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Local
Jefferson Davis on Monument Avenue becomes third statue toppled in Richmond since Saturday

City leaders promised last week to remove statues honoring the Confederacy from Monument Avenue.

Someone took matters into their own hands late Wednesday.

Shortly before 11 p.m., the statue depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis was felled from its pedestal at Monument and Davis avenues. Police quickly swarmed the area. A tow company hauled the bronze statue onto a flatbed truck and whisked it away as onlookers cheered and chanted.

It was an unceremonious end for the monument unveiled to a crowd of thousands on June 3, 1907. More than a century later, Davis was considered the most divisive figure on Monument Avenue. A city panel recommended Davis for removal two years ago, calling it the “most unabashedly Lost Cause in its design and sentiment” of those standing on the most famous street in the former capital of the Confederacy.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month reignited the local push to remove Confederate iconography from Richmond’s public spaces. Protesters have called for the statues to come down, decrying them as symbols of white supremacy.

The Davis statue was toppled on the same night that demonstrators in Portsmouth beheaded four Confederate statues and tore one down, injuring one man, as police looked on. Elsewhere across the country, cities have moved swiftly to take down Confederate statues in response to backlash stemming from the protests.

Virginia has more monuments to the Confederacy than any other state besides Georgia, according to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Richmond has the most of any locality in the state, with 13, though only 11 now remain intact. No other Virginia locality has more than three Confederate monuments.

The morning after Davis fell, a steady stream of people came to snap photos of what remained of the monument.

“I think it’s about time,” said Verlon R. Vrana, a 69-year-old resident of Arthur Ashe Boulevard who came to see the monument Thursday morning. “I think our politicians have been kind of mealy-mouthed and prevaricating, and so eventually people just took it into their own hands.”

The paint-spattered monument with its empty pedestal evoked a different response for Ruth Jordan, a 59-year-old Henrico County resident.

Jordan grew up in South Richmond. She said she had always admired the statues, but had recently come to the realization that they are hurtful to her African American friends.

Thursday was her first visit to the street since protesters defaced the monuments earlier this month. Seeing the Davis monument in its current state was a shock, she said.

“I think it’s a shame. There’s a right way of doing it and this is not it,” she said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Soon after, a bulldozer came and scooped up a portion of the pedestal left in the roadway.

Mayor Levar Stoney and all nine members of the City Council said last week that they would remove the four city-controlled statues from the street. Gov. Ralph Northam pledged to take down the state-owned Robert E. Lee monument “as soon as possible,” as well.

Northam on Thursday reiterated his pledge to remove the Lee monument, but urged people to consider the safety risks and allow it and others to be taken down “the right way.”

To remove the statues, the City Council must follow a process outlined in a state law that takes effect July 1. It requires localities to hold a public hearing and publish notice of their intent in a newspaper. It also permits them to conduct a nonbinding referendum regarding the monuments.

If the City Council votes for removal, it must have a 30-day waiting period in which it offers to relocate the monuments to any museum, historical society or military battlefield, among other places.

A spokesman for Stoney said Thursday morning that the future of the Davis statue is “to be determined.”

In a series of tweets, Stoney said Davis never should have been put on a pedestal, but asked protesters to let the state-mandated removal process run its course.

“For the sake of public safety, I ask the community to allow us to legally contract to have the remaining ones removed professionally, to prevent any potential harm that could result from attempts to remove them without professional experience,” Stoney stated.

“I will push for us to waste no time on this and to make it happen as soon as possible. Richmond, we will finish the job of removing these antiquated symbols of racism and hate.”

Kimberly Gray, who represents most of Monument Avenue on the City Council, said in statement issued through an aide that she wanted to see Confederate statues removed “safely and legally.”

“I understand the anguish felt by many in our city. As the mother of two black sons, I have experienced the same. Now is the time to turn fear and anxiety into positive action that will move Richmond forward together,” said Gray, also a mayoral candidate.

“The safety of our citizens must be protected. Just last night in Portsmouth, an individual was hospitalized with serious injuries. We must prevent similar incidents from happening here. The statues can be removed safely and legally while we honor those like the ‘Forgotten 14’ Civil War heroes who deserve commemoration.”

