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Crime
As protesters demand police accountability in Richmond region, will true change take place?

Before George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was Marcus-David Peters in Richmond.

The circumstances of their deaths differ, but the advocacy that arose from them is shared: Activists want to redefine the relationship between police departments and the civilians they serve.

Floyd’s death on May 25 — with the knee of a police officer on his neck — sparked national outrage that, among other results, seems poised to topple the Confederate monuments that have held sway in Richmond for more than a century.

His death also is shining a renewed light on the thorny issues of police accountability and use of force — which Peters’ death during a mental health crisis two years earlier helped bring into focus, and which have lingered amid frustration from local activists.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith recently signaled their commitment to putting reforms in place, though organizers say they have yet to be brought into the discussions.

Next month, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss a civilian review board. Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, who proposed the idea in an email to his colleagues last week, said such a panel could build community trust by giving residents more oversight of police. The 3-2 Republican-majority board seems receptive to the general idea.

Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth A. Miller is seeking applications for the creation of a Youth Advisory Committee. He hopes to have a panel of seven young people ranging in age from 16 to 20, the department announced on Twitter last week.

Chesterfield police say they’re open to suggestions for reforms, but there has been no real push there.

The question is this: When the marchers head home, the graffiti fades, and the statues come down, what will have changed other than the look of Monument Avenue?

***

Richmond activists said they are encouraged by new voices echoing their calls for reforms, and they are excited to see how far this momentum will carry them. They also know there is still a lot of work to do.

“This is exactly what happened two years ago. This is how I got involved,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a vocal organizer for groups like Richmond For All and the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, and host of the radio show and podcast “Race Capitol.”

She became involved after Peters’ death in May 2018.

Peters, an Essex County biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University honors graduate, was naked, unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer. The shooting was deemed justified by the city’s former police chief and prosecutor at the time, because Peters threatened to kill the officer as he charged him.

A year before that, New Virginia Majority, a grassroots organization focused on social, racial and economic justice, knocked on 700 doors in South Richmond and heard story after story alleging unfair treatment or excessive force by police. The group took those accounts to the City Council, which asked for data to back up their claims.

From these experiences and others, new advocacy groups were born, including Justice and Reformation for Marcus-David Peters (started by Peters’ sister), and those Wise is involved in.

For years, organizers have been calling for an independent civilian board to investigate allegations of officer misconduct and use-of-force complaints, and for mental and behavioral health professionals — rather than armed officers — to respond when someone is in crisis. Recently, the groups have added defunding the department — reallocating parts of its $96 million budget to support these other initiatives — to their list of demands.

So when thousands of people took to the streets of Richmond looking for ways to express their frustrations with racial inequities and police brutality, these local organizers had some solutions ready that had been largely ignored by city leaders until last week.

Wise said she and other activists are welcoming this crop of newly politicized youth, educating them on how they got here, and pointing them where to go next. The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project held an informational session last Thursday to explain some of its data collection on policing in Richmond, and to spell out its demands of city officials.

“This is the cycle of how oppressed people get together and get their freedom,” Wise said. “They are saying the same things that we were saying when we got involved. They are having the same feelings we had.”

The key is engaging with people when they want to, and having those solutions at the ready, she said, adding: “Until the unfortunate cycle when people forget.”

The project spent over two years going back and forth with police asking for data to show what policing looked like in Richmond. The trove of data that ultimately resulted from public records requests found an “alarmingly disproportionate policing of young black boys and men,” according to RTAP’s report titled “Our Streets, Our Say.”

Chief Smith acknowledged concerns of racial biases at the time but generally brushed off the report, saying it indicated inconsistent report-taking rather than institutional racism. He promised to roll out a new data collection system. RTAP has serious concerns about that system and was never consulted, though it was promised a chance to provide input.

The department now posts monthly crime data on its website, including complaints to the department’s internal affairs unit and use-of-force incidents. But it hasn’t budged on its opposition to outside review.

