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New Police Chief Leaves Department Accused of Excessive Force 

Men at podium
Mayor Levar Stoney introduces new police chief, Gerald Smith. (Photo: Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

Richmond's new Police Chief Gerald Smith comes to Virginia from Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a department that, like Richmond, is grappling with complaints of excessive force against protesters. 

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney told reporters at a press conference Saturday, that Smith is ready to lead the department and work collaboratively with the community on how they want the department to operate.

Smith said he’s prepared to make a “good department” great. 

“And that’s not to say that this department has deficiencies and errors,” he said. “It could be a simple thing as just complacency. We could never get too comfortable. We have to always seek improvement.” 

Smith leaves behind his position as deputy police chief of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, which includes the city of Charlotte. 

That city is also in the midst of civil unrest and daily protests that began with the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis Police in May.  And it’s facing criticism for the police department’s use of less-than-lethal weapons on demonstrators. On Friday, a North Carolina judge extended a temporary restraining order, banning the department from using chemical weapons and other tactics, according to North Carolina news outlets. The department is accused of trapping protesters between lines of police using tear gas and other riot control agents. 

Smith said he needs to get a better understanding of what’s happening in Richmond before deciding how to approach protests here. 

“So to give you an answer what needs to be done, that would be premature on my part to even say what it is without taking a close, close look at it.” he said. 

When asked what he thought about proposals to ban the Richmond Police Department from using tear gas and rubber bullets, he said only that they should be used “properly.”

“The munitions, if they’re used properly, can help save other people, can help prevent property from being damaged.”

Stoney announced he’d selected Smith to be Richmond’s new chief, just 10 days after firing former Chief William Smith and appointing William “Jody” Blackwell as interim chief. 

Stoney said he solicited the advice and recommendations of policing leaders across the country to find a “reform-minded” leader who could be a change agent that he said the city and the department needs. 

On social media, some criticized the sudden announcement, pointing to Stoney’s briefing on Tuesday, June 16, that he’d be undertaking a nationwide search for a new chief “eventually.” Stoney said, “There’s no timeline," and that Blackwell “is certainly up to the role,” but that “he will only be successful with not only the support of this administration, the support of his police officers, but he will be successful with the support of this community. That means we need everyone to have a say in what the future will look like.”

Richmond’s interim Chief William “Jody” Blackwell faced immediate criticism when Stoney chose him to temporarily lead the department earlier this month. A grand jury declined to indict Blackwell for the 2002 shooting death of a Black man suspected of a robbery. He was also criticized for his frustrated calls to “get the city back.” 

Smith told reporters Saturday he has no complaints of excessive force on his record. 

Richmond City Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch said Smith met with her and other council members within his first hour in Richmond, calling that a good start. 

“We need better leadership and that’s for sure. And it needed to happen yesterday. And we couldn’t sit with the former interim police chief. So I feel that this is a step in the right direction, as opposed to having someone in that position who is gaining even more distrust and possibly acting in bad faith.”

Lynch said Smith seemed receptive to her concerns. 

“Every night that we go out and shoot rubber bullets and tear gas out at people, guess what? It only incites more anger, Lynch said. “It’s not leading us to a peaceful resolution.”

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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