The Davis statue is the third that has been pulled down in recent days. On Saturday, protesters knocked over one honoring Confederate Gen. Williams Carter Wickham that stood in Monroe Park. On Tuesday night, they toppled a statue depicting explorer Christopher Columbus in Byrd Park and dumped it in a nearby lake.

Asked about the Richmond Police Department’s approach to security with the continued protests and toppling of statues, a department spokesman said Thursday: “We are investigating all of the incidents. It’s our policy not to talk about patrol strategies or tactics. But that’s not meant to infer we are not aware of the ongoing situation and are constantly adjusting our methods to address it.”

At the request of Richmond police, footage from traffic cameras operated by the city is not available to the public for security reasons.

Also Thursday, the city removed the Richmond Police Memorial statue from Byrd Park. The statue had been defaced several times since the protests began.


Crime
UPDATED: 9 shot in Richmond overnight, including teen and toddler; none of incidents related to protests

Nine people were shot and wounded — including a toddler — in five different incidents in Richmond on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

“Detectives are working to determine if any of these incidents are related,” the Richmond police said.

The police said that none of the shootings was related to overnight protests in Richmond that included the toppling of the Jefferson Davis statue on Monument Avenue.

Six of those wounded by gunfire were struck in what police said may have been two drive-by shootings.

The police gave the following accounts of the incidents:

  • At about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, officers responded to a call at a local hospital for a report of a person shot. Once on scene, they made contact with a man with a non-life-threatening gunshot wound. Detectives have determined that the shooting, which occurred in the 1700 block of East Broad Street, was accidental and self-inflicted.
  • At around 11:30 p.m., emergency dispatchers received a report of a woman with a gunshot wound who walked into a local hospital. The exact location of the shooting is unknown, and police said she was in a vehicle traveling through the city when she was shot.
  • At about 12:06 a.m. on Thursday, officers responded to the 800 block of North First Street for several reports of multiple people shot. Officers found two adult male victims who were taken to a hospital and treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Another man and a woman were taken to a hospital by private vehicles. They also were treated for non-life-threatening injuries. Detectives believe it may have been a drive-by shooting.
  • At roughly 12:08 a.m., officers responded to the 1300 block of North Fifth Street for a reported shooting. Once on the scene, police found a man suffering from a non-life-threatening gunshot wound. Detectives have determined the shooting was accidental and self-inflicted.
  • At about 12:10 a.m., officers responded to the 2100 block of Accommodation Street for the report of a shooting. Once on scene, they set up a perimeter. The two victims — a toddler and a teenager — were taken to a hospital by private vehicle. Both suffered non-life-threatening injuries. Detectives believe it may have been a drive-by shooting.

The police said they have no suspect descriptions for the shooting at 11:30 p.m. or either of the apparent drive-by shootings.

Anyone with information is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at (804) 780-1000 or at www.7801000.com. The P3 Tips Crime Stoppers app may also be used. All Crime Stoppers methods are anonymous.


Crime
Special prosecutor declines charges against former Richmond detective, citing missing documents

A five-year investigation by a special prosecutor has ended with no charges against a former Richmond police officer suspected of lying to obtain search warrants.

Documents required to prove a crime are missing or unavailable because of poor record-keeping by the Richmond Police Department, the prosecutor has concluded.

A five-page report on the investigation of former detective Jason Norton, conducted by the office of Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin D. Stolle, notes that Richmond police have a detailed, comprehensive procedure in place for signing up confidential informants to ensure integrity and uniformity.

“Unfortunately, these procedures were not followed in most of Norton’s cases. The lack of reliable documentation made it impossible to establish whether these discrepancies were intentional or the result of very sloppy record-keeping by Norton,” the report says.

The report concludes that “although Norton’s behavior may be perceived as suspicious, the lack of reliable witnesses and incomplete or missing documentation, as well as a complete absence of accurate record-keeping not only by Norton but other members of the Richmond Police Department, prohibit us from pursuing any criminal charges in this matter.”

