A traffic stop in Isle of Wight County more than four months ago has sparked a rising political furor in Richmond, prompting Gov. Ralph Northam to direct the Virginia State Police to investigate the conduct of two police officers in the town of Windsor who pepper-sprayed a U.S. Army officer whom they had stopped for a potential traffic infraction.
Northam ordered the state police investigation on Sunday, as Democratic elected officials and candidates called for Windsor police to be held accountable for what Black legislators described as “racist harassment and brutality” toward Lt. Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino officer who filed a federal lawsuit in Norfolk against the two officers last week.
In a statement on Twitter, the governor said the incident “is disturbing and it angered me,” and invited Nazario to meet with him as part of an ongoing public and political dialogue about reforming laws governing police conduct.
“Our commonwealth has done important work on police reform, but we must keep working to ensure that Virginians are safe during interactions with police, the enforcement of laws is fair and equitable, and people are held accountable,” Northam said.
Windsor said it asked for the state police investigation "and joins with elected officials who have called for a full and complete review of the action of these officers," according to a statement that Town Manager William Saunders released on Sunday.
The town police department already has conducted an internal investigation after the incident that found the officers had not followed department policy. The investigation resulted in disciplinary action and requirements for additional training, the town said.
"The Town of Windsor prides itself in its small-town charm and the community-wide respect of its police department," the town said in the statement. "Due to this, we are saddened for events like this to cast our community in a negative light."
"Rather than deflect criticism, we have addressed these matters with our personnel administratively, we are reaching out to community stakeholders to engage in dialogue, and commit ourselves to additional discussions in the future."
Col. Gary Settle, superintendent of Virginia State Police, communicated on Sunday with Northam and Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle.
“At Chief Riddle’s request and the governor’s directive, the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation is initiating a thorough and objective criminal investigation into the Dec. 5, 2020 traffic stop conducted by the Windsor police officers,” state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said Sunday night.
The political reaction was swift to a story published on Thursday by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk that described the confrontation between Nazario and the two town police officers, identified as Daniel Crocker and Joe Gutierrez, who has since "terminated from his employment," the town said.
The story was accompanied by a video recording by police body cameras that showed the officers accosting Nazario with guns drawn after pulling him over for driving a new Chevrolet Tahoe with no rear license plate, but a cardboard license plate posted on the rear window. The video shows an officer pepper spraying Nazario, who has his hands up.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd, said he was “horrified” by the video footage.
“This should have been a routine traffic stop and the video speaks for itself,” Scott said in a statement on Saturday.
The congressman called for a federal investigation of the incident, and of the fatal police shooting of Virginia Beach resident Donovon Lynch last month. He urged the U.S. Senate to immediately pass police reform legislation that the House of Representatives already has approved in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last May.
“These dangerous and tragic events highlight why the House of Representatives passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act,” he said.
The Virginia Legislative Black Caucus said Nazario’s treatment by Windsor police underscores the need for Virginia to end sovereign immunity protections of police officers against civil litigation over their actions. The General Assembly passed a sweeping package of police reform legislation since Floyd’s death, but did not adopt proposals to open police to civil liability for their actions.
“We must revolutionize police accountability here in Virginia,” the caucus said in a statement on Saturday. “These officers must be investigated immediately and held accountable for their atrocious actions.”
Northam has made a priority of redressing wrongs against African Americans since a scandal erupted two years ago over a photograph in his 1984 medical school yearbook that showed a man in blackface and another person in Ku Klux Klan attire. Northam initially apologized for the photograph and then denied he was pictured.
Last week, the governor endorsed his predecessor, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is white, for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a primary contest that includes three Black elected officials as candidates.
The incident in Windsor prompted statements of outrage from the five Democratic candidates for governor, three of whom are African Americans.
“To have to watch another video of an individual of color fear for their personal safety during what should have been a routine interaction with law enforcement is yet another call to action,” said Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, the second African American to hold the office.
Former Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy of Prince William, a criminal defense attorney and graduate of Virginia Military Institute, also called for an investigation of Nazario’s treatment and an end to qualified immunity for police officers.
“Officers are bound to protect and serve, not harm and discriminate,” she said. “The use of force used was not warranted or justified.”
