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How will Chauvin verdict affect policing in Richmond region? Area attorneys and police weigh in
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How will Chauvin verdict affect policing in Richmond region? Area attorneys and police weigh in

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Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin shares reaction to Derek Chauvin verdicts

The nation watched as Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, and then held its breath as the jury’s verdicts were announced: The white former police officer was guilty of all three charges he faced in the death of the Black man from Minneapolis.

But the jury is still out on how the Chauvin case could shape policing and prosecutions in the Richmond region, even after months of civil unrest here in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing last May.

Prosecutors in Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico say Tuesday’s verdicts won’t change how they assess whether to charge an officer. But Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said changes to police behavior are inevitable after Floyd’s death galvanized thousands across the city and nation to demand them.

“I’m relieved as a Black woman and a prosecutor that the justice system worked. The reason I do what I do is because I believe in the justice system despite the fact that it has often failed Black people,” she said. “I think that there is going to be a clear delineation and a point in time, when we look back five years from now, about how policing and prosecution happened before George Floyd’s death and how it happened after. I think there will be a clear, bright line that everyone sees and remembers.”

Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, who took over the department in the midst of protests last summer following Floyd’s death, called the Chauvin outcome “a turning point in our justice system, in policing, in our everyday lives.”

“It’s time for law enforcement to take a hard look at ourselves,” Smith said Thursday in an email response to questions from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “This verdict rights an egregious wrong and confirms that the path of change is moving in the right direction. The scales of justice feel a little more balanced today. George Floyd did not have to die.”

But two other metro-area chiefs said the verdict won’t affect how they police.

“It will not,” said Col. Jeffrey Katz, the Chesterfield police chief, in a statement emailed to The Times-Dispatch. “The lawful and righteous exercise of authority should never be conflated with an abuse of authority. The Chauvin verdict has nothing to do with the lawful use of deadly force by a law enforcement officer; rather, it was a conviction of a man who was found to have committed a crime under the color of law.”

Henrico Police Chief Eric English echoed that sentiment in an email: “The verdict from the Chauvin trial should not impact law enforcement and the way officers treat our citizens if we are doing the right thing. As we have seen legislation has dictated change in how we do business. I think the verdict shows that there are consequences to our actions and we will be held accountable if we go outside of our boundaries.”

Some Richmond defense attorneys say police can’t protect a community that is scared of them and that police chiefs should be driving the change from the top of local departments; other attorneys and law enforcement advocates say officers, too, are scared, and having them second-guess everything they do could put them in more danger.

“If a person is scared of you and you’re supposed to protect them, that’s a problem,” said Richmond defense attorney David Baugh.

Former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael Herring said he thinks officers could be more hesitant to use force after Floyd’s murder. “Psychologists will have to tell us whether that is to their detriment,” he added.

Attorney and former Republican lawmaker G. Manoli Loupassi drew a distinction between the Minneapolis case and other police killings because Chauvin’s case was a particularly egregious use of force.

“This one’s different,” Loupassi said of Chauvin, who knelt on a handcuffed Floyd for more than nine minutes.

***

It’s been less than a week since Chauvin, 45, was convicted of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. But the fallout from Floyd’s slaying has been felt far outside Minneapolis for nearly a year.

Four days after Floyd’s murder last May, thousands took to the streets of Richmond, and demonstrations continued nightly for months amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Police in riot gear frequently met protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and flash bangs. More than 300 people were arrested, though most had their charges dismissed in exchange for community service, according to prosecutors. Two Richmond officers are facing charges stemming from their response to protests.

People set fire to eight buildings, vehicles, dumpsters and a GRTC bus, causing at least $3.9 million in damage in the first 18 days of protests. Dozens of buildings downtown and in surrounding neighborhoods were vandalized and looted.

On June 1, Richmond police fired tear gas without provocation or warning into a large crowd of people, including families with children, demonstrating at the statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue. The circle surrounding the statue was informally renamed for Marcus-David Peters, who was fatally shot in 2018 during an encounter with a Richmond police officer.

Among a list of demands from demonstrators was a call to reopen Peters’ case. Herring, the city’s former top prosecutor, previously deemed it justified, as did then-Police Chief Alfred Durham. McEachin reviewed the case in November and reaffirmed that Peters’ slaying was a justified killing.

Within three weeks of Floyd’s death, Mayor Levar Stoney asked for the resignation of William Smith, whom Stoney had installed less than a year earlier, as both came under scrutiny for the city’s response to the unrest.