Richmond Police Chief William Smith, who was not the chief when Norton was employed by the department, said Thursday that the agency has worked closely with the special prosecutor to assist and support the investigation.

“In the aftermath of the Norton investigation, the department changed policies and practices to ensure such activity would be uncovered immediately,” Smith said in a statement. “The changes enacted date back more than five years when these cases were discovered. Oversight and review of investigations remains the primary duty of supervisors assigned to this division and is the subject of frequent audit to ensure compliance with policy.”

Problems with Norton’s search warrant affidavits were first uncovered by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Richmond in 2014, prompting an FBI investigation.

U.S. District Judge Henry E. Hudson threw out three federal convictions in cases handled by Norton, but federal authorities chose not to prosecute him.

Former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring, concerned that his office might have a conflict of interest should one of his prosecutors become a witness in any investigation, requested in June 2015 that a special prosecutor be appointed in the Norton investigation.

A Richmond Circuit Court judge appointed Stolle, leading to the report finished last month.

Stolle’s office looked into possible charges of perjury in writing search warrant affidavits; perjury during a court hearing; forging a public record; and embezzlement.

Among other things, detectives were required to sign a document when money was spent on informants swearing that the information was true. A supervisor was also required to sign the document to make sure the money was spent correctly.

The report said that while police internal affairs investigated some questionable documents and that those involved were cleared of wrongdoing, “some of the officers who were interviewed did admit a culture within the division where detectives would sign as a witness without actually witnessing the payment.”

“Unfortunately, due to this alleged widespread practice of signing without witnessing payments as well as lack of necessary documentation, there is insufficient evidence to support a criminal charge,” the report says.

The report said that in one case where the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office believed Norton may have lied on the witness stand about a confidential informant, not only were related documents missing, but the informant also had credibility issues that required significant corroboration before any perjury by Norton could be established.

More than a dozen people convicted in federal and city courts in Richmond, of crimes involving drugs, guns or both, have had their convictions tossed out as a result of questionable information about informants used by Norton to obtain search warrants.

Norton has not responded to requests for comment from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the past.

Asked for a comment Thursday, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, who took office after Norton left the force, said: “I think the report and its conclusion speak for itself.”

“Throughout the course of this investigation, multiple changes to both the prosecution and investigative teams were required,” the report from Stolle’s office says. “Additionally, this complex investigation required the review of voluminous amounts of documentation coupled with trying to connect poor record-keeping and searching for missing documents.”

An investigation by the FBI in 2014 found that Norton used similar or identical descriptions for various confidential informants from 2008 to 2012, which strongly suggests misrepresentations.

There has been no suggestion that Norton set up innocent people. The suspicions are centered on how Norton described one or more informants in affidavits used to obtain the search warrants.

“That is a blistering report,” said Betty Layne DesPortes, a criminal defense attorney in Richmond long familiar with the allegations against Norton. “This report demonstrates exactly what the protestors are saying about police departments — the police will not or cannot police themselves and the system is broken.”


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Virginia
WATCH NOW: Here is how colleges in Virginia will be allowed to reopen

Virginia colleges are set to resume in-person classes, but will need to submit comprehensive public health plans in order to reopen.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced new guidance for colleges on Thursday, unveiling the steps they must take in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they bring students back to campus. The guidelines differ from the guidance unveiled earlier this week for the state’s K-12 schools, which focused on three phases for reopening. They give more autonomy for individual schools to create restart plans.

“Virginia has one of the best and most diverse systems of higher education in the nation, and each institution will take on this challenge in a way that meets their unique mission, location, circumstances, and student bodies,” Northam said. “A safe, responsible reopening of Virginia’s college and university campuses is critical, especially for students who depend on our campus communities to provide valuable resources that they do not have access to at home.”

The higher education reopening guidance instead requires colleges to monitor the virus and create plans to mitigate its spread.

While the higher education guidance does not include the phases that the K-12 guidelines do, it makes clear that the return to campus will look different.