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, tweeted Saturday: “What happened to Lt. Caron Nazario is unacceptable, and it has to stop. We have got to improve police accountability in Virginia because no one should be afraid – or told to be afraid – for their own life at the hands of law enforcement.“
Either Carroll Foy or McClellan would be the first African American woman governor in the U.S.
Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe tweeted on Saturday: “Army Lt. Nazario, wearing the cloth of this country, was driving home when he was pulled over, harassed, pepper sprayed and held at gun point - with no explanation. Horrifying. This is unacceptable from any officer here in the Commonwealth or in this nation. Our communities deserve better and we cannot stop fighting until we eradicate these reprehensible racist acts once and for all.“
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, tweeted Saturday that "We can't address the issue of police violence if even 'progressive' politicians keep increasing their budgets."
Beulah Blake remembers eating lunch with her classmates over 80 years ago in a white building that still stands behind the Richmond fire station on Forest Hill Avenue off Chippenham Parkway.
She watched over the decades as Richmond annexed the country road of her childhood and the suburbs encroached, followed by parkways and shopping centers with big-box stores.
Commerce has already imperiled the graves of her ancestors and free and formerly enslaved Black people who worked a nearby granite quarry above the James River over a century ago. Now, at 91, Blake and her relatives are anticipating another transformation as a developer pursues a $650 million casino resort in one of the last vestiges of the area’s rural past: a wooded area half a mile from where she and a few others still live on Gravel Hill Road.
While the casino would rise just south of the railroad tracks away from Blake’s home and graves that are still visible, Blake and her relatives fear that a towering casino resort hotel, operating around the clock and lit up at night, drawing an estimated 3.7 million visitors annually, would erode what is left of the area’s historic rural nature and African American legacy.
“I want to live here for the rest of my life. And when I leave, it’ll be passed down to someone else in my family,” she said. “I’m against it. ... The whole community is going to be environmentally disturbed.”
Members of Blake’s family lobbied city officials to preserve the area in the past. But this time they’re joined by mostly white residents of the nearby suburban subdivisions, who cited the resting place of her ancestors among their myriad reasons for opposing the project, alongside traffic congestion, lower property values, loss of natural environment and crime.
Blake’s nephew, Bruce Greene, wonders: Did these people know about his family and the existence of Black cemeteries and graves in the area before the last few weeks?
Blake’s niece, Lynette Greene, said what’s happened to Granite is similar to the cleaving of Jackson Ward when Interstate 95 was built through Richmond in the 1950s.
“People of color’s land has always been taken away from them,” she said. “It’s supposed to be for the betterment of the community. But we’re sick and tired of ... being written off. This struggle’s been going on for a long time.”
The family traces its history back to Robert Green, a veteran of the Union Army, who raised his family in the Granite area in the late 19th century. (Some family members started appending an “e” to the end of their surname in the last century.)
A headstone that’s still visible near Blake’s home marks their great-grandfather’s resting place near his original homestead. More than a dozen other headstones and grave markers can still be found there. Family members say there are hundreds more throughout the area, many of which are no longer visible or noted in public records.
“You can’t see most of the headstones anymore, but you know they’re here,” Bruce Greene said. “Granted, most of these people were Black and didn’t hold much value to most people back in the day, but they were human beings.”
The proposed development in the Granite area, one of three potential sites the city is evaluating for a casino resort, is located a short distance away from Blake’s home and Robert Green’s grave. However, there’s a dispute between the developer and area residents whether other graves are located in the direct project site.
Bruce Greene and his aunt said they can remember her father carving headstones for some of the burials near their homes. Greene can tell which ones he made, as they often featured bell-shaped emblems and a few backwards letters.
Greene moved to the area from New York City when he was 11 years old after his mother died. He said his father built a house near his aunt’s home, where he used to come for summer vacations and holidays to escape the concrete jungle for a reprieve in the Virginia countryside.
He said it was the idyllic kind of life one might imagine in the boonies; chickens in the yard, apple and walnut trees, and watching out for snakes while picking blackberries from a briar patch.
“We played all over that area. You didn’t have to worry about anyone bothering you. We were safe out here,” he said. “Everyone out there was related to you one way or the other.”
Racial divisions were apparent, though. Chesterfield County prohibited Black kids from attending nearby Huguenot High School, which was just a few miles down the road, so Bruce and his cousins at the time instead attended Carver High School in Chester more than 20 miles away.
