Before George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was Marcus-David Peters in Richmond.
The circumstances of their deaths differ, but the advocacy that arose from them is shared: Activists want to redefine the relationship between police departments and the civilians they serve.
Floyd’s death on May 25 — with the knee of a police officer on his neck — sparked national outrage that, among other results, seems poised to topple the Confederate monuments that have held sway in Richmond for more than a century.
His death also is shining a renewed light on the thorny issues of police accountability and use of force — which Peters’ death during a mental health crisis two years earlier helped bring into focus, and which have lingered amid frustration from local activists.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief William Smith recently signaled their commitment to putting reforms in place, though organizers say they have yet to be brought into the discussions.
Next month, the Henrico County Board of Supervisors is expected to discuss a civilian review board. Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, who proposed the idea in an email to his colleagues last week, said such a panel could build community trust by giving residents more oversight of police. The 3-2 Republican-majority board seems receptive to the general idea.
Petersburg Police Chief Kenneth A. Miller is seeking applications for the creation of a Youth Advisory Committee. He hopes to have a panel of seven young people ranging in age from 16 to 20, the department announced on Twitter last week.
Chesterfield police say they’re open to suggestions for reforms, but there has been no real push there.
The question is this: When the marchers head home, the graffiti fades, and the statues come down, what will have changed other than the look of Monument Avenue?
Richmond activists said they are encouraged by new voices echoing their calls for reforms, and they are excited to see how far this momentum will carry them. They also know there is still a lot of work to do.
“This is exactly what happened two years ago. This is how I got involved,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a vocal organizer for groups like Richmond For All and the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project, and host of the radio show and podcast “Race Capitol.”
She became involved after Peters’ death in May 2018.
Peters, an Essex County biology teacher and Virginia Commonwealth University honors graduate, was naked, unarmed and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was fatally shot by a Richmond police officer. The shooting was deemed justified by the city’s former police chief and prosecutor at the time, because Peters threatened to kill the officer as he charged him.
A year before that, New Virginia Majority, a grassroots organization focused on social, racial and economic justice, knocked on 700 doors in South Richmond and heard story after story alleging unfair treatment or excessive force by police. The group took those accounts to the City Council, which asked for data to back up their claims.
From these experiences and others, new advocacy groups were born, including Justice and Reformation for Marcus-David Peters (started by Peters’ sister), and those Wise is involved in.
For years, organizers have been calling for an independent civilian board to investigate allegations of officer misconduct and use-of-force complaints, and for mental and behavioral health professionals — rather than armed officers — to respond when someone is in crisis. Recently, the groups have added defunding the department — reallocating parts of its $96 million budget to support these other initiatives — to their list of demands.
So when thousands of people took to the streets of Richmond looking for ways to express their frustrations with racial inequities and police brutality, these local organizers had some solutions ready that had been largely ignored by city leaders until last week.
Wise said she and other activists are welcoming this crop of newly politicized youth, educating them on how they got here, and pointing them where to go next. The Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project held an informational session last Thursday to explain some of its data collection on policing in Richmond, and to spell out its demands of city officials.
“This is the cycle of how oppressed people get together and get their freedom,” Wise said. “They are saying the same things that we were saying when we got involved. They are having the same feelings we had.”
The key is engaging with people when they want to, and having those solutions at the ready, she said, adding: “Until the unfortunate cycle when people forget.”
The project spent over two years going back and forth with police asking for data to show what policing looked like in Richmond. The trove of data that ultimately resulted from public records requests found an “alarmingly disproportionate policing of young black boys and men,” according to RTAP’s report titled “Our Streets, Our Say.”
Chief Smith acknowledged concerns of racial biases at the time but generally brushed off the report, saying it indicated inconsistent report-taking rather than institutional racism. He promised to roll out a new data collection system. RTAP has serious concerns about that system and was never consulted, though it was promised a chance to provide input.
The department now posts monthly crime data on its website, including complaints to the department’s internal affairs unit and use-of-force incidents. But it hasn’t budged on its opposition to outside review.
Currently, the department investigates complaints internally either through the chain of command or the internal affairs unit, it said. Any allegation that might be criminal goes to the Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, which decides whether to file charges. Colette McEachin, the city’s top prosecutor, said her office is investigating the Richmond officers involved in a June 1 incident in which tear gas was deployed against peaceful protesters without warning or reason.
Incidents involving use of force can range from complaints that handcuffs were too tight to fatal shootings. Incidents of force that don’t go to the prosecutor go before an existing review board.
One or two residents, who are handpicked by the chief from those who attend the department’s Citizen Police Academy and submit to a background check, and four officers not involved in the incident being reviewed make up the board. They determine whether the action taken by the officer was within policy or training guidelines, and, if not, recommend whether further training or other disciplinary action should be required. But the chief makes the final decision on discipline.