“Expect a new normal,” said Peter Blake, director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

“More classes will be taught in an online or a hybrid manner, classes will be smaller, schedules will be staggered, residence life will be spread out, food service will be offered in nontraditional ways, and large-scale events such as performance art and athletics will be a new experience,” he said.

Blake added: “While life at our colleges and universities will change, the energy, creativity and commitment shown by faculty and staff ensures that the learning experience will not be sacrificed.”

The guidance says the virus “has put at risk” the more than $39 billion in annual economic impact that colleges create in the state and the 167,000 jobs associated with higher education.

“Reopening higher education in Virginia in a safe and sustainable manner must be a statewide priority,” the guidance says. “While much can be achieved online, it is also true that the classroom environment, collaboration, and mentoring remain vital.”

Classes transitioned online around mid-March when students were away for spring break, a similar time to when K-12 schools switched to virtual learning. The transition shook up how students learn and had a significant impact on college budgets, with some relief coming to Virginia schools through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

In the fall, they’ll face likely enrollment drops and campuses that look far different than what students left. Many colleges have already released reopening plans for the fall, but the new guidance includes “necessary” conditions for campuses to reopen.

Those include positive trends in public health data, with it being anticipated that “fall semester reopening of campuses would be most practicable” in the third phase of the statewide reopening plan or with “notably higher precautions” in Phase Two.

State officials also want colleges to have adequate capacity in nearby health care facilities — current capacity is stable, but returning students to campuses means increasing the populations in local communities — and following public health recommendations, such as social distancing and wearing face coverings.

“An institution must create a culture of compliance to encourage participation in the prescribed public health measures at all levels of the institution,” the guidance says.

The main part of the guidance is requiring colleges to submit plans for in-person instruction and reopening to the State Council of Higher of Education for Virginia by July 6. The agency, which oversees colleges in the state, will review the plans and make sure they have the required parts.

“Even in Phases Two and Three of the Forward Virginia Blueprint, it is likely that outbreaks of COVID-19 will continue, including on campuses,” the guidance reads. “Therefore, the campus plans outlined in this section should consider various contingencies for continuing operations in the event of a campus outbreak.

“Institutions must report cases and outbreaks to their local health department, and consult with their respective local health department regarding management of outbreaks, dismissals or similar decisions such as a shutdown of campus activities.”

Here are some parts of a college’s plan that it must address, according to the guidance:

  • Establishing a COVID-19 coordinator or campus team;
  • Training students, including the possibility of making COVID-19 prevention part of student orientation;
  • Social distancing, including potentially limiting visitors;
  • Figuring out what to do with dining services, with the potential for limiting the number of diners and eliminating buffet-style food; and
  • Restricting the use of shared spaces, such as lounges and exercise rooms.

The guidance also requires colleges to look at housing because “it is difficult to maintain physical distancing in on-campus housing, even with modifications” and consider COVID-19 travel risks as it relates to international students.

Colleges must also create a COVID-19 testing strategy, develop a plan to contain the virus when it is detected and potentially shut down campuses if there’s a severe spread.


Business
Many laid-off workers still not getting benefits; Virginia Employment Commission says it is working through massive surge in filings

Marcia Finsterwald, a pet sitter and dog walker who lives in Henrico County, said she saw about 75% of her income disappear when the coronavirus pandemic hit Virginia.

“I either take care of pets or walk pets when people are at work during the day, or when they are out of town,” Finsterwald said, adding that she has been doing the job for about 10 years. Spring break is normally a big time of year for her, but not this year.

Finsterwald, owner of Marcia’s Pet Patrol, said she applied for unemployment benefits under an expanded federal program that allows self-employed people, independent contractors or “gig” workers who were not eligible for benefits before the pandemic to apply for benefits now.

Yet Finsterwald said she still has not received any payments since applying in March. She said she entered her bank account information when she applied online for benefits with the Virginia Employment Commission.

“I keep checking and it has not gone in,” she said. “Maybe something went wrong. I don’t know how to find out.”

Officials with the Virginia Employment Commission said Thursday that the agency is working hard to respond to a massive, unprecedented increase in applications for unemployment benefits as businesses and self-employed people all over the state have been forced to shut down operations or reduce their hours.

