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Residents say cooperation between housing agency and police undermines housing security

Creighton Court, a public housing neighborhood in Richmond's East End. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In Part One on the over-policing of Richmond public housing , VPM spoke with advocates and residents who described a constant police presence in their neighborhoods. They said the presence of police doesn’t make them feel safer, but increases the harassment and surveillance of residents and visitors in Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority properties.

This second story covers how RRHA works with the Richmond Police Department, and how that cooperation can have long-term effects on residents and their families.

The barment policy

In addition to their heavy presence in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods, the police have the ability to bar residents and visitors from any property operated by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority.

RRHA updated their nearly 30-year-old barment policies after the original version was found to be unconstitutional, partially because it gave police too much latitude in barring individuals. Advocates say the new policy is better, but note that it still gives wide-ranging powers to police and permits the barment of people who have not been convicted of any crime.

RRHA’s new policy, which they describe as “family friendly,” states its purpose is to increase safety, deter and reduce crime and protect the “quiet enjoyment” of tenants. Angela Fountain, director of communications for RRHA, acknowledges the policy leaves ambiguities in what activities may qualify someone for barment. She told VPM News they include, “but are not limited to, assault, verbal threats directed at residents or RRHA staff, obstruction of justice, brandishing firearms and drug use or possession.”

The sidewalks and roads around RRHA properties were privatized in the ‘90s, to give Richmond police officers the power to bar people.

“Anyone can be banned or barred from public or private property by the owner or the legal designee. It is a right of the property owner. R.R.H.A. is not the only agency/business that uses barment notices. Once a person has been banned/barred, they can be arrested for trespass,” said Richmond Police Department spokesperson Tracy Walker. “RPD’s role is to ensure public safety by working in tandem with RRHA.”

Activists say this direct relationship between RRHA and the police is unnecessary and harmful, especially because of the discretion it awards police in permanently barring current residents and other people from visiting a neighborhood where family and friends may live.

“It’s very subjective. And it allows that any law enforcement officer in the Commonwealth of Virginia can also issue that barring,” said Omari Al-Qadaffi, housing organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center’s economic justice program.

And it’s not just the people barred who are impacted by this policy. According to former Creighton Court resident and public housing advocate Esco Bowden, if a family member is barred, it threatens the housing of everyone on the lease.

“The police can come around here at any moment and bar you. And it’s even worse for people living around there. For people whose families are living around there. If your mom lives around there, you don’t want to get barred because that could threaten her housing,” Bowden said. “If you get into trouble that could threaten her, the person who owns the lease. So it doesn’t just affect you, it affects people who you live with around there as well.”

Teenora Thurston, a resident of Gilpin Court, says she’s seen the policy rip families apart, as parents are forced to choose between housing all their children or facing homelessness.

“I know one or two cases where I’ve heard a parent say they had to take their 18 year old off the lease because if they get in trouble, they can put the whole family [at risk],” Thurston said. “If you've got more than one child, you don’t want to put your child out, but you don’t want to risk being on the street with the rest of your children either.”

Law enforcement on RRHA’s staff

In recent years the housing authority created the position of director of public safety, currently held by former police officer Brian Swann, who also chairs a committee to address public safety issues that includes Richmond City Police Chief Gerald Smith.

Thurston says collaboration between the public housing authority and law enforcement makes residents fear retaliation if they complain about either Swann or the police.

“They’re in cahoots together. So you feel like if you speak out, there’s going to be animosity against you and your family,” Thurston said.

Activists say a video of Swann and a Richmond police officer harassing a father visiting his children at one of the public housing communities, which went viral last month, demonstrates this inappropriate relationship.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in the video Richmond Police officer Mark Sims argues with a man who said he was bringing diapers to his children. The man acknowledges in the video that he has a gun in his car but tells Sims that he owns it legally. After a heated debate which included Swann, Sims bans both the man delivering diapers to his child and two people accompanying him from all RRHA properties.

In the video, Sims tells the father, “I don’t want to put you in cuffs because you ain’t worth it. You’re zero. You ain’t worth it.”

Since the video was circulated on social media, the men were temporarily removed from the barment list after a heated debate at a RRHA Board of Commissioners meeting last month. But during a closed session Tuesday, Fountain said the board voted 7-2 to rescind that decision.

Once someone is removed from the barred list, they can still qualify for public housing in Richmond, according to Fountain. However, residents say their interactions with police have already threatened their ability to access RRHA services.

Disagreements over criminal history requirements

RRHA is in the process of “reimagining” public housing in Richmond over the next few years. This process involves converting public housing neighborhoods into “mixed income” housing. That project is already underway, beginning with Creighton Court where plans to demolish part of the neighborhood have already been approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

As part of that process, RRHA has committed to relocating residents of the public housing developments to other properties managed by the housing authority or with vouchers for affordable housing elsewhere.

However, activists say they’re hearing from residents that they’ve been denied relocation to other RRHA properties because of their criminal history.

“I know that there are residents that live in Creighton Court and when applying to Armstrong Renaissance, which is part of the same development, they were denied based on their criminal history,” Al-Qadaffi said.

Fountain denies RRHA has prevented anyone’s relocation due to their criminal history. Like Al-Qadaffi, Bowden has heard differently from the community.

“There were a bunch of individuals in that predicament that got denied housing because of their criminal background. It’s definitely something you hear about,” Bowden said. “As if those people don’t deserve housing, are not worthy of housing. As if they don’t already face enough scrutiny for their record and by society in general from all the things they’re barred from.”

What the community wants

To address the harassment, intimidation, barring and surveillance of residents in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods, advocates say the city should commit to establishing an independent civilian oversight board to investigate and regulate the police.

“People do not trust RPD to police themselves. And RPD has shown that they can not be trusted to police themselves,” Yohance Whitaker, another housing advocate, said. “We have an opportunity in Richmond to have civilians who have the authority to independently investigate police complaints, issue binding disciplinary decisions and to have a say in police expenditures so that they can reallocate or recommend what needs to be reallocated from policing and to community resources.”

A task force to establish a civilian review board in Richmond presented its recommendations to the Richmond Public Safety Committee on October 26. The committee referred the policy to the Chief of Police, the mayor, and the city attorney for approval. It’s unclear when it will come before city council again.

Whitaker is a representative of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s civil rights and racial justice program who works to increase equity in Richmond’s public housing developments.

Instead of funding the constant police presence public housing residents have come to expect in their neighborhoods, he says the city should invest in programs and opportunities that uplift and empower the community to care for themselves.

“When I talk to folks in public housing neighborhoods, and I ask them about what safety means to them, or what would it look like for them to be supported and to be able to live freely as human beings, they tell me, ‘Full refrigerators. Meaningful employment.’ They say, ‘Opportunities for children to be able to play and gather together,’” Whitaker said.