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Charles City County could ask voters to weigh in on Confederate monument

Other local governments in Virginia have voted to take down monuments to the Confederacy, but Charles City County could become the first to ask voters their opinion first.

Charles City, a rural county of fewer than 7,000 residents, has begun an uncomfortable community conversation about what to do with a 120-year-old monument to the Confederacy erected outside the courthouse just eight years after an African American man was lynched on the grounds.

The debate has become more urgent since vandals spray-painted the monument — an obelisk that honors Confederate soldiers it hails as “Defenders of Constitutional Liberty and Right to Self Government.”

County officials want to assemble a commission of local residents to talk about what to do, but a member of the three-person Charles City Electoral Board said the Board of Supervisors has just four weeks to put the question on the ballot for voters in a referendum in November. It could be the first under a state law that took effect on July 1.

“We’re not just asking them to take the statue down, which in most cases is what’s happened,” said Kevin Sullivan, who lives near the courthouse. “We want to do it peacefully, we want to do it legally, and we want the people to advise the supervisors.”

The Charles City Board of Supervisors plans to take up the issue of what to do with the monument on July 28, but its chairman, Bill Coada, is unhappy with Sullivan’s insistence on an advisory referendum that would be allowed under a new law that lets local governments decide what to do with war memorials that the state previously has protected.

“This is something where he wants to continue to stir the pot and stir the pot and stir the pot,” said Coada, the only white member on the three-person board. “We’re going to bring it back before the board for discussion.”

Charles City is known for stately and historic plantations along the James River and scenic state Route 5, including the oldest one in Virginia, Shirley Plantation, which began operating in the mid-17th century.

Its monument to Confederate soldiers is among Virginia’s 244 Confederate symbols, the most in the nation, according to 2019 data from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Nearly half of the Confederate tributes are monuments. The SPLC data was last updated in July 2019 and does not include the monuments recently removed, including those on Monument Avenue in Richmond.

Most of Virginia’s Confederate monuments were erected after Reconstruction ended in 1877 through the 1920s, according to a report four years ago by a historic resources work group then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe formed to address the issue. During the same period, Virginia enacted Jim Crow laws to restrict participation by Blacks in public life.

The Charles City monument, donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, was unveiled on Nov. 21,1900.

Last year, Virginia dedicated a historical marker to Isaac Brandon, a Black father of eight who was dragged from the Charles City jail by a group of 75 masked men and lynched on the courthouse grounds in 1892. No one was charged in the killing.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, was among officials who attended the dedication of the marker to Brandon almost exactly 127 years after the lynching. McClellan, one of three African Americans who have announced they are running for governor next year, said Friday that she was aware of discussions about a possible referendum on a Confederate monument in Floyd County, but not Charles City, which she represents.

“I think the communities where [the monuments] are do need to have a conversation about it and what to do with it,” she said. “The conversation is an important part of the healing process.”

Charles City County Administrator Michelle Johnson said the county is considering the appointment of a commission of residents who would “come together and have the courageous conversations about how we’re going to heal our community.”

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a race conversation,” said Johnson, who is African American.

Board of Supervisors member Lewis Black III said he will wait until the board meeting to speak publicly on how to deal with the issue.

“There are options,” Black said. “We should explore these options instead of just acting.”

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, who represents Charles City, was one of the chief sponsors of the legislation that became state law on July 1 and specified how a locality could take a range of actions on what to do with the memorials.

“I would hope the they would follow the protocol,” McQuinn said Friday. “We wanted to give the authority to the localities.”

One provision of the law allows a local governing body to petition the circuit court to order an advisory referendum on any proposal “to remove, relocate, contextualize, or cover any monument or memorial located on the locality’s public property.”

Johnson, the county administrator, said a referendum is among the options for the board to consider. The board also will consider the cost of removing the monument or cleaning off the graffiti spray-painted on it on July 2, when the county was in the process of replacing its video surveillance system. One camera that was working recorded a masked man defacing the monument.

“We’re just looking at it from a public safety perspective,” she said.

