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'Not enough has changed,' Advocates Say Richmond Police Have More To Do

protesters and police
Crixell Matthews
Protesters speak to a Richmond Police Officer during racial justice protests in May 2020. (Crixell Mathews/VPM News)

Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith told VPMthe department has implemented “a few” policy changes in the last year since racial justice protests erupted in the city – and the department came under fire for its response to those demonstrations. But advocates in the community say they are left wanting more.  

Smith, who Mayor Levar Stoney appointed shortly after protests began last spring, said the department has improved officer training and is providing more in the form of a forthcoming “Richmond Community Academy”, that will dig into the history and identity of the department.  

Smith said the department has updated policies guiding officers’ use of chemical irritants. RPD has not provided VPM with the details of that new policy, however. Smith has also created the  Office of Professional Accountability, which is now called the “Office of Professional Responsibility,”according to the department’s website.   

But Chloe Edwards, President and CEO of Blacks Lives Matter 804, said real change will require “humility” on the part of the department and a recognition of the trauma the community has experienced over the years.  

“We believe that not enough has changed since the year anniversary of the demonstrations, the death of George Floyd, Marcus David Peters and more,” Edwards said.  

She said the department should actively advocate for the priorities of the community and defy the status quo. That includes publicly opposing qualified immunity – the legal doctrine shielding officers from civil liability, divesting in the police and investing in the community.  

“It’s greater than policy,” she said.  “It has to show up in the police department’s actions. The police department must reckon with both the harm that they have caused, in addition to their history.” 

Eli Coston is an assistant professor of gender sexuality and women’s studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. They’re also the co-chair of the city’s task force convened to establish Richmond Police Department’s Civilian Review Board. The task force began meeting in March. It’s weighing the scope of the CRB’s authority, including whether the body should be allowed to conduct independent investigations, make binding disciplinary decisions and review police records – all of which the state now permits.  

The task force will provide a recommendation to City Council, which will vote to establish the CRB.  

Chief Smith supported the creation of a board, has raised concerns about the CRB having final disciplinary authority over officers.  

But Coston said it’s important that an independent body be able to review the conduct of police officers.  

“I think that a lot of this issue of transparency and accountability is that, when the police are the ones reviewing themselves, the public doesn’t necessarily have confidence that the police are coming to the best decisions about whether an officer engaged in misconduct or didn’t,” Coston said.  

Coston, like Edwards, said they were hoping for more from the department after one year.  

“It seemed to me like many of the chief’s comments referred to changes that had been made to policies or procedures, but largely behind the scenes,” Coston said. “I don’t know how large or small these changes have been within the department because that hasn’t been presented to the public in a way that we can understand the impact of those changes.” 

The city is also relying on recommendations from another panel. The Task Force to Reimagine Public Safety released a  report in November with 15 police reform recommendations. Smith said in his interview with VPM that his department is working diligently to implement those recommendations.  

“If we ignore those things, then people have a right to say, well, this is how we want to be policed,” he said.  

Whittney Evans is VPM News’ features editor.
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