Currently, the department investigates complaints internally either through the chain of command or the internal affairs unit, it said. Any allegation that might be criminal goes to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which decides whether to file charges. Colette McEachin, the city’s top prosecutor, said her office is investigating the Richmond officers involved in a June 1 incident in which tear gas was deployed against peaceful protesters without warning or reason.

Incidents involving use of force can range from complaints that handcuffs were too tight to fatal shootings. Incidents of force that don’t go to the prosecutor go before an existing review board.

One or two residents, who are handpicked by the chief from those who attend the department’s Citizen Police Academy and submit to a background check, and four officers not involved in the incident being reviewed make up the board. They determine whether the action taken by the officer was within policy or training guidelines, and, if not, recommend whether further training or other disciplinary action should be required. But the chief makes the final decision on discipline.

While the department doesn’t specifically list the disciplinary action, it does provide the outcome of the investigations. Last year, the department substantiated or found that an officer took improper action in less than half of the 109 complaints it investigated. The department also received 33 fewer complaints than the year before, which activists said is because people are reluctant to complain.

RTAP set up a hotline for complaints against the police. Organizer Nathan Lane said it has been very busy during the recent uprisings.

Smith has promised to publicly share the results of McEachin’s investigation, once a determination is made, and whatever disciplinary action is taken for the tear gas incident, but protesters have continued to call for swifter action: Fire them.

On Monday night, Smith said the department was conducting a comprehensive review of the “conduct of its officers” and its “use-of-force and crowd management policies, as well as all tactics used during the past week.”

Smith also promised input from community leaders about policies, training and practices needed “to change to reflect the needs of our city.” The same advocacy groups have been calling for public meetings with the department since before Smith became chief last year.

The project and the group headed by Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister, want a review board to investigate these matters that is completely independent, with subpoena power and the ability to make policy and disciplinary recommendations. Efforts — dating back decades — to establish an independent panel in Richmond have all failed.

There are about 200 civilian review boards across the country, and three in Virginia, according to Yohance Whitaker, community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center and a member of RTAP. He spoke during the informational session last Thursday, which was streamed on Zoom and Facebook.

Each board is different, but few have any real “teeth,” Whitaker explained — which is why the ability to subpoena witnesses is an important component of their request.

Blanding is also spearheading the effort for a “Marcus Alert,” which would make the presence of mental health professionals mandatory on calls deemed as crisis or for wellness checks. The officer who responded and ultimately shot her brother indicated that he believed Peters was suffering a mental health episode, but Blanding said he didn’t rely on the department’s Crisis Intervention Training when interacting with Peters.

Since Peters’ death, Richmond officers have shot five others — killing one man who was stabbing a woman at the time, and injuring four, including one last week in South Side. Police say the man who was shot June 2 injured two officers, one gravely, during an exchange of gunfire.

In Blanding’s proposal, mental health experts would be paired with an officer, who would be allowed to use only nonlethal force if things become unsafe, Blanding said during the RTAP meeting.

Blanding said she was sent a text June 1 from Stoney’s office after two “press events” where Stoney and Smith “stated their commitment to the creation of a Marcus-David Peters alert,” the text read. The representative from Stoney’s office said they would be in touch for “further collaborative conversations on what the alert system will look like, how it should operate.”

She said it was the first direct communication she has had about the alert since she proposed it two years ago, despite the fact that Smith said the department has been “working diligently” on it.

“It’s been nothing but broken promises, emails and pushbacks from City Hall,” Wise said. “It’s been a long hard, frustrating road.”

Blanding said she hopes to keep the momentum gained from the marches and protests of last week.

An online petition in favor of the two changes had received more than 75,000 signatures as of Monday evening.

“What we’re not going to let them do is allow them to create and have us co-sign at the end,” Blanding said. “I say to our protesters: Don’t back down. We’re not going to let the statues be a pacifier. We’re not going to allow this promise of the Marcus Alert be a pacifier. We’re not going to allow this promise of a CRB be a pacifier.