About 822,300 initial unemployment claims have been filed since March 15. That nearly equals all of the initial claims for unemployment benefits filed from 2015 until mid-March 2020. The number of jobless claims has jumped from about 11,000 per month in 2019, during a period of record-low unemployment, to more than 300,000 per month since mid-March.

About 75% of these claims have been approved and have received payment, the VEC said, with more than $3.8 billion in payments distributed to people who have lost wages during the pandemic.

However, about 80,000 claims remain under adjudication, a review process by VEC hearing officers to determine if those claims are valid and meet eligibility for benefits. That backlog of administrative reviews is up from 59,000 reviews that were conducted for all of 2019.

The VEC’s call center offices have been overwhelmed with phone calls, and its website has been inundated with filings. In response, the VEC has been redeploying employees, hiring new call center workers and contracting with third-party providers to take calls.

The agency said its number of employees working on unemployment claims has increased from 432 last year to 640 now. The number of call center staff stands now at 379, up from 82 last year, with more expected to be hired.

But still, Virginians, like Finsterwald, complain that they have not received any benefits — and can’t get in touch with anyone from the VEC to find out why.

Laid-off workers calling the state’s toll-free number to set up claims either can’t get through or wait for hours on hold — or sometimes they get disconnected.

The online reporting system, which the state tells applicants that they should use to file their claims, also is showing stress.

“It is frustrating,” said Judi Woodard, a Bon Air resident who said she was laid off in March from her job as an administrative assistant for a financial services firm.

Woodard said she applied for unemployment and got two weeks of benefits, but then the payments stopped coming. She said she re-applied for a claim, but nothing has arrived.

“We haven’t been able to get in touch with anyone,” said Crenshaw, whose husband is working at home. “We have been calling and emailing.”

VEC officials could not say Thursday the total number of claims that have been denied.

However, officials said that “thousands” of claims are under review because the applicants for benefits refused an offer to return to work.

It wasn’t clear how many of those refusals to return to work came from people who are concerned about contracting the coronavirus. VEC officials said in cases involving health issues, the agency will need to make a ruling to determine if benefit payments can continue.

People who refuse to return to work because of health concerns “are encouraged to obtain a doctor’s note and provide it to the VEC hearing officer,” the agency said. “This will take time.”

Childcare is a similar issue, with some applicants asking whether they must accept an offer to return to work if their childcare provider is no longer open. Childcare generally is considered the responsibility of the employee, but if their normal, customary childcare is closed, the agency will take that into consideration, VEC officials said.

VEC officials also said Thursday that the agency has recently corrected the percentage of Hispanic people in Virginia who are collecting unemployment benefits. The percentage, which had been reported as about 1%, has now been corrected to about 10%. Officials said the agency is investigating why the reporting error happened.

***

For the filing week that ended June 6, the number of seasonally unadjusted initial unemployment claims in Virginia was 29,231. That was down 6.8%, or by 2,148 claims from the previous week.

Continued claims totaled 396,056, which was down 2,355 from the previous week. But 376,977 higher than the 19,079 continued claims from the comparable week in 2019.

The Richmond region — Richmond and the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover — had 3,458 initial claims, a week-over-week decline of 7.6%.

In the past 11 weeks, the total number of claims in the region has soared to more than 100,900.

In the U.S., about 1.5 million laid-off workers applied for unemployment benefits last week, marking the 10th straight weekly decline in applications for jobless aid since they peaked in mid-March when the coronavirus hit hard.

***

Multiple possible reasons were given by VEC officials Thursday as to why a person who applies for benefits might be denied or delayed, or if the agency needs to do an additional review before a claim is approved.

The top reasons for a denial or delay in benefits are:

  • The applicant did not file a weekly certification with the VEC.
  • A former employer reported that the applicant for benefits was fired for misconduct, took a leave of absence or quit without good cause.
  • The applicant filed an incorrect Social Security number or incorrect banking information, including bank account or bank routing numbers.
  • The applicant reported wages that were equal to or exceeded their weekly unemployment benefit amount.
  • The applicant was previously disqualified during his or her current benefit year.