It was a few years later in 1970 when Richmond annexed 23 square miles of Chesterfield, increasing the city’s population by 47,000 people and diluting the political power of the Black community that comprised 52% of the city’s residents before the land grab.
The Forest Hill Avenue corridor in the Granite area started to slowly urbanize in subsequent years; beginning with the construction of the Powhite Parkway in the early ’70s and new commercial developments in later years. Around the turn of the century, a new Walmart and Lowe’s replaced the wooded area where other not-so-distant relatives lived on Sheila Lane.
Lynette Greene said many of the projects happened with little regard for the Black families and cemeteries in the area.
“They’re trying to erase our history,” she said. “They’re waiting for the right time ... so that they can justify removing things. Now they’re interested in the land that was no good to them before — that’s how we got this land here. Now, it’s a commodity.”
Earlier this year, Rhode Island-based developer Bally’s Corp. submitted its plans for a casino resort at the site.
Richmond asked for casino resort development proposals in December — without specifying a location — under a recently passed state law allowing the city and four other localities to permit casinos if approved by local voters. The city received six proposals for five different locations in the city, but recently whittled it down to three after a preliminary evaluation.
The City Council will vote in June on whether to hold a referendum on a project and site recommended by Mayor Levar Stoney’s administration.
City residents and officials have raised objections to all three remaining projects, including those proposed on Arthur Ashe Boulevard on the Movieland property and off Commerce Road on land currently owned by Philip Morris USA.
Residents in the Forest Hill area, however, have been the most vocal. More than 100 people earlier this week participated in a protest against the project. Some residents at the protest and in recent community meetings spoke of the graves.
A project manager for the company said last week that they have not found any records indicating the presence of graves on where they intend to build, but would be open to looking into more information about it.
Ryan Smith, a Virginia Commonwealth University history professor whose area of expertise includes Richmond’s cemeteries, said there are many other similar situations where development and a lack of public records endanger historic African American communities and their history.
“It’s a total epidemic. This kind of thing happens all the time,” Smith said.
University of Richmond officials last year publicly acknowledged that part of its campus was built over a known cemetery that contained the remains of enslaved workers, according to researchers. In Hanover County, residents of Brown Grove, a historic African American community whose ancestors settled the area 150 years ago, are opposing plans for Wegmans to build a $175 million distribution center. Residents there have also invoked the presence of graves that are no longer visible.
Smith said there seems to be more general concern about the handling of burial remains and development in recent decades, but that Black families and communities, as they have throughout history, struggle more often than white people to have local governments or developers preserve or move the graves of their ancestors in a dignified manner.
He said it’s especially challenging for Black communities in rural areas that have become targeted for development.
“They don’t seem to have the same wealth or clout to fight against it,” he said. “The only thing that seems to tip the scales is if you generate enough activism or if you can point to a historic burial of someone who is well-known.”
Several residents opposed to the project have suggested turning the site into a park or natural preserve. In the meantime, city officials are still considering the site for the development as they prepare to submit a recommendation to the City Council.
Beulah Blake and Lynette and Bruce Greene said they hope the city rejects Bally’s proposal.
After their ancestors struggled through racial oppression in their lifetimes, the descendants want to ensure the remains can rest.
You could make the case that former Richmonder Nicci Carr, who has enjoyed a nice rush of attention as the apron-wearing “Tasha” in the “Scoop! There it is!” Geico commercial, got her big break in show business in an elementary school cafeteria.
The students that day were moving from “restless” to whatever comes next on the We’re-Not-Listening scale, and Carr, a second-grade teacher on lunch duty, had pretty much emptied her bag of crowd-control tricks.
So, the amateur actor did what came naturally: She jumped on the stage, broke out a British accent and started making up a funny story about “two little girls from London, England.”
The children were mesmerized.
“At first, they were like, ‘What’s she doing?’ Then I could hear chuckles,” Carr recalled of the young students. “If you’re not funny, they’re not going to laugh. It’s a tough crowd.”
One of the students approached Carr and told her she had an uncle who was an actor in Hollywood. One thing led to another, and a phone call with the uncle was arranged. They talked about the business — she had performed in community theater and church plays — and how much she wanted to get into it. Time passed, and they spoke on several occasions.