Sullivan, the Charles City Electoral Board member, said state law requires a locality to place a referendum on the ballot at least 81 days before the election, which would give the county until Aug. 14 to act in time for the Nov. 3 election.

He wants a referendum to force county officials to confront the issue.

“They need to be nudged,” Sullivan said. “This is my only tool for getting them to do it.”

PHOTOS: Confederate Soldiers of Charles City County Monument

Richmond's top prosecutor announces policy to name police officers indicted going forward

Richmond’s top prosecutor has announced a new policy in which her office will publicly name police officers indicted by a grand jury for any crime involving abuse of authority or excessive use of force “while in the performance of their duties.”

Touting “transparency and accountability” on Friday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said the new policy is effective only “going forward.” She then refused to name an officer with a pending case set for trial in August.

“While it has never been this office’s policy to apply a double-standard to the actions of police officers, some members of our Richmond community believe that a badge sometimes acts as a shield against equal justice under the law,” McEachin said at a news conference outside her office in the John Marshall Courts Building. “This idea undermines the credibility and legitimacy of our justice system, which rests upon the principle of equal treatment of all persons before the law.”

By law, the name of anyone charged with a crime is public, regardless of whether a grand jury has indicted. Grand juries are exempt under Virginia’s public records law, but the indictments they produce are public already. But without a news release or statement notifying the public of a specific indictment, it would require combing through each one of the grand jury dockets, and cross-referencing those names with the department’s nearly 750 sworn officers to know if an officer was charged. For reference, there are 104 individual cases going before the grand jury in August.

It’s unclear if the policy would apply if an officer is alleged to have committed a crime while off duty or outside the scope of their job. While McEachin answered some initial questions after reading a statement, which was provided to reporters after the news conference, she did not respond to follow-up questions later.

If this new policy was followed for the 53 Richmond officers who have been referred to her office for criminal investigations since 2016, only two officers would have been publicly named, according to numbers provided by McEachin. This represents about 4% of the investigations.

All 53 referrals came from the Richmond Police Department, two of which involve its response to the recent civil unrest, according to McEachin.

McEachin refused to say which incidents she was investigating — though city officials asked her to weigh in on the June 1 tear-gassing of a crowd at the Robert E. Lee statue 20 minutes before curfew and a June 13 incident in which an officer in a marked SUV drove through a crowd of protesters — or where those probes stood. Earlier this week, McEachin told the Richmond Times-Dispatch they were nearing completion.

Of the 53 referrals, 33 were reviewed for “excessive use of force,” McEachin said. In 17 cases, the office found no excessive use of force; 12 cases did not go forward “due to either lack of cooperation by the complainant or insufficient evidence of criminal intent, or both” or an agreement between parties involved.

Four cases went before a grand jury based on findings of sufficient evidence that excessive force was used, she said. Grand juries did not find probable cause in two of those cases, but indicted two other officers. Under this new policy, these are the only cases in which McEachin’s office would release the officers’ identities.

Grand juries hear only evidence from prosecutors to determine whether there is probable cause to believe that the person accused has committed the crime charged and should stand trial. They do not determine guilt or innocence like a traditional jury or judge.

To questions about the officer facing trial in August, McEachin said: “It is in the public record. You are welcome to find it. ... It’s in this courthouse.”

Richmond police identified the officer as Lance Falkena. He faces a misdemeanor assault and battery charge in an incident on Dec. 8. Falkena is on administrative assignment.

In the only other case in which McEachin said a grand jury indicted an officer for excessive use of force, prosecutors dropped the charges last month when the victim failed to appear in court. McEachin refused to provide this officer’s name.

There are 20 other cases, of the 53 referred to her office, that McEachin did not detail on Friday. It’s unclear if these are still pending review by her office, or whether they involve crimes besides excessive use of force.

PHOTOS: Protest march in Richmond on July 17

Richmond councilwoman Kim Gray calls her house off limits after protesters showed up Wednesday night

After estimating that 200 people demonstrated outside her house Wednesday night, a Richmond City Council member and mayoral candidate said protesters have “crossed a serious line.”