“Until we have it and we have it right.”

***

While most of the protests have been in the city, Henrico officials say they are planning to discuss what can change in their jurisdiction.

In addition to the creation of a civilian review board, Nelson’s proposals include the removal of county police officers from mutual aid plans with the city during the unrest if there is overt suppression of protests by city police, and requiring the termination of officers who use violent, unorthodox maneuvers to detain suspects.

Nelson noted that there have been no high-profile incidents of police violence against black people in the county, but he still feels that more can be done to improve police accountability and the department’s relationship with the community. “I’m usually the one getting calls with people frustrated about particular situations [with the police],” he said.

In September, two Henrico officers shot and killed a white, 57-year-old woman in her Short Pump-area home. Gay Ellen Plack was experiencing a mental health crisis and was armed with an ax when police encountered her inside her home, and broke into a locked bedroom, during a welfare check requested by a psychiatrist.

Activists and civil liberties groups commented on the case and asked for transparency in the investigation, but did not push for any reforms after the county prosecutor, after consulting two out-of-town prosecutors, cleared the two officers of any charges. The officers still have not been named publicly.

Since Plack’s death, officers in the department have been involved in one other fatal shooting. On March 6, Henrico was assisting Richmond police in locating a man wanted for an earlier carjacking. Officers made contact with the man in a driveway, who then fled inside a home and was stabbing a woman when a Henrico officer fired his service weapon, fatally striking the man.

Given the recent unrest, however, Henrico supervisors agreed that changes should be considered now, even if there have been fewer protests or calls to action in the county. The board seems receptive to the idea, though there could be differences of opinion on how much authority and power it will give to the community panel.

“The pain that people are experiencing doesn’t know boundaries. Just because people are standing at the Robert E. Lee monument [in the city] doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect people in Henrico,” said Supervisor Dan Schmitt. “It requires us to be better and have conversations. I think that’s what Tyrone Nelson is trying to do with the five of us.”

Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the first since Nelson pitched the idea a week ago, Nelson said he anticipates that the board will discuss a new civilian review board next month. “We are not ready yet,” he said Tuesday.

Nelson said he wants to make sure the review board is led by residents rather than county officials or police officials.

“That’s not a knock against our police. We have a really strong police department,” he said. “There’s just some distrust there.”

Melissa McKenney, an organizer with the progressive activist group Together We Will Henrico, said she and others are conferring with city activists to study models of how an effective civilian review board can be formed.

“It’s important to have independent oversight of police forces so they’re held accountable to an outside authority, one that really has the ability to review information and make decisions about how things should be handled,” she said.

Their ideas may get some pushback from police.

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation, of which Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel Jr. is a board member, said the association is “considering a ton of reform suggestions,” but a civilian review board is not among them. On Tuesday, the association rolled out its recommendations calling for higher standards in hiring; pushing all departments toward certification; limiting police unions; and, above all, more funding.

Schrad said the association doesn’t support civilian-controlled review boards because “it can be tricky to protect the privacy of an employee’s personnel record when a group of citizens is empowered to weigh in on review and discipline in police matters.”

When a violation by an officer is more serious, the association recommends that a “chief can move swiftly to properly discipline the officer through retraining, demotion, suspension or termination,” without waiting to consult a board. If the officer could be charged with a crime, chiefs usually bring in outside investigators, but this is rare.

“This approach has worked successfully for many years,” Schrad said. “Citizen review boards rarely do better than a professional internal affairs investigation process, and more often don’t do as well.”

“Membership on these boards can turn over frequently, so they lack the ability to apply consistency and fairness across the review and disciplinary process that ensures fair and equitable treatment of the officers.”

Chesterfield County police handle complaints internally, similar to Henrico and Richmond.

The department’s Office of Professional Standards includes three sergeants — who investigate most of the complaints — as well as a lieutenant, a captain and several civilian support staff members.

