or groups,” she said in an email Friday. “Our duty is to respond to the law and facts of each case.”
A video from the protest scene Thursday night shows about a dozen police officers in riot gear ordering a small number of protesters to get in their cars and leave.
Police charged Dometrius Holden, a 23-year-old white man from Winston-Salem, N.C., and Gabrielle Heinlein, a 27-year-old white woman from Pembroke, with felony assault on a law enforcement officer.
Eleven other protesters arrested Thursday night face misdemeanor charges for illegal picketing. One person, a 25-year-old resident of Mechanicsville, was charged with trespassing, and a 24-year-old resident of Whitesville, W.Va., was charged with obstructing justice.
Police noted the Mechanicsville resident had a loaded firearm in his vehicle and a separate loaded magazine in his pocket. He was not charged with any firearms offense.
Of the 15 arrested, 11 were charged with picketing; one for obstructing justice; one for trespassing; and two for assaulting a law enforcement officer. Police said most of those charged were released on summonses.
Police spokeswoman Amy Vu reported one officer was injured and treated at a hospital.
Stoney had few public appearance this week, but his spokesman said the mayor has been active behind the scenes.
“He has spent a substantial amount of time this week with the Richmond Police Chief as well as with state partners discussing strategies to deescalate situations, and to determine what constitutes an appropriate law enforcement response,” said Stoney spokesman Jim Nolan. “The mayor has also been actively engaging with community leaders and protesters.”
Police warned June 19 that they would start declaring some of the protests unlawful assemblies if they become “violent, dangerous or disruptive.”
Two nights later, they used that authority and intervened after protesters tied ropes around the J.E.B. Stuart statue in an effort to topple it. Police pushed the crowd back as a helicopter hung overhead.
The following night, police confronted protesters after midnight at the encampment around City Hall. Videos showed protesters fleeing from tear gas and other projectiles as a cloud of white smoke filled the block.
Naomi Isaac, an organizer with the Black Youth Power Network, a branch of the Virginia Student Power Network, said the lawsuit challenges the legitimacy of the Richmond Police Department as an institution that has the safety of Black lives at its core.
Isaac was there when police fired tear gas into the crowd at City Hall, which was dubbed Reclamation Square by protesters.
“To claim a space for healing and have it disrupted by violence by a cop riot was very painful,” Isaac said. “It really breaks your heart to think about the way that Black joy is not protected in America.”
Police declared an unlawful assembly on Monument Avenue on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, arresting four on Wednesday.
Earlier Thursday night, about 75 people had gathered at the Lee statue about an hour after sunset. By midnight, 50 remained, defying a 2017 ordinance that had been unenforced until Monday.
State officials on Monday announced that authorities would enforce rules already on the books barring gatherings on the monument’s grounds from sunset to sunrise.
New Virginia Majority, a group that has fought against political oppression in Richmond, released a statement of solidarity with the Virginia Student Power Network on Friday afternoon after the lawsuit was announced, noting an escalation of police violence against protesters.
“A boiling point has been reached, and people from all walks of life are starting to demand an immediate stop to police violence and real policy solutions from our leaders,” stated Tram Nguyen, NVM co-executive director. “As a lifelong Richmonder, I’m heartened to see that young Black people are leading the way, and using their voices to protest violence and senseless killings. We should follow their lead.”