In an interview Thursday with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2nd District Councilwoman Kim Gray said it was unacceptable for anyone to show up at her home and in people’s neighborhoods carrying guns and blocking off streets, adding that she isn’t the only one experiencing this “lawlessness in our community, but it goes against our constitution and our democracy.”

“I don’t live on Twitter, I don’t live in social media land. I live in the real world,” Gray said. “I have real children in my real home, and it is off limits to people who want to inflict their violence and intimidation on us. I am not going to respond well to that.”

Gray released a statement Friday saying that “the right to protest does not include the right to frighten children, senior citizens, or anyone” and that she saw fear in her children’s eyes on Wednesday.

“When my children are unsafe, we live in a society where no child is safe,” she wrote. “We cannot build the Richmond we want, and deserve, if the politics of intimidation are allowed to continue.”

She added that if people wanted to call or meet with her, they could come to City Hall.

Organizers of the protest said in a news release Thursday evening that community members were there to “highlight her misrepresentation of the movement and her lack of action toward community demands.”

Organizers also said, “Black feminists, disabled people, clergy members and LGBTQ+ youth” made up the protest and were within their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.

Virginia is also an open-carry state for firearms, but state law deems people assembling in front of someone’s home in a way that disrupts a person’s right to peace a Class 3 misdemeanor.

The Richmond Police Department tweeted Friday that around 10:35 p.m., the department received calls from Gray and other Jackson Ward residents who were concerned. Police also said officers were dispatched. Gray said she was in contact with a lieutenant who was providing updates on protesters and that her neighbors and daughter called 911 but “no blue lights showed up and no blue uniforms.”

“The group was closely monitored for any actions that would have threatened public safety and dispersed after 15 min.,” police tweeted.

But Gray emphasized that this isn’t an isolated incident and that people have been stalking her house where her children sleep for several weeks.

“Two days ago, they knocked down a camera, throwing bricks at it,” Gray said. “There’s an armed person who snapped a picture of my daughter with his finger on the trigger of an AR-15. ... I have a 97-year-old neighbor who has had her life shortened behind the incident last night and I’m tired.”

Gray said council members Reva Trammell and Kristen Larson reached out about the incident, as did Council President Cynthia Newbille. Mayor Levar Stoney texted her expressing concern about 9 a.m. Thursday.

In a statement Friday, Stoney said that regardless of their political differences, he wants Gray and her family to feel safe at all times.

“As I’ve said — marching on the private home of elected officials and their families only harms the movement of Black Lives Matter,” Stoney said. “There are many constructive ways to add to the dialogue but this is not one of them.”

In June, protesters also showed up at Stoney’s apartment, and police said then that 20 people briefly entered the lobby of Stoney’s building before being removed by security. A crowd of 200 or more protesters gathered outside shouting for him to come out. A Times-Dispatch reporter said no police presence was visible at that demonstration.

At the time, mayoral spokesman Jim Nolan said, “Entering anyone’s residence without permission is irresponsible and uncalled for, and more importantly only undermines the cause of Black Lives Matter.”

On June 25, protesters clustered around Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin’s home, where 15 people were arrested by Richmond police. Eleven were charged with picketing, one with obstructing justice, two with assaulting a law enforcement officer and one with trespassing.

In a statement on June 26, Amy Vu, a police spokeswoman, said that “upon arrival, police found dozens of protesters conducting a ‘sit-in,’ blocking the roadway and obstructing traffic.”

She added that at 10:25 p.m., police told protesters over loudspeaker for over 20 minutes that they were illegally picketing.

The incident at Gray’s house lasted about 15 minutes, but police did not intervene and there were no arrests.

A previous version of this story said Gray had not heard from Mayor Levar Stoney. It has been updated to reflect that he contacted her Thursday morning.

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VEC commissioner says agency has logged 13,000 hours of overtime per month dealing with unemployment claims

After facing budget cuts over the past nine years, the Virginia Employment Commission’s unemployment insurance division has had to quickly hire people over the last few months and log thousands of hours of overtime because of massive unemployment filings across the state, the agency’s commissioner said.