At one point, the uncle told her, “Nicci, you need to move. D.C. is good, but if you really want to be serious, you’ve got to move.’”
She flew to California for a visit during her Christmas break in 2003, liked what she saw, returned home and submitted her two-weeks notice.
The pursuit of her dream was on.
A synopsis of Carr’s bio goes like this:
A New York native, Carr moved to Richmond when she was about 8. She attended city schools, graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School and earned a degree in political science at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. She taught school in Washington, moved to Los Angeles, where she scrambled to find acting jobs (which included roles as an extra in “Beauty Shop” and “The West Wing,” among other films and shows), completed a master’s degree in student development in higher education, worked at UCLA and the University of Southern California, burned out on acting as a career, moved to Atlanta and settled into a job at Georgia State University.
And then she discovered acting again — or maybe acting rediscovered her — as she watched a production taking place in Atlanta’s Woodruff Park outside her office window. The sights, sounds and equipment of the production beckoned her back.
“It was calling my name,” she said.
After relaunching her acting career, she landed gigs on shows such as “Atlanta,” “Good Girls” and “P-Valley,” which led to the Geico commercial. It was shot last November and debuted on Christmas Day. It has almost 15 million views on YouTube and who knows how many smiles in TV land.
As the commercial opens, Carr is cutting vegetables in the kitchen, but by the end she has fully joined in the dancing — elbows and all — with the hip-hop duo Tag Team as they joyfully scoop ice cream in a comically reworded version of their 1990s hit, “Whoomp! (There It Is).”
Martin Agency senior vice president and creative director Sean Riley said Carr “brought so much energy and humor to the spot. Just a perfect performance.”
Carr said, “We had a ball shooting it,” and the good vibe of the commercial has extended into her real life.
“This Geico commercial has opened my eyes to see beyond the trees in front of me and see the future as it is,” said Carr, who turns 50 this year, in a phone interview from Atlanta, noting how the Geico gig proved to be a most beautiful end to an ugly year marred by COVID-19 and racial injustice.
As she sees it now, the future is “big and bright and full of laughter and joy.”
Entertainment has been a focus of Carr’s since she was a child and her father took her to a drive-in theater to see “Grease.” By the time she was 10, Carr was playing piano at Mosby Memorial Baptist Church. She participated in SPARC — the School of the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community — playing the harp, singing and dancing.
“She’s not shy,” said her mother, Evelyn Jamison, with a laugh. A retired licensed practical nurse for Richmond Public Schools, Jamison makes her home in Henrico County. “Whenever we got together as a family, she was always the leader, playing and singing and devising games for us. She was always the leader.”
At Thomas Jefferson, Carr sang the national anthem before basketball games, which caught the attention of school guidance counselor Aubrey Fountain II, who thought to himself: “This child has a beautiful voice.”
It was Fountain who encouraged Carr to apply to his alma mater, Saint Paul’s College, despite her reluctance to attend college at all. She was planning to return to New York after high school with a vague notion of “working at the Port Authority in the day and Broadway at night.” He told her she needed more of a plan than that. He helped her fill out the applications for St. Paul’s and for financial aid, and he put her in contact with people he knew at the school.
“I don’t think she realized how smart and talented she was,” said Fountain, now retired from Richmond Public Schools after working for more than 50 years as a teacher and counselor. “This girl had a lot to offer, and I couldn’t see her wasting those talents she had.
“She was one of those that I had to kind of push.”
Turned out to be more than good advice, Carr said, and she keeps in touch with Fountain in appreciation, always making sure to contact him whenever “something big happens.” Carr calls him “Pops.”
During our interview, Carr brimmed with gratitude for those who have helped her. For her recent success, she singled out Stewart Talent Agency, which represents her, and Richmond’s Martin Agency, which produced the commercial and cast her; more broadly, she said her aunt Edna Rodwell played a big role as she was growing up (“She was like a second mom,” Carr says) and then there is her mom.
“She’s my rock,” Carr said.
The success of the Geico commercial has helped Carr turn the page into what she firmly believes is a new chapter in her life — that, at first, is leading to an old, familiar place.
