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.