“All completed investigations go through the OPS captain, who determines whether a policy violation occurred,” said Liz Caroon, the department’s spokeswoman.

If a policy was violated, the officer’s division commander recommends a corrective action, and depending on the severity, it could be reviewed up the chain of command.

“We recognize there is a strong desire to make wide, sweeping changes to a system that has not historically administered justice equally, fairly or impartially,” Caroon said. “We encourage our residents to take a deep dive into what we do, including the safeguards and accountability measures we have in place, and make suggestions for changes and improvements based on that.”


The Robert E. Lee statue in Richmond, where demonstrators have gathered in protest since George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last month.


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Crime
breaking alert
Guns and 'grand dragon robe' seized from home of avowed KKK leader accused of driving into protest

A Hanover County man who told police he was “the highest-ranking member” of the Ku Klux Klan in Virginia and had been coordinating efforts to “defend” Confederate monuments was denied bond Wednesday for charges stemming from an encounter with protesters in Henrico County on Sunday.

Harry H. Rogers, 36, is charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism, and assault and battery. His attorney, George Townsend, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.

Sunday’s incident unfolded about 5:45 p.m. on Lakeside Avenue near Vale Street. Police said several witnesses reported that a vehicle, driven by Rogers, revved its engine and drove through a crowd of protesters marching in the roadway.

At least two cyclists, who had surrounded Rogers’ “full-sized” Chevrolet truck, were struck, said Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor and her deputy, Michael Huberman, on Wednesday after the hearing in Henrico General District Court.

They showed Judge Lauren A. Caudill two videos of the incident provided by witnesses. The first showed a man on a bike who was hit by the truck and had his foot run over. The second video showed a woman, who had to jump onto the hood of the truck to avoid being struck.

“This was a peaceful, family-friendly protest,” Huberman said he told the judge. He estimated there were 300 people either on foot or on bikes. The parade was intended to end at the A.P. Hill statue in Richmond, but they hadn’t arrived there yet.

“The only purpose for his conduct was to disrupt this peaceful protest,” Taylor said after the hearing. “To be a threat and to be intimidating.”

Taylor said witnesses reported that as protesters headed north on Lakeside Avenue, they saw Rogers’ truck head southbound, make a U-turn, weave in and out of traffic, and drive onto the median to get to the march. Those on bikes surrounded the truck, while Rogers revved the engine and inched forward.

Witnesses told the prosecutors that Rogers got out of the vehicle at one point, and they reported seeing he had a firearm in a holster.

One protester, who was in the crowd with her two children and husband, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that the driver looked “like he was going to fight” when he exited the truck. “It looked like he was trying to intimidate us,” she said.

Police stopped Rogers and arrested him a short time later. That’s when Rogers told the officers that he was “the highest ranking member of the KKK in Virginia” and that he was coordinating 20 other members to “defend” the monuments in the city, Taylor said. Rogers also told officers to “check him out” on social media, she said.

Inside his truck, officers found KKK memorabilia including patches, literature and a manifesto.

“Many firearms were removed” from the home Rogers shares with his girlfriend, Taylor said. Authorities also found a vest with extended magazine clips, ammunition, and a “green grand dragon robe,” which Huberman told the judge that Rogers had been seen wearing in media reports.

Taylor said her office is still considering hate crime and domestic terrorism charges. The investigation is ongoing.

Rogers’ girlfriend, who declined to give her name because she said she has received death threats, denied knowing that Rogers had any recent activity with the Klan. They’ve been dating for a year, she told a reporter Monday.

She said her 14-year-old son had been with Rogers during the encounter and alleged that the boy had been hit in the face. Rogers made a similar allegation at the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Taylor said. Henrico police said they are investigating the allegation.

Judge Caudill denied Rogers bond after Huberman said he made the point that even if Rogers was released on home-electronic monitoring, it wouldn’t prevent him from further coordinating with other KKK members, and that posed a danger.

