Twelve days after committing to a nationwide search for Richmond’s new police chief, Mayor Levar Stoney introduced the third man to take the helm in less than a month.
Gerald Smith, who comes from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department in North Carolina, arrived to fresh outrage after the latest confrontation between police and protesters on the 29th night of demonstrations over police brutality.
Smith’s department, and the Richmond department he is slated to take command of July 1, face legal action over police use of chemical weapons and other “less-lethal” means on civilians.
He told reporters during a brief news conference Saturday that tear gas and pepper spray can be helpful in dispersing crowds but that officers need “to be able to do a lot of steps that you go through before that.”
A Mecklenburg County judge has issued a temporary injunction limiting the use of chemical agents to disperse crowds, according to a June 21 statement from the department. The ACLU of Virginia filed a lawsuit against Richmond and Virginia State Police Friday for similar tactics used on nearly 150 protesters Monday, where police declared an unlawful assembly and launched tear gas once again at people who intended to stay overnight.
Other pending lawsuits include one from a protester earlier this month against 10 RPD officers for tear gassing demonstrators a half hour before curfew.
Smith succeeds interim Chief William “Jody” Blackwell — whose brief tenure was defined by criticism over his killing of Jeramy Gilliam in 2002 while on duty (authorities cleared him of wrongdoing). Blackwell succeeded ousted Chief William Smith.
Gerald Smith faces challenges with morale inside the department, and the task of building trust within Black and brown communities that had no say in his hiring.
Advocates for police reform decried the lack of public engagement in the hiring process at a time of national reckoning over police brutality.
Jim Nolan, the mayor’s spokesman, said in a statement that Stoney was able to move quickly by seeking the recommendations of other mayors and former police chiefs like Rodney Monroe and Al Durham.
“It’s clear that the community wants a reform-minded chief, and he found that in Chief Gerald Smith,” Nolan said. “The mayor thought it was important to bring in a proven leader who could guide the department through the reforms we know are needed today and work alongside the community in re-imagining public safety into the future.”
Gerald Smith said that he began receiving calls about the post when Stoney ousted then-chief Smith.
He added that he’s respected the Richmond Police Department and aligns with the values of Stoney — who’s up for re-election in November, leaving the post vulnerable to a shake-up if Stoney loses.
Smith acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers for healing past wrongs, but is dedicated to building the relationships with communities and sitting down with residents to discuss what comes next.
But some organizers say switching police chiefs does not guarantee the systemic changes they think are needed.
The Richmond Police Department has now seen four police chiefs under the Stoney administration, said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a longtime activist with Richmond for All. In 2018, after a Richmond police officer killed Marcus-Davis Peters, a high school teacher who was shot during a mental health crisis, the mayor promised advocates a push for police transparency in the hiring of Chief William Smith.
That didn’t happen, she said.
“Hearing that Mayor Levar Stoney is not fulfilling his promise or commitment to involve the public and the advocates that have been doing this work is not surprising to any of us,” Higgs Wise said. “It just shows that his choices are not one that are keeping the public in mind.”
Stoney said in a news conference last week that community leaders and advocates would also play a role in the “reimagining of public safety.” Higgs Wise said she hasn’t heard of Stoney meeting with longtime advocates and task forces are not enough.
“The mayor has met and continues to meet and seek input on city governance from scores of community leaders and organizations,” Nolan said. “He only asks that they are willing to leave an ‘all or nothing’ approach at the door and commit to constructive dialogue that seeks common ground to move the city forward.”
In the last month of protests, advocates have outlined demands that include re-opening the Marcus-David Peters case, defunding the police department and reallocating money to housing, schools and mental health resources for Black communities and releasing the names of police officers investigated for use of force.
In Saturday’s news conference, Smith said that to his knowledge, he’s never had a use of force allegation brought against him.
Richmond and State police declined to answer several questions about Friday night’s clash. A spokesman for Capitol Police would not say how many of their officers were involved. Richmond police said pepper spray was deployed only once; eyewitnesses contradicted this account.
Several people on the ground, including a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter, described burning sensations similar to past encounters with chemical weapons police deployed. When officers detained a woman on Park Avenue, who was later charged with unlawful assembly, a chemical agent was launched into the median.
This article has been updated.