“Since the pandemic was declared in March, staff members at the VEC have worked tirelessly to manage the influx of unemployment claims,” VEC Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess said in a letter sent Thursday to more than 40 Virginia General Assembly members who expressed concerns about mounting delays and problems with fulfilling unemployment claims.

“We appreciate and share your concern for those Virginians who have reported difficulties in obtaining benefits and in reaching a member of the commission [VEC] staff,” Hess said.

A letter sent to Hess this week by 34 members of the House of Delegates and nine senators — all of them Democrats — said the lawmakers have heard from more than 10,000 people in the last month with questions about delays in unemployment claims.

The legislators asked the VEC to conduct a review of its systems and reform its policies.

Officials with the VEC said this week that the agency has had more than 1 million claims for unemployment benefits since January as businesses across the state shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of unemployment insurance claims surpassed all initial claims for benefits filed from mid-2014 through 2019, VEC officials said. The pandemic hit suddenly after years of historically low unemployment in Virginia.

In her letter, Hess said the agency’s unemployment insurance division — which relies on federal funding — had its budget cut by more than 40% since 2011.

“This coincided with a period of record low unemployment,” Hess said. “As a result of these budget reductions, the agency also was forced to lay off staff and sell buildings to maintain core operations.”

In the past four months, VEC employees have averaged more than 13,000 hours of overtime per month, Hess said.

The agency has increased staffing in its unemployment insurance division from 432 to more than 700, and increased call center staffing from 82 to more than 450, Hess said.

The VEC’s call center staff answered an average of 28,000 calls per week in June, Hess said. “We are now capable of answering 60,000 per week. That number continues to increase as we hire more staff members.”

Even so, laid-off workers calling the state’s toll-free number to set up claims still either can’t get through or wait for hours on hold. The online reporting system, which the state tells applicants that they should use to file their claims, continues to show stress.

A spokeswoman for Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, whose office drafted the initial letter, said the legislators were reviewing Hess’ response.

In 2017, the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission was directed to review the VEC’s operations and performance. However, that review has not started because other studies were given higher priority.

“In the meantime, the VEC has undertaken significant efforts to improve delivery of services, streamline processes and better serve the public while still operating within the complex framework of state and federal laws,” Hess said. “We have expanded call-center facilities, initiated third-party technology partnerships and begun a modernization of our digital platforms.”

Recording shows discussion of aerodynamic condition before state police helicopter crash

A conversation between a Virginia State Police helicopter pilot and his trooper co-pilot before a crash that killed both of them referred to an aerodynamic phenomenon that a National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded was the probable cause of the fatal accident three years ago after the violent Unite the Right rally in downtown Charlottesville.

But the conversation also shows that Lt. Jay Cullen, the pilot and commander of the State Police Aviation Unit, was familiar with “vortex ring state,” even though the NTSB said it found no record that he had received “recent and recurrent training” in how to recognize and recover from the condition.

In a recording state police provided to the investigation, Cullen spoke to Trooper-Pilot Berke M.M. Bates about the loss of tail rotor effectiveness, which the pilot described as “like a vortex ring state on your tail rotor.”

It is not clear from an NTSB memorandum how soon the conversation occurred before the Bell 407 helicopter piloted by Cullen crashed in a wooded area of Albemarle on Aug. 12, 2017, but it raises further questions about the investigation’s conclusion that the pilot’s “lack of recent and recurrent training” in recognizing and recovering from vortex ring state contributed to the accident.

Arthur Alan Wolk, a lawyer for the widows of the troopers in multiple wrongful death lawsuits against the state and aircraft manufacturers, said the conversation does not show that either vortex ring state or loss of tail rotor effectiveness caused the crash.

“That conversation was a teaching discussion and Berke Bates was a student helicopter pilot,” Wolk said in an email Friday.

Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB, said, “The mention of a vortex ring state was part of a conversation explaining a different condition, tail rotor effectiveness, so it was not deemed directly relevant to the NTSB’s findings and analysis.”