Townsend, Rogers’ attorney, made a second motion for a gag order to prevent what he called “inflammatory” evidence or statements about Rogers’ affiliation with the KKK to be leaked to the media, which could possibly taint any potential jury pool. That motion was also denied, Taylor said, since it was Rogers himself who proffered his affiliation in the first place.

Townsend is appealing the bond decision to Circuit Court. A hearing was set for June 25.

Rogers has a handful of prior misdemeanor charges and traffic infractions on his record. He was sentenced to 15 days in jail for a 2017 concealed weapons charge in Henrico. Huberman said that charge stemmed from an incident at a fast food chain where Rogers arrived in full Klan costume and caused a stir.

He currently has a trespassing charge “under advisement” in Orange County, which means he violated those terms when he picked up these charges, Taylor said.


Virginia
breaking
Virginia students to take SOLs during altered new school year without waiver

Barring a federal waiver, the Virginia Department of Education expects school districts across the state to give Standards of Learning tests in the spring of the 2020-21 school year.

A day after Gov. Ralph Northam announced that Virginia schools will reopen next school year, albeit in a scaled-back way, the state Education Department released more guidance for schools and families. Among the details in the 136-page document, which includes sample schedules for reopened schools and concerns about staffing, is how the state plans to approach school accountability and testing, which the COVID-19 pandemic changed significantly.

The agency had initially considered administering the tests in the fall but axed that idea in late April.

SOL tests, normally given in the spring, were canceled this year after the U.S. Department of Education granted Virginia a waiver, relieving the state of its requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the federal government’s primary K-12 education law.

Without a similar waiver for the upcoming school year, students will take the exams in the spring, according to the new state guidance.

Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles Pyle said that there is “no indication from the U.S. Department of Education that it will offer waivers from the assessment requirements under ESSA.”

“If waivers are offered, it is likely that there would be great interest in Virginia and in other states given the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic,” Pyle said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s press office did not return a request for comment Wednesday.

SOL test results are used to calculate accreditation ratings for schools, among other things. Like the tests this spring, accreditation ratings have effectively been canceled this year, with each school getting an “accreditation waived” label.

A state-appointed panel tasked with making recommendations on accreditation related to COVID-19 has suggested that the Virginia Department of Education cede typical accreditation for the 2021-22 school year as well.

“Considering the need to focus on the well-being of students and staff in 2020-2021, the task force’s primary recommendation is that accreditation be waived for the 2021-2022 academic year, whether or not schools are able to offer in-person instruction to all students,” says the task force’s report, which is included in the new state guidance.

That means the test results from the coming spring would serve as a baseline for how the state would calculate accreditation ratings for schools in the 2022-23 school year.

A final decision on next year’s accreditation has not been made.

Also awaiting decision is when schools will enter the three phases Northam and Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane discussed on Tuesday. The phases correspond with Virginia’s larger reopening phases, meaning everywhere but Northern Virginia and Richmond is in the second phase.

That phase allows for in-person instruction for students in preschool through third grade and students learning English, while the third phase lets all students return to school buildings but they must maintain social distancing.

Lane said Wednesday: “The commonwealth’s public schools face the unprecedented challenge of restarting operations and formal instruction after a mid-year shutdown and responding to the toll the necessary closure has taken on learning and on the social and emotional health of students and staff. The governor — in consultation with public health authorities — has outlined a plan for reopening schools.”

He added that the new material “provides detailed guidance and considerations for school divisions as they implement the governor’s plan and address inequities in our schools that have been either caused, exacerbated or revealed by the closure.”

Here are five other topics explored in the larger guidance.

Staffing

The Virginia Department of Education warned school districts that there could be a shortage of staff when schools reopen.

In its human resources section, the new in-depth guidance recommends that districts create plans for a “potential shortage of personnel when school opens” while telling them to develop plans for “addressing situations where employees refuse to come to work.”

