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Mayor withdraws CRB legislation, plans to introduce a new version this month

Mayor Levar Stoney speaks at a 2021 press conference
Crixell Matthews
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney speaks at a 2021 press conference. In July, Stoney withdrew his legislative proposal to create a civilian review board in order to work on significant amendments with members of City Council. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Mayor Levar Stoney in late July withdrew legislation to create a civilian review board to investigate complaints against Richmond police and is collaborating with the City Council on substantial amendments to the ordinance, which will be reintroduced to the council soon. 

Stoney withdrew the ordinance July 20, according to a filing with the city clerk. A spokesperson for the mayor said the withdrawal came “after members of council expressed the desire to collaborate on a number of amendments” and that Stoney believes Richmond should have a civilian review board.

The amendments confirmed by spokesperson Jim Nolan included expanding the board to eight members, with appointments split evenly between the council and the mayor. The withdrawn ordinance specified seven members, which included a member appointed by the chief of police. The new proposal would also increase the stipend paid to board members and have the council appoint a full-time staff member. 

In a March memo to council members, Chief Administrative Officer Lincoln Saunders listed a number of amendments to the legislation that the mayor’s office would consider, including the eight-member board. Also included was a provision that votes receiving a tie would fail, a common standard in Virginia legislative process. The new 4-4 design could create a predisposition toward deadlock. 

Councilmember Katherine Jordan said the process of amending the ordinance points to cooperation.

"In [an] ideal world, that's what we want: We want administration and council walking the same path together, towards the common goal. I felt that it's a positive thing, working towards collaborating on CRB,” Jordan said. “Now, we're at a time where we need to take that process, take public input, and move forward with something that can be shared with the public for their comment and feedback, and then voted on.”

As the patron of the legislation, Stoney can withdraw it at any time — as long as it is not being currently considered. The city attorney requires a new draft of the legislation when ordinances have substantial amendments.

The withdrawal, and amendments, come as several events raised questions around police trust. In July, Police Chief Gerald Smith told reporters that a tip led to police foiling two men’s plan to open fire on a public event at the Dogwood Dell Amphitheater. But city prosecutors said they had no evidence tying a planned shooting to Dogwood Dell. It later emerged that Smith was told before the July press conference the tip “did not include specifics on location, time or intended targets.”

Yohance Whitaker, a community organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center and a member of the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, said elected officials and the police invoked fear at the press conference to boost the department's standing. 

“This was made right after RPD was made to retract its false statements about anti-racist protesters in 2020 and the Uvalde[, Texas,] mass shooting,” Whitaker said. 

On July 1, the Richmond Police Department publicly retracted statements it made regarding police officers’ release of tear gas on peaceful protesters assembled at the Robert E. Lee Monument in June 2020. 

“There were no RPD officers cut off by violent protesters at the Lee Monument. There was no need for gas at Lee Monument to get RPD officers to safety,” the tweet read.

Whitaker said those events point to the need for a civilian review board to investigate police.

“One of the ways that civility and oversight, if we had in Richmond could be at play here is bringing to light what happens in the dark, shedding light on things that happen in the dark,” Whitaker said. “That's why RTAP has demanded subpoena power for a civilian oversight body in all cases, not just a narrow set of cases as it was originally proposed by the mayor.”

Will Pelfrey, an expert commissioned by the city to help devise a civilian review board, said the board likely wouldn’t have a relationship to events like the press conference.

“The Dogwood Dell issue was about transparency. And that's not really a piece of the CRB as it is framed right now,” said Pelfrey, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies law enforcement and homeland security. “The vast majority of CRBs around the country are very case-specific. And sometimes it's cases that they initiate, and sometimes it's cases that are turned over to them by the police department. Those are the two big models.”

Stoney first introduced legislation to create the civilian review board in March. The board would exist “to review and provide findings on certain internal investigations conducted by the Department of Police and to make policy recommendations concerning law enforcement matters,” according to the now-withdrawn ordinance.

In July 2020, City Council established a task force to explore possibilities for the powers and form of a civilian body overseeing the police. In late August 2021, the task force submitted recommendations to the council, outlining a new city office with sweeping powers to consider all types of complaints made against police, take binding disciplinary actions, make budget and policy recommendations, and issue subpoenas. 

Within weeks, the mayor’s office commissioned Pelfrey to make recommendations to the council. 

Pelfrey recommended a CRB with fewer powers than the one envisioned by the task force, challenging whether all complaints should be able to be taken up by the CRB. Under Pelfrey’s recommendations, the board could only investigate cases already closed by the police department’s internal affairs division. He also argued against the board having the power to make budget recommendations and suggested having members appointed by the chief of police.

The mayor’s withdrawn ordinance mirrored Pelfrey’s recommendations regarding membership and the cases the CRB could review, while it does not mention budgeting authority. 

Nolan said the legislation will be introduced with amendments incorporated on Sept. 12. 

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.