Raising concerns about balance and the inclusion of a former police officer, the Richmond City Council declined to move forward with settling appointments to a new police accountability task force.
As set out in an ordinance the council approved in July, the task force is intended to help establish a new civilian review board, a community panel that would be authorized to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Council members were divided Monday over whether the preliminary group should include John I. Dixon III, a former Richmond police officer and retired chief of the Petersburg Police Department, and Charlene L. Hinton, who spent 20 years in law enforcement and now works for the state as a legal analyst.
“The thinking was that it would be helpful to have someone with a prior background in law enforcement,” said Councilwoman Kimberly Gray. “I just think it’s important to strike a balance on any committee or commission.”
Some council members said they are concerned that the inclusion of former or current law enforcement officials would upset police accountability advocates and go against what the council meant to do with the creation of a civilian review board.
After the city received 20 applications for the task force earlier this year, the council’s public safety subcommittee agreed to recommend Dixon and seven others for it. A motion to approve the recommendations failed on a tie 4-4 vote on Monday. Voting against the recommendations were council members Andreas Addison, Stephanie Lynch, Ellen Robertson and Cynthia Newbille. Councilman Michael Jones, 9th District, was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Lynch noted that legislation recently signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam prohibits active law enforcement officers or their family members from serving on civilian review boards. The state law allows retired officers to serve, but only as “an advisory, nonvoting ex officio member” and not in the locality they previously worked. Gray argued that the law, which doesn’t go into effect until July 1, 2021, would not apply in this case because the task force would be a precursor to whatever is ultimately established.
Lynch, who represents the 5th District, disagreed.
“It speaks to wishes of stakeholders involved,” she said of the restriction in the state law. “The reason is that ... we have impacted members of the community who have both lived experience and policy experience in dealing with police misconduct.”
“I think it’s going to be hard to have the same candid and open conversations with certain perspectives in the room as appointed members,” she added. “That doesn’t mean ... they can’t be consulted.”
Dixon was surprised to hear his nomination had caused any controversy saying, in a phone call Tuesday, that he was “very open to police reform” and “in favor of decriminalizing the Black community.”
Dixon is the president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters, which Councilman Chris A. Hilbert, 3rd District, called the city’s foremost Civil Rights political organization. Dixon was a past president of the National Organization Of Black Law Enforcement Executives, which is very active in policing reform and, he said, an early critic of the policing practice of “driving while black.” He was also appointed to President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and worked with President-elect Joe Biden on gun legislation.
“I do understand the concerns of the Black community, and as a former chief, I also understand what police face, too,” said Dixon, who is Black. “And if you looked at my career, I have been known to hold police accountable.”
Dixon served as Petersburg police chief for 8½ years, retiring in 2017. While there, he created an independent oversight board — a “very diverse” and “controversial” group, he called it, that included former felons, business leaders and average citizens — that reviewed the department’s policies and any wrongdoing by its office.
“It’s all about transparency” Dixon said of the importance of a civilian review board independent of the department they oversee.
Yohance Whitaker, an organizer at the Legal Aid Justice Center and a member of the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP), spoke at Monday night’s meeting about the importance of keeping the board separate from police influence. RTAP is one of the organizations leading calls for the board’s creation.
“The task force and the [civilian review board] must be completely independent of law enforcement officers. We cannot trust the police to police themselves,” Whitaker said. “The ordinance which you passed in July stipulates that law enforcement should be consulted as a party to give input suggesting that they are not to be appointed members.”
RTAP recommended three of the eight nominees considered at Monday’s meeting.
Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus-David Peters, who was shot and killed by a Richmond officer in 2018, said previously her application was denied because she did not live in the city. All eight nominees are city residents representing five of the nine council districts.
The task force is intended to include nine members, including someone who is 18 or younger, a resident of public housing and at least one person with a disability. The council is only considering eight recommendations at the moment because no public housing residents had applied as of last month.
Several council members said they are interested in interviewing the applicants and reviewing their backgrounds. Further discussion of the nominees was pushed until the council’s Organizational Development Standing Committee meeting on Dec. 7, one week before the final council meeting of the year.
If approved at the December meeting, the task force would have just 18 days to meet the first deadline set in the ordinance to provide an initial status report to council. A final report containing its recommendations for the creation of the review board and proposed budget is due March 1.