The Richmond City Council has approved an ordinance that allows the Virginia Commonwealth University Police Department to use Richmond police’s new records management system, despite concerns from the public about how the relationship between the two departments could result in overpolicing and unequal enforcement among minorities.
The ordinance, approved Monday, codifies a longstanding arrangement between the two agencies as the Richmond Police Department rolls out its new data collection and criminal records system in March. The agencies have shared a records system since 2012.
Council members have been inundated with hundreds of emails and calls from residents and advocacy groups concerned that continued cooperation between the two departments will increase the targeting or profiling of Black people on and off VCU’s campus.
“It isn’t just about preventing crime, but to make sure people are not inventing crime,” Allan-Charles Chipman said during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. He was one of eight members of the public who spoke in opposition of the ordinance; no one from the public spoke in favor.
Some of the concerns expressed, including by VCU’s student body president and groups like the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, stem from previous opposition to Richmond police’s acquisition of the new records system and the expansion of VCU police’s jurisdiction beyond campus, both of which were previously approved by the council and predate the civil unrest last summer.
RTAP has criticized RPD for its lack of community input in what data the department should be collecting and how it should be used. The group also has warned against “predictive policing” and says the company behind RPD’s new records system, SOMA Global, specializes in it.
The practice, which the company calls “smart policing,” involves analyzing data about previous crimes to predict where future crime might happen so that police resources can be allocated more efficiently. RTAP contends the process will only reinforce the already unequal policing of Black residents.
Kalia Harris, co-executive director of the Virginia Student Power Network, spoke against the ordinance during the council’s public safety committee meeting last month, when the measure was recommended to the full council for approval.
“This summer, we saw what happened when RPD, VCU PD and other law enforcement agencies work hand=in-hand to brutalize young people in our city,” she said then. “Their teamwork resulted in the brutal arrest of many Black and brown VCU students and Richmond youths, many for just standing at Monroe Park or being in Marcus-David Peters Circle. These students who were arrested and charged have largely seen their charges dropped, which just goes to show the abuse of power that is happening within our police forces.”
Student Power VCU, a campus chapter of Harris’ statewide organization, held a “honk-a-thon” on Monday afternoon in opposition to the ordinance.
While many council members acknowledged the importance of the calls for increased accountability and transparency from the city’s police department — calls that have only increased since last summer’s racial justice protests — Councilman Andreas Addison said this isn’t the ordinance to address those issues.
Addison joined council members Cynthia Newbille, Katherine Jordan, Kristen Larson, Ellen Robertson and Reva Trammell in supporting the ordinance. Council members Stephanie Lynch and Michael Jones opposed the measure, and Ann-Frances Lambert abstained.
The need for information sharing and coordination between the two departments is important for public safety, Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith said at Monday’s meeting. The records system will help the two agencies pick up on trends and identify offenders who might be committing crimes across jurisdictional lines, he said, but it won’t have any surveillance or predictive capabilities.
Smith said he’s committed to hold public meetings to inform the public how the system will work.
Per the agreement, VCU will be required to pay the city about $38,000 annually for access and use of the records system. The city’s annual service fee for the system is upward of $470,000.