Stoney first tapped William “Jody” Blackwell for interim chief while promising a nationwide search for a permanent replacement. Blackwell stepped down 11 days later and has since left the department. Deviating from a vetting process laid out by his own administration, Stoney quickly hired Gerald Smith, who at the time was a deputy police chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C.

Some of the city’s monuments to the Confederacy were toppled by protesters, prompting Stoney to order the removal of others. Gov. Ralph Northam also ordered the removal of the Lee statue on Monument Avenue, but it remains pending an appeal before the Virginia Supreme Court.

Horns honking, flag waving in Richmond at Lee Circle after Chauvin's guilty verdicts

In late July, the Richmond City Council approved legislation to create a new police oversight board. The task force charged with creating the board has met weekly since convening last month, but the initial request to fund its creation has already been quartered by the council.

The council also adopted a new emergency response model known as the “Marcus Alert,” also named for Peters, who, according to his family, was experiencing his first mental health crisis when he was shot by police. State lawmakers also passed legislation backing the new system.

Stoney convened a task force last summer to “reimagine” local policing. In a speech earlier this year, he said the police department has implemented some of its recommendations, which led to the creation of a new police accountability office.

***

Some have hailed the outcome of the Chauvin case as a victory for police accountability, while others say it is just a first step but that they are hopeful for more changes.

“It’s not a broad victory for accountability for police,” Lawrence West, founder of BLM RVA, said just after the verdict was announced Tuesday.

West said police in Minneapolis, Richmond and nationwide distanced themselves from Chauvin as a singular bad actor.

“But it’s a step toward holding one man accountable,” he said. “One verdict doesn’t dictate [change] because how many verdicts have gone the other way?”

Nationwide, police shoot and kill about 1,000 people annually, and a disproportionate number are Black, according to a database from The Washington Post.

But convictions are rare.

“The death was impactful,” defense attorney Baugh said, reflecting on the summer of turmoil not only in Richmond but nationwide following Floyd’s murder. “The fact that the jury convicted him is a wonder.”

Baugh said Floyd’s slaying is the “most callous, evil murder” in his 45 years of trial experience.

Baugh, who is Black, previously represented a member of the Ku Klux Klan and an al-Qaida terrorist who, in 1998, bombed the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, killing 213 people, and tried over three dozen death penalty cases. He returned to private law practice in 2012 after stints as central Virginia’s capital defender and as a federal prosecutor, among other roles.

“That was malicious, deliberate, intentional murder,” Baugh said. Under Virginia law, Chauvin could have been tried for first-degree murder, he said.

But like many, Baugh was relieved by the guilty verdicts. He said that all too often, police officers are not held accountable for their actions, no matter how egregious, when they’re wearing a badge. Chauvin faces more than 40 years in prison.

“Most people think police officers are treated differently and that that gives a sense of immunity to police,” Baugh said.

Had Chauvin not been caught on camera, Baugh said, “he wouldn’t have been convicted.”

In 2017, Baugh represented David L. Cobb, a former Richmond police officer who was convicted of manslaughter in the October 2015 off-duty shooting death of an unarmed teen at a Chesterfield car wash. Cobb served nearly three months in jail.

Baugh said nothing will change if police chiefs don’t recognize it’s needed.

“There are too many officers who see a Black kid as a threat,” he said. “Until we can start getting police officers to stop seeing threats, and start seeing that people are scared, nothing will change.”

Loupassi, another defense attorney who previously served as a prosecutor, a Richmond City Council member and a Virginia delegate representing the 68th District, said it’s true that officers, especially those who work in certain high-crime areas of the city, are conditioned to deal with violence daily. He said he thinks officers need a way to reconnect with the community “so you see that it’s not all bad.”

Loupassi suggested an annual sabbatical period for officers, where they do not actively patrol or police but work in the community in some other way.

“You don’t have a gun; you don’t have a badge. You do other things in the community. You coach a team; you work in the schools,” he said. “This idea of de-policing or cutting funding is misguided.”

Loupassi said the egregious nature of the Minneapolis case makes it different from other police killings.

“This one’s different because this one happened over a very long period of time,” Loupassi said of Chauvin, who knelt on a handcuffed Floyd for more than nine minutes as Floyd and onlookers pleaded with him to let off. “But a lot of times, the decisions that the officers are making are in the heat of battle.”

