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Richmond Police Chief Says Officers Lacked Training, Written Policies On Use Of 'Non-Lethals'

Chief gerald smith standing at a podium in front of richmond mayor levar stoney
Mayor Levar Stoney, right, introducing Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, left, earlier this month. (Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

Amid public scrutiny on their use of chemical agents and other so-called ‘non-lethal weapons,’ Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith says the department has lacked written policies and universal training on their use.

Smith’s comments came at a recent City Council Public Safety Committee meeting. City Council is considering a resolution calling for a ban on the use of tear gas and impact rounds, commonly called rubber bullets. The resolution is being sponsored by Council Members Michael Jones and Stephanie Lynch, who both say they were tear-gassed at a protest last month.

Smith spoke against the ban and said he wants more time to develop written policies around the use of less-lethal weapons, something that wasn’t in place when he arrived at the department July 1.

“What I would like to see more than anything else is before we ban the use of these chemical irritants and the other things in this paper, that I would be given the chance to actually come up with criteria on how it's used,” Smith said.

Smith also told the committee that he believes the decision on when to use less-lethal weapons and how much to use was being made “too far down in the rank.” He said lieutenants on the ground have been making the call, in part, because more senior officers don't have the training. 

“I also found that the training that goes along with the use of chemical munitions and these weapons, these tools and resources, did not include a lot of the command staff and the executive staff,” he said. “My comment to the staff was ‘How can you actually evaluate, measure and even stand in judgment, if you have not received the training yourself?’”

Following the meeting, VPM sent a list of questions to Richmond Police, including what policies, if any, officers have been following when using less-lethal weapons over the last two months of protests. Police spokesman Gene Lepley declined to comment. Smith said at the meeting he is actively working to address training and policy.

At the Public Safety Committee meeting, the three members voted to continue the resolution banning the use of non-lethals for 60 days, meaning it will likely not affect the police response to current civil unrest in Richmond. 

The committee members - Chris Hilbert, Kim Gray and Reva Trammell - said they’d like to allow for an independent review of police conduct to proceed before voting to ban less-lethals. It is still unknown who will conduct the independent review and when it will be complete. Richmond Police have promised to make the final report available to the public.

Gray, who is giving up her seat to run for mayor, also said she’s concerned about tying the hands of police in responding to protests that turn violent.

“If this [resolution] moves forward, we remove non-lethal options from the arsenal that police have, and we go straight to hands-on contact and/or lethal intervention,” Gray said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to get as much information to understand what the options are.”

Councilman Michael Jones, who has been critical of the police response, thanked Chief Smith for being transparent about the challenges the department faces. But Jones went on to say that council members being seemingly unconcerned by the use of less-lethals without extensive training or written policies show that Richmond City Council does not want to exert real oversight of police. 

He said he’s been left with more questions than answers.

“What kind of tactical training are they getting? How many hours are they putting in to handle this type of situation? Are they the best to handle these types of situations? I would argue that they’re not,” Jones said.

The resolution calling for a ban on the use of less-lethals will now be heard on September 28.

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