At Georgia State, Carr is undergraduate coordinator in the biology department, but she is also a student, seeking a bachelor’s degree in film. She expects to graduate in August, and she is about to embark on a final project: production of a documentary about James Solomon Russell, founder of Saint Paul’s College and a major figure in the history of Southside Virginia.
Russell was born into slavery in Mecklenburg County, four years before the beginning of the Civil War, living his early years with his mother. His parents were forced to live and work on separate plantations. Education became a cornerstone of his life early on, and despite financial hardships, he established himself as a teacher in the Black community even before attending Hampton Institute, and then Bishop Payne Divinity School in Petersburg, where he would become the first student in an Episcopal seminary for Blacks.
He began his ministry in Lawrenceville, helped to establish a series of churches and schools in the region and, seeing a need for educational opportunities for Blacks beyond one-room schoolhouses, founded Saint Paul Normal and Industrial School in 1888. The well-traveled and well-connected Russell raised funds from such famous benefactors as J.P. Morgan, Julius Rosenwald and John D. Rockefeller before retiring in 1929.
Saint Paul’s became an accredited four-year college in the 1940s and operated until 2013, when it closed down in the wake of financial problems and declining student enrollment.
Carr knew of Russell — his name was all over the Saint Paul’s campus — but she really didn’t know his story until fellow Saint Paul’s alum Teya Whitehead, who is a member of the board of the James Solomon Russell-Saint Paul’s College Museum and Archives in Lawrenceville, sent her a copy of Russell’s autobiography, “Adventure in Faith,” earlier this year.
Knowing Russell’s story now, Carr said it feels as if she were “walking on hallowed ground” when she was a student, and she wants to do him and his story justice by telling it well in the documentary.
“We can’t let his dream die,” she said.
The museum is providing historic photos and information and other support to Carr. In return, the museum hopes to use the documentary to tell its story, said Bobby Conner, vice chairman of the agency’s board.
“We hope to post [the documentary] on our webpage and also use it at the museum as an orientation on the life of James Solomon Russell,” Conner said. “The documentary will help the museum expand its mission educating the public about Russell.”
After securing her degree in film, Carr hopes to pursue an MFA in acting — so, she said, she can “correctly” learn the craft that to this point she’s practiced by learning on the fly. And then she’d like to continue acting while also teaching at the university level.
“Preferably at a historically Black university,” she said.
Maybe at Saint Paul’s College, if it were ever reopened?
“You took the words right out of my mouth,” she said.
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Kathy Springston wasn’t sure she had heard correctly when Carla Torres-Barrera quoted her a new price for health insurance.
Instead of paying almost $440 a month, Springston will pay about $291 a month for the same insurance she has now through the federally run insurance marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act, a savings of $149 a month.
“I had to ask her, ‘Is this right?’” she said.
By the time she turns 65 and qualifies for Medicare next fall, Springston estimates she will save $745 in insurance premium costs. She plans to invest the money in acupuncture or other ways to address her sciatica condition that aren’t covered by traditional insurance.
“It’s a good way to put the money back into my health,” said Springston, a resident of Richmond’s Fan District whose husband, former Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Rex Springston, already is covered by the national Medicare program.
Virginians are just beginning to realize how much they may be able to save on their health insurance under the American Rescue Plan Act, a $1.9 trillion emergency relief package that President Joe Biden signed into law on March 11.
For the next two years, the law makes insurance coverage free or close to it for people with low incomes. It also removes a cap on federal subsidies for people who earn more than 400% of the federal poverty level, or $51,520 a year for an individual. It offers temporary opportunities for people who have lost their jobs or received unemployment relief during the COVID-19 pandemic to get health coverage at no cost.
“The changes in the federal marketplace are really huge,” said Jill Hanken, a senior lawyer at the Virginia Poverty Law Center who is director of the ENROLL Virginia! initiative to help people navigate a complex marketplace for affordable health insurance.
“It’s amazing how much of a difference this makes for people in terms of their health insurance,” Hanken said.
One of the most consequential changes in the law is the removal of an income cap in the Affordable Care Act that has made health insurance unaffordable for thousands of Virginians who earn too much for federal subsidies in the marketplace but can’t pay eye-popping premiums in the private market for people who aren’t part of group plans. The law would allow subsidies to ensure that people pay no more than 8.5% of their income on health insurance premiums.