Teachers in the state have expressed some concern about returning to the classroom.

Tina Williams, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Teachers, which represents educators in the state’s largest school system, told the county School Board last month that school buildings should stay closed “until health experts deem it safe.”

“Until there is a proven vaccine and all students and staff are immunized, there must be resources and infrastructure in place for screening, testing, contact tracing, and isolating new cases, and there must be significant public health tools to prevent the virus from spreading,” Williams wrote.

Williams also recommended that not all schools in the district should reopen at the same time.

Under the guidance released Tuesday, a school system must submit to the state a plan for mitigating the spread of the virus in order to advance in the reopening process.

Budgets

The public health crisis is expected to further tax school systems’ budgets.

A limit on the number of people on a bus means potentially more bus runs and buses. Extensive cleaning means the budget line for supplies and custodial staff will increase. The same is true for personal protective equipment.

The new state guidance tells districts to review their budgets and contracts while drafting contingency plans for shortfalls in revenue before reopening.

Virginia public schools received $238.6 million in federal funding under the Coronavirus Aid, Recovery and Economic Security (CARES) Act, 90% of which went directly to school districts. The remaining roughly $24 million was reserved for statewide efforts.

The federal law gave school systems flexibility in how to spend the money, with approved uses including cleaning schools and other facilities, and expanding and improving virtual learning and mental health services.

Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston, responding to the governor’s Tuesday announcement, called for more federal money for schools while criticizing the state’s education funding levels.

“We cannot forget that public schools are the cornerstone of our democracy,” Livingston said. “They are the engine by which our young people grow, learn, and take their places in society and in Virginia’s economy. In responding to this global pandemic, we cannot afford to shortchange the children in our public schools.”

Virginia ranks 40th in the U.S. in state per pupil spending, according to a January report from the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, the legislature’s research arm.

The General Assembly will review the state budget when it reconvenes sometime this summer for a special session.

Sample schedules

One of the most practical sections in the 136-page guidance outlines what a school schedule could look like.

Districts across the state have been weighing how best to bring students back, understanding the limitations of social distancing and the requirements that people stay 6 feet apart. A popular consideration has been a hybrid return, where some students come into school buildings and others continue to learn remotely.

The sample schedules the state provided also say that schools should consider staggered drop-off and pick-up times in order to limit contact between people. Schools should also look at keeping students in the same classroom all day and rotating teachers, and limiting nonessential volunteers and visitors, among other things, according to the guidance.

In a scenario where students attend school twice per week, for example, one group comes on Mondays and Wednesdays while the other comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays would be used for teacher planning, among other things.

In another, there would be shifts. Some students would come in the morning and others in the afternoon, with lunch potentially being served before students leave for the morning and when the afternoon students arrive. That would give high school students the chance to have internships or work for half a day and give school staff the chance to clean between shifts. Students would attend four days per week.

The guidance also includes a suggestion that school systems look at having older students learn remotely and use the space freed up from their absence to bring younger students back.

“Young children learn best in supportive face-to-face environments filled with adult-to-child interactions and activities that build skills and develop behaviors that carry them through many years of learning,” the guidance says.

Equity

Students are likely to return to school with less than 50% of the learning gains they made in math this year.

That’s according to the education research organization NWEA (originally the Northwest Evaluation Association) cited in the state’s comprehensive guidance, which dedicates significant time to equity and how schools being closed since mid-March has affected students differently.

“The extended period of school closures in Virginia have exacerbated previously existing differences in student experiences, levels of support and access to resources,” the guidance reads.

In its recommendations for districts, the state provides 10 specific return-to-school strategies related to equity. Those include prioritizing access to learning loss recovery programs and potentially using some of the CARES Act funding to address equity gaps, such as expanding access to early learning.

The guidance warns, however, that just relying on giving students access to technology, something many districts have struggled with during the pandemic, is not enough.