“So many times, police are making decisions that are life-changing and it’s in an instantaneous time,” Loupassi said. That’s why he doesn’t think the verdict will have much of an effect on police behavior, or future prosecutions.

“It’s not the verdict — what’s going to affect officer behavior over a long period of time is body-worn cameras,” Loupassi said. “When everything you do is reviewed, every action you do is being reviewed by prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges, you’ll act right.”

“It protects the officer and the public if everything is out in the open,” he said.

During his tenure on the City Council — he was first elected in 2000 representing the West End in the 1st District — Loupassi chaired the public safety committee. Back then, there was no appetite for a civilian review board — not among city officials, nor the general public, like there is today.

“My thoughts on that have completely changed,” he said.

Steven Neal, a retired Chesterfield police captain and board member of Richmond United for Law Enforcement, a community-based organization that supports police officers across the region, said CRBs are only as effective as the personnel on them. They need input from law enforcement to know what is and isn’t within the limits of training or policy, Neal said.

But a new state law prohibits the inclusion of current law enforcement officers or their families from serving on local oversight boards, and limits former officers to nonvoting roles.

The task force in Richmond, which is a precursor to the eventual CRB, has only just begun its considerations of who might serve on the board it creates and what functions it might have. The plan is to involve RPD in the discussions.

Neal worries that the national narrative surrounding Chauvin and other police killings has tainted the local community’s view of its departments.

“Our departments here locally do a good job of policing themselves,” said Neal, who served as head of Chesterfield’s internal affairs unit twice during his 30 years of service. “Police are people, and they make mistakes. When something does go wrong, they take care of it.”

***

But across the nation, and to a lesser extent locally, police have lost the public’s trust, said Henrico Commonwealth’s Attorney Shannon Taylor.

“Police and prosecutors have to rebuild trust so when we say, ‘We’re taking care of it,’ they believe it,” Taylor said.

A new state law parts the veil surrounding police departments’ internal investigations, at least to prosecutors, Taylor said, so that if an issue of credibility for an officer taking the stand arises, a prosecutor can decide to pursue other avenues or simply drop the charges associated with that officer.

But that still doesn’t provide transparency to the public.

“I don’t have a good answer for that,” Taylor said.

Nor does it proactively seek to root out bad behavior.

“I regret that we are still reactionary,” Taylor said.

Amid the unrest, which trickled into Henrico when an avowed KKK member drove his truck through a protest in Lakeside, Taylor announced she was creating a position in her office focused on police accountability.

The duties for the new position were to review allegations of police misconduct — including the review of body camera footage — and to provide legal training to police officers and determine whether charges should be filed or cases should be referred to the police department’s internal affairs department.

But funding was pulled by Henrico Manager John Vithoulkas when it was discovered the woman picked for the job had made repeated social media posts that caused him “to believe she will not be able to maintain any objectivity in a role that requires her to judge the actions of police officers.”

Taylor said she currently finds out about police misconduct when an investigation is referred to her office from the department’s internal affairs unit, which means there is reason to believe a law was violated, or if a citizen makes a complaint against an officer to a magistrate.

“I cannot tell you what I do not know,” Taylor said. “But I know that today, you have an elected prosecutor and a police chief that have publicly made a commitment to accountability.”

The only time she has sought charges against an officer stemmed from a 2015 shooting of a woman. The shooting was not fatal, but the woman, who was the passenger in a car, was struck by four bullets, including one that hit the back of her head.

In 2016, a jury acquitted Joel D. Greenway of all charges stemming from the shooting.

Taylor cleared the officers who shot Gay Ellen Plack, who suffered from mental illness and was armed with an ax inside her home when she was killed in 2019; and those involved in the only fatal area police shooting in 2020. Ajay Kamil Ayseli was wanted by Richmond police, and as Henrico officers approached a Deep Run home to serve a warrant, they shot him as he was stabbing a woman.

Like Taylor, her counterparts in Richmond and Chesterfield said they look at each case based on the evidence and facts surrounding it.

“I believe it is my office’s duty to complete a thorough and complete review of all evidence presented to us after the police have done an exhaustive investigation in any and all allegations of wrongdoing by our officers, especially when there is an allegation of excessive use of force or any instance of officers firing their weapons at a member of the community,” said Chesterfield Commonwealth’s Attorney Stacey Davenport. “It is my position that a badge cannot and will not shield anyone from prosecution, if the evidence supports criminal charges.”