“It will give us another opportunity to take a big bite out of the number of people who still don’t have health care coverage,” said Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, a former health care planner who is a leader on health insurance issues as a senior member of the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee.
Many are eligible
However, many Virginians with higher incomes — from 400% to 600% of the poverty level, or up to $77,220 for an individual — are unaware they could qualify for subsidies to make health insurance affordable on the federal marketplace, said Torres-Barrera, a health care navigator and team coordinator for ENROLL Virginia! at the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society in Richmond.
“They really don’t know,” she said. “They think they cannot afford it. There are many self-employed people who don’t know.”
Torres-Barrera has made it her mission to tell people how they could benefit from the changes under the law, including Springston and dozens of other clients who were able to submit new applications for coverage at a lower monthly cost.
“Every single appointment has been a joy,” she said. “People have been so happy about their savings.”
‘What a difference!’
Thomas Keys hadn’t had health insurance for 10 years, when his cardiologist advised him last year that he should get health coverage.
A retired real estate agent and contractor who lives in Henrico County on the north side of Richmond, Keys is living on his Social Security income, so he was happy to learn from Torres-Barrera that the cost of his existing Cigna policy would fall from $70 a month to $5.88.
“What a difference!” he said. “I told everybody I know.”
Julie LeBlanc is unable to work temporarily because of health problems after moving her mother to Richmond from Los Angeles and settling her in a long-term care facility here.
Now living in South Richmond, LeBlanc obtained insurance coverage last year through the federal marketplace to cover her medical expenses. The deductible was high, but she said, “I have a lot of health issues.”
Last week, Torres-Barrera called “out of the blue” and suggested that LeBlanc resubmit her application to the marketplace. The result? Her monthly premium fell from $339 to $209 a month, a monthly savings of $120.
“I feel for people who don’t have support,” she said.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that the new law will expand health coverage to 3.7 million uninsured Americans, an increase of 20%. The estimated average savings range from $33 a month for someone who earns less than 150% of the poverty level ($19,320 for an individual), to $213 a month for someone with an income between 400% and 600% of poverty, or up to $77,220 a year. The savings would be significantly higher for families.
“It definitely provides a substantial subsidy to those who have had trouble affording it,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans.
The American Rescue Plan Act also gives consumers plenty of opportunity to apply for coverage on the marketplace, either for the first time or to update plans. Biden already had pushed the enrollment deadline for health plans on the marketplace from Feb. 15 to May 15, but the government has extended the deadline another three months to Aug. 15.
Interest in marketplace coverage already is rising. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said last week that 528,000 Americans have enrolled in marketplace coverage this year, including more than 322,000 in March alone. In Virginia, 14,859 people enrolled in coverage on the marketplace between Feb. 15 and March 31, an increase of 8,901 from the same period a year earlier, or 149%.
The law also extends temporary aid to people who have lost their jobs by covering the full cost of insurance under the federal COBRA law, even if they initially declined it because of the price, through Sept. 30, the end of the federal fiscal year.
“They’re basically making it a rescue provision,” said Doug Gray, executive director of the Virginia Association of Health Plans. “It’s a great way to help people get on their feet.”
The law also will allow people who have received unemployment benefits this year to qualify for a benchmark insurance plan for no premium and lower out-of-pocket costs, but only for 2021. “They are the ones who are going to benefit the most,” Torres-Barrera said.
Public policy-makers and advocates say the law doesn’t solve long-term challenges in obtaining affordable health insurance coverage, but, Torres-Barrera said, “I just hope this brings permanent change to society.”
“We can’t go back to where we were.”
Richmonders won’t have to wait until November to decide who will be the city’s top prosecutor for the next four years because the presumptive winner will be determined by the Democratic primary on June 8.
Both Democratic candidates running for Richmond commonwealth’s attorney call themselves “progressive reformers.”
Colette Wallace McEachin, 65, is the incumbent with nearly two years in the role and more than 25 years of experience as a prosecutor. She was first tapped in June 2019 to lead the office when Michael Herring stepped down, and then won a firehouse primary and special election later that year.
The challenger is 36-year-old defense attorney Tom Barbour, a former captain in the Marine Corps who worked as a policy adviser during Herring’s tenure as commonwealth’s attorney while getting his law degree and MBA from the University of Virginia.
