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Task force recommends civilian oversight of Richmond police to City Council

Task force recommends civilian oversight of Richmond police to City Council

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Protesters gathered outside Richmond Police Department headquarters on Grace Street in June 2020 after an officer drove an SUV through a crowd at the Lee monument the previous night. Police used pepper spray on protesters Sunday.

Less than a week after the nation’s largest monument to the Confederacy was removed from its place of prominence in Richmond following last summer’s racial justice protests, the City Council heard from the task force it appointed to address calls for policing reform.

The task force has recommended civilian oversight for the Richmond Police Department that looks little like other review boards in the state.

The co-chairs of the task force, Angela Fontaine and Eli Coston, presented a condensed version of their recommendations at Monday’s informal council meeting. The task force wrote a 35-page report detailing its proposal, which was provided to the City Council on Aug. 31.

“This report recommends establishing an office of Community Oversight and Police Accountability, a body of police oversight that is tailored to fit the needs of our community and be successful in the City of Richmond, while also complying with local and state law,” the report read.

Coston said the task force’s goal isn’t to overhaul the police department’s internal process for dealing with misbehavior, but to address some of the issues with it. Civilians and officers alike told the task force that the complaint process lacks transparency and is often unresponsive.

The new city department suggested by the task force would have an 11-member civilian review board to hear complaints of officer misconduct and dole out discipline. The recommendations call for a $1.2 million annual budget to cover staffing costs for more than five investigators who look into complaints, an auditor who monitors patterns and trends in police data, a policy analyst who recommends changes to police procedures, and an executive director to run it all. The budget also covers outside legal, mediation and support services for the new department.

Though none of the nine elected officials fully backed the plan Monday, several council members applauded the efforts of the task force. Council President Cynthia Newbille, who represents the 7th District, and Councilman Michael Jones, of the 9th District, both called the task force’s efforts “monumental.”

Councilwoman Katherine Jordan, representing the 2nd District, appeared supportive as she committed to “work toward implementation.”

But 3rd District Councilwoman Ann-Frances Lambert was dubious and wanted to discuss the report further.

“I have some concerns about some of these recommendations,” said Lambert, one of the council’s newest members.

In June, Lambert tweeted: “The question is should we scrap the board and start over?” following a particularly contentious meeting after which one task force member resigned when he, a white man, was called out for dominating the meetings and talking over Black women. Lambert followed the tweet with a series of hashtags: #ThisOccurredBeforeMyTerm #InterviewBoardMembers #YouNeedAPoliceRep #GotSolutions #TheLastCRBMtgWasAHotMess.

It’s unclear if, or when, the council will take up the recommendations. The matter was referred to the public safety standing committee, which meets later this month.

Jones was one of the original patrons of the ordinance establishing the task force; ultimately seven of the nine council members at the time signed on to it. He asked about the task force’s research into best practices and other CRBs across the country “to show that we’re not creating something in a silo, and we’re not creating something that isn’t out there.”

“We might be,” Fontaine said. “We’re creating something newer.”

She and Coston added that they had researched about 225 other oversight boards and found “what works and what doesn’t work” to create a body that is responsive to Richmond’s needs.

The recommendations from the Task Force on the Establishment of a Civilian Review Board, as it’s formally called in the ordinance passed in July 2020 while protests were still occurring daily, far exceed the scope of any existing review board in the state, according to the 35-page final report. A new state law passed in the wake of last year’s racial justice protests allows for broader powers.

Only about a fifth of civilian oversight bodies across the country have the ability to investigate complaints independent of the police department. Most boards or panels, including those in Charlottesville, Fairfax County and Virginia Beach, review only their respective police department’s internal affairs investigations. And none in the state has the power to make binding disciplinary decisions, according to the task force report.

“Jurisdictions that track whether the Chief of Police imposes the disciplinary determinations of Internal Affairs versus the civilian oversight body, Internal Affairs findings are followed more often than the civilian oversight body,” the task force found.

State law enacted another power that the task force recommends: the ability to subpoena testimony from officers and civilians. No other oversight body in the state can do this, the report said. Subpoena power was something the City Council required the task force to include. It’s also a power endorsed by Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Gerald M. Smith.

Both have said they are supportive of a civilian review board, but it’s unclear where they stand on the recommendations from the task force.

The task force presented its recommendations less than a week after the state-owned statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue was removed, a move that was largely seen as symbolic of the progress to come. During public comment at Monday’s formal council meeting, Richmond activist Allan-Charles Chipman called the removal a “mass distraction.”

“Let us truly defy the racial terror and dominance of Robert E. Lee’s legacy and excavate the institutions that truly serve as the time capsules for his values,” he said. “Please support a robust, fully funded and independent civilian review board and work with the community and task force to replace the monument of tyranny with a living monument of expanded democracy, justice and transparency.”

(804) 649-6527

Twitter: @AliRockettRTD


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