An experienced pilot who trained with Cullen in the months before the crash said the safety agency had determined “an unfair probable cause” in its investigation of the accident.

Mike Mickel, owner of Dominion Aviation Services Inc. at the Chesterfield County Airport, said he had extensive conversations with Cullen about the phenomenon, which occurs when a helicopter descends in a downwash of air in its own rotor blades that can cause an aircraft to spin and roll.

“He knew vortex ring state and everything about it,” said Mickel, who was interviewed by a member of the state police aviation unit as part of a formal arrangement with the NTSB.

Knudson said Friday that the report “didn’t state that the pilot was not knowledgeable about the vortex ring state condition.”

“The NTSB said that the pilot’s lack of recent and recurrent training in vortex ring state recognition and recovery contributed to the crash,” Knudson said in an email response to questions about the investigation. “NTSB investigators found no documentation that the pilot had any recurrent training on vortex ring state recognition and recovery.”

The investigation also found that the state police aviation unit training manual “did not include vortex ring state recognition and recovery in any of the sample lesson plans for initial or recurrent training, and the associated maneuvers were considered to be optional.”

The crash occurred about six minutes after the state police helicopter diverted from monitoring violent clashes between white nationalist groups and counterprotesters in downtown Charlottesville after the Unite the Right rally. It had left its surveillance flight to accompany the motorcade of then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe into Charlottesville for a news conference about violence that had killed counterprotester Heather Heyer.

It is not clear from a memorandum in the NTSB investigation when the conversation occurred between Cullen and Bates or how it was recorded.

The NTSB said Cullen lost control after entering vortex ring state, “leading to a high rate of descent to the ground with a right spin.” It said it could not determine whether the rightward spin began “immediately before or after the helicopter’s encounter with the vortex ring state” because the helicopter did not have a crash-resistant in-flight recorder.

“This accident demonstrates the benefit of crash-resistant recorders” in aircraft that are not required to be equipped with them.

Cullen and Bates used a downlink to send video from the helicopter to the ground that was used in the trial of James Alex Fields, who was sentenced to life in prison for driving into counterprotesters, killing Heyer. During the flight before the accident, the downlink was out of range “and did not record any transmissions from the helicopter.”

Mickel, the aviation operator at the Chesterfield airport, began training with Cullen in April 2017 and continued through their last flight together on Aug. 1, 11 days before the fatal crash.

He said Cullen often discussed vortex ring state but never tested the recovery maneuvers in flights because the aerodynamic phenomenon is hard to induce in the Bell 407 or the similar Bell model that he flew.

“While I cannot say what caused this crash, I can dispute the statement that Jay was not trained and knowledgeable in vortex ring state,” he said in an email after the release of the report.

Mickel said he was the student referenced in the NTSB memorandum, which was based on interviews with Sgt. Jeffrey Bush, a member of the aviation unit who was coordinator for the state police in the investigation.

“As such, the NTSB investigator-in-charge asked Sgt. Bush to talk to the students of the accident pilot to determine what type of instruction he had given them that related to the vortex ring state condition,” Knudson said for the agency.

Mickel told Bush that Cullen had talked with him about vortex ring state but hadn’t demonstrated it during training.

Bush also shared his own conversations with Cullen, his commander, about a new technique for escaping vortex ring state. He said Cullen was familiar with the recovery technique and allowed him to perform it during training. Bush “was unsure if Lt. Cullen performed the maneuver,” NTSB investigator Todd Gunther said in the memo.

Wolk has accused the NTSB of not interviewing helicopter pilots who had trained with Cullen.

“The fact that a state policeman interviewed an old student whose interview was not in the report is one thing,” Wolk said in an email. “The fact they interviewed none of the other countless students where Vortex Ring State was taught and practiced by Jay and his students is another since the NTSB accused Jay of being unfamiliar with it, having no training in it, and thus not recognizing it.”

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State’s jobless rate improves to 8.4% in June. Page A8

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