“Access to devices and the internet alone are not sufficient to ensure delivery of high-quality distance learning that is available and engaging to all students,” the guidance says. “Prepare multiple delivery modes for remote learning, avoid an over reliance on technology to facilitate student engagement in learning, and ensure adequate support for families to be partners in student learning.”

The state also asks school systems to consider doing a “Return to Learning Equity Audit.”

Health clinics

Schools’ reopening is dependent on public health.

One health recommendation in the guidance is that schools should arrange space for a clinic that allows students to stay socially distanced from one another.

The guidance says that it could be necessary to limit the number of students in the clinic at one time, while also saying that schools should find space for staff or students who have COVID-19 symptoms “in order to immediately isolate them from the general population and each other.”

“Any alternative space being used for those with clinical signs of illness should be supervised and cleaned thoroughly between uses,” the guidance reads.

The document makes one thing clear: Schools will look far different than normal when they reopen.


Coverage inside

Lee statue

AG: Northam has removal power. Page A5

Hard topics

How parents can help kids process current events. Page A9

In Opinions

Monuments arose during a backlash to an earlier progressive era. Page A17

New policy

NASCAR bans Confederate flag. Page B1


Local
From the RTD publisher: Black Lives Matter

There are moments in time that change everything. And then there are moments that must.

Regardless of your politics in these polarized times, the depravity evidenced in the killing of George Floyd creates a feeling of horror.

Horror that systemic racism could be overtly practiced while we watched and witnessed. Horror that elements of an organization paid to protect could lose their way only to find deadly intent. Horror that an economic system could render daily injustice through imbalanced access to income, education, health care and civil justice. Horror that a human being could snuff out the life of one more person of color while witnessed by willing accomplices. Horror that we have been here before — many times.

Though there is reason for hope.

Hope that the revulsion for what we have wrought will be matched by our conviction for a better path. Hope that George Floyd is the last to die at the hands of enforcement agents lacking governance. Hope that we can balance the scale with alterations to an economic system built to favor the few. Hope that we can see past the past and begin each day with a spirit of love and compassion. Hope that we can someday look back and marvel at how far we have come.

We recognize that these events are a particularly emotional experience for our communities of color. We want to be clear. The Richmond Times-Dispatch stands with the black community in the fight against discrimination in all its forms. We believe Black Lives Matter.

At the RTD, we fulfill a unique role. Yes, we are a mirror to our market — but in doing so we can uncover all that ails us, start the conversation for a better day and benchmark action against outcome. Moving forward, we are committed to driving real and lasting change, and will use our platform to listen, educate and advocate across our community.

At the RTD, we acknowledge the quote “all politics is local.” The decisions ahead are as important as they are necessary — for aligning budgets with newfound priorities, infusing our legal system with increased visibility, creating an environment where all voices are heard and holding the brightest light up to the darkest places. We will be Richmond’s forum for detailing and debating the upcoming election season and the implications for change with every municipal, school board, city council and mayoral race, and local ballot measures.

At the RTD, we will use our platform to showcase and address the widening disparity in our community. The inequities for people of color are long-standing, jarring and describable with data — which we will use as a tool to prompt the conversation and scorecard progress.

At the RTD, we will audit our philanthropic work and partnerships to ensure alignment with the work ahead. And we will leverage our audience of nearly 600,000 to trumpet how we can all learn, contribute and take action.

At the RTD, we have work to do. Our team is not diverse enough, but we are committed to changing that. We cannot possibly appreciate the depths of today’s struggle without better reflecting those who live it. As a 60-something white male raised in a suburban setting, I am acutely aware how experiences must change to foster awareness.

We have to listen, share and communicate better. And above all else we have to be inclusive. We don’t have all the answers, but we are committed to continuing the conversation and the actions that must follow.

So how can we at the RTD improve? We want to hear from you about how we can better serve our community, and welcome your ideas. Please email me at pfarrell@timesdispatch .com.

I look forward to hearing from you.