After graduating, Barbour worked in the Richmond prosecutor’s office for less than a year before starting his own defense practice and founding the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, an organization advocating for the end of mass incarceration and connecting nonviolent defendants to services.
Both candidates spoke at a virtual forum Tuesday hosted by the University of Richmond School of Law.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” McEachin said of being a prosecutor. “We have a duty to take care of those people who have been harmed, and we have an equal duty not to harm those who have been accused of a crime.”
McEachin has announced a slew of new initiatives in her office on the heels of announcing her re-election bid.
“Last year was interrupted by COVID, so a lot of the public events and ideas that I had planned just couldn’t happen,” McEachin said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “I’m hoping the citizens, the voters of Richmond, will give me the opportunity to put those plans into effect in the next four years.”
One program that was delayed, she said, was a partnership with Richmond Public Schools where she would visit middle and high schools for a “Law 101” class teaching students their rights and how the criminal justice system works.
Last month, she announced that she created a new Community Justice Reform Unit that will focus on what she called the “three Rs: reform, restore and rehabilitate.”
McEachin wants to revive a restorative justice program — a type of mediation between victim and offender where both are involved in coming to a peaceful resolution outside of the courtroom — in the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, and expand it to other courts.
McEachin also emphasized the use of “prosecutorial discretion,” which allows a prosecutor to drop or amend charges based on the evidence and circumstances of each individual case, or to consider alternatives other than jail.
“That discretion has to be used thoughtfully and humbly, and with an eye towards justice and equity for the victim and the defendant,” McEachin said during the interview. “It is not something to be used lightly. It is not something to be used out of any sense of power. It is to be used very discretely and delicately.”
That flexible decision-making was applied to charges brought against more than 300 people during last summer’s civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, McEachin said. There was a demonstration outside her home in June — 15 people were arrested and charged that night — calling for all charges against protesters to be dropped, among other demands.
“When everyone was like all the charges should be dismissed just outright, I said, well we’re going do what we do with every charge that’s filed, which is look at the individual facts behind that case, that charge, that person,” McEachin said. “Then we will arrive at a result that is just and fair and appropriate.”
Most protesters — those facing non-felony charges or with no prior record — were offered the opportunity to complete community service in exchange for dismissal of their charges.
Barbour criticized McEachin’s handling of those charges brought during this summer’s protests, as well as the lack of transparency for holding officers accused of misconduct accountable. Only two officers were charged following the city’s unrest; there should have been more, Barbour said.
“There was no policy that was public and transparent,” he said during the forum. “The office is a black box of decision-making.”
Detailed on his website, Barbour has dozens of initiatives and actions that he will take during his first 100 days in office, if elected. They range from selecting a diversity and recruiting officer to publishing charging criteria for use-of-force incidents involving police and public assemblies.
Despite his age and inexperience as a trial attorney, Barbour said his time in the Marine Corps prepared him to be an effective and fair-minded leader. He is advocating for fundamental changes in how crime is prosecuted and punished, emphasizing “social services, not sentences.”
“We cannot put program Band-Aids on a broken system. We need to think bigger and make fundamental changes,” Barbour said. “I bring a unique perspective — a modern perspective.”
He has proposed creating a “Do Not Call List” for police officers and other witnesses who have shown a history of “exhibiting bias, motives to fabricate, or any character, reputational, or other specific instances of untruthfulness that create due process concerns in pursuit of fundamentally fair proceedings.”
Barbour admits his approach is likely to put him at odds with the officers who bring most of the commonwealth’s attorney’s cases, but he believes the transparent policies he’s proposed will be appreciated in the long run.
“This past summer changed a lot of things for our country,” he said during a recent interview. “What we saw was an outpouring of interest and political will for progressive policy reform. I think Ms. McEachin is missing this moment.”
He hopes his election will begin “what we expect to be a lifetime of work,” Barbour said. He and his wife, Julia Snyder, a senior assistant public defender in Richmond, live in Church Hill. To find out more about Barbour’s policies, visit tomrvaca2.com.
McEachin and her husband, U.S. Rep. Donald McEachin, D-4th, live in Richmond and have three adult children. To read more about her platform, visit colette4rva.com.