Earlier this year, Chesterfield police shot two men — one fatally — about a month apart. In both instances, Davenport cleared the officers of any wrongdoing.

In July, McEachin announced a new policy for naming police officers who are indicted by a grand jury for abuse of their authority. But the policy applied only to cases going forward, McEachin said at the time, adding that there was a pending case against an officer. She then refused to provide details to the media who had assembled for the news conference.

During a recent phone interview, McEachin said the policy of identifying an officer would apply only “if it is a clear line of violation of police authority,” but not apply to every officer indicted for a crime.

For example, a former Richmond police officer — Charles Church, who was sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting a child — may not have been named, McEachin said, because the accusation had nothing to do with his being an officer. He was off-duty at the time of the assault, and the police department named him publicly when he was charged and later fired him.

In 2020, Richmond police shot and injured two men. A third man was shot at by officers but not struck. McEachin cleared the officers in two of those shootings, and the third case is pending. All three men face charges stemming from the encounters.

  • Waseem Hackett was shot and injured by police, who say he also shot and injured two officers during an encounter in the 1000 block of Semmes Avenue on June 2. He faces two counts of aggravated malicious wounding. The officers have been cleared.
  • Ireq White was found guilty of a misdemeanor charge of brandishing a weapon at officers during an encounter in the 2000 block of Creighton Road on Nov. 11. An officer who fired a single shot from his service weapon has been cleared. The bullet did not hit White.
  • On New Year’s Eve, Orlando Carter was shot by officer Ja-Ontay Wilson after a brief pursuit that ended at the Oliver Crossing Apartments near Mosby Court. His attorney said he was shot three times in the back. Carter’s leg was also broken during the encounter. Police have provided differing accounts, first saying Carter pointed a gun and ran at the officer, but officers later testified that a gun fell from his lap when he exited his car. The case is pending.

McEachin said 53 Richmond officers have been referred to her office for criminal investigations since 2016. Only two officers — Mark Janowski and Christopher Brown, who each face three counts of misdemeanor assault and battery stemming from their actions during last summer’s protests — have been publicly named since she announced this policy, breaking from the long silence of her predecessor, Herring.

Herring said he never shied away from public disclosure if asked directly about a case involving an officer, but never sought to bring attention to the cases because he didn’t want his decision swayed by public opinion.

“But that nondisclosure cuts against the public’s right to know,” Herring said.

“The climate is different now,” he said following the verdict in Chauvin’s trial. “But I think prosecutors are going to look at [charging officers] the same way they did before. Is it going to open the floodgates? No. No prosecutor is going to feel that they have a license to prosecute cops that they didn’t have before.”

Herring said “even against the backdrop of George Floyd” that he stands by his decision clearing Richmond officer Michael Nyantakyi in the shooting death of Marcus-David Peters, who was unarmed and naked when he was shot.

But Herring said he thought the prosecution of Chauvin and the continued public discourse around police shootings will cause some changes in behavior.

“The public certainly expects police to be slower to pull the trigger,” he said. Though he added: “Generally, I didn’t have the sense that Richmond cops were quick to pull the trigger.”

But every time a police officer does shoot, it continues to erode public trust, Herring said.

“I think it will cause them to second-guess their instincts,” he said of officers. “Psychologists will have to tell us whether that is to their detriment.”

He added that he hopes the conversations around reforms will turn to the “risk tolerance” for misdemeanor offenses — whether officers should even pursue pettier crimes.

***

Just before leaving office in 2019, Herring delivered a study that looked at some of the root causes of crime, including poverty, housing, education and health risks. After hosting one robust community discussion, the conversations stalled during the pandemic and haven’t resumed.

Tom Barbour, a defense attorney who is challenging McEachin in the June Democratic primary, helped Herring with the root cause study and hopes to resurrect some of those conversations, if he’s elected.

Barbour criticized McEachin for her lack of pursuing charges against officers for their actions during protests in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

“Police officers cannot be subject to a lower standard,” he said.

Barbour called the verdicts from the Chauvin trial “the bare minimum of accountability.”

“I hope that it normalizes the idea that police are people and they are accountable to the same laws as the average citizen,” he said. “I hope that the trial in Minnesota normalizes public accountability nationwide and in Richmond. I hope that it encourages departments to recruit the right people and train them to the highest caliber.

“Part of public safety is policing the police,” Barbour said. “It’s not a separate thing.”

arockett@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD

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