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.