While the department doesn’t specifically list the disciplinary action, it does provide the outcome of the investigations. Last year, the department substantiated or found that an officer took improper action in less than half of the 109 complaints it investigated. The department also received 33 fewer complaints than the year before, which activists said is because people are reluctant to complain.
RTAP set up a hotline for complaints against the police. Organizer Nathan Lane said it has been very busy during the recent uprisings.
Smith has promised to publicly share the results of McEachin’s investigation, once a determination is made, and whatever disciplinary action is taken for the tear gas incident, but protesters have continued to call for swifter action: Fire them.
On Monday night, Smith said the department was conducting a comprehensive review of the “conduct of its officers” and its “use-of-force and crowd management policies, as well as all tactics used during the past week.”
Smith also promised input from community leaders about policies, training and practices needed “to change to reflect the needs of our city.” The same advocacy groups have been calling for public meetings with the department since before Smith became chief last year.
The project and the group headed by Princess Blanding, Peters’ sister, want a review board to investigate these matters that is completely independent, with subpoena power and the ability to make policy and disciplinary recommendations. Efforts — dating back decades — to establish an independent panel in Richmond have all failed.
There are about 200 civilian review boards across the country, and three in Virginia, according to Yohance Whitaker, community organizer with the Legal Aid Justice Center and a member of RTAP. He spoke during the informational session last Thursday, which was streamed on Zoom and Facebook.
Each board is different, but few have any real “teeth,” Whitaker explained — which is why the ability to subpoena witnesses is an important component of their request.
Blanding is also spearheading the effort for a “Marcus Alert,” which would make the presence of mental health professionals mandatory on calls deemed as crisis or for wellness checks. The officer who responded and ultimately shot her brother indicated that he believed Peters was suffering a mental health episode, but Blanding said he didn’t rely on the department’s Crisis Intervention Training when interacting with Peters.
Since Peters’ death, Richmond officers have shot five others — killing one man who was stabbing a woman at the time, and injuring four, including one last week in South Side. Police say the man who was shot June 2 injured two officers, one gravely, during an exchange of gunfire.
In Blanding’s proposal, mental health experts would be paired with an officer, who would be allowed to use only nonlethal force if things become unsafe, Blanding said during the RTAP meeting.
Blanding said she was sent a text June 1 from Stoney’s office after two “press events” where Stoney and Smith “stated their commitment to the creation of a Marcus-David Peters alert,” the text read. The representative from Stoney’s office said they would be in touch for “further collaborative conversations on what the alert system will look like, how it should operate.”
She said it was the first direct communication she has had about the alert since she proposed it two years ago, despite the fact that Smith said the department has been “working diligently” on it.
“It’s been nothing but broken promises, emails and pushbacks from City Hall,” Wise said. “It’s been a long hard, frustrating road.”
Blanding said she hopes to keep the momentum gained from the marches and protests of last week.
An online petition in favor of the two changes had received more than 75,000 signatures as of Monday evening.
“What we’re not going to let them do is allow them to create and have us co-sign at the end,” Blanding said. “I say to our protesters: Don’t back down. We’re not going to let the statues be a pacifier. We’re not going to allow this promise of the Marcus Alert be a pacifier. We’re not going to allow this promise of a CRB be a pacifier.
“Until we have it and we have it right.”
While most of the protests have been in the city, Henrico officials say they are planning to discuss what can change in their jurisdiction.
In addition to the creation of a civilian review board, Nelson’s proposals include the removal of county police officers from mutual aid plans with the city during the unrest if there is overt suppression of protests by city police, and requiring the termination of officers who use violent, unorthodox maneuvers to detain suspects.
Nelson noted that there have been no high-profile incidents of police violence against black people in the county, but he still feels that more can be done to improve police accountability and the department’s relationship with the community. “I’m usually the one getting calls with people frustrated about particular situations [with the police],” he said.
In September, two Henrico officers shot and killed a white, 57-year-old woman in her Short Pump-area home. Gay Ellen Plack was experiencing a mental health crisis and was armed with an ax when police encountered her inside her home, and broke into a locked bedroom, during a welfare check requested by a psychiatrist.
Activists and civil liberties groups commented on the case and asked for transparency in the investigation, but did not push for any reforms after the county prosecutor, after consulting two out-of-town prosecutors, cleared the two officers of any charges. The officers still have not been named publicly.
Since Plack’s death, officers in the department have been involved in one other fatal shooting. On March 6, Henrico was assisting Richmond police in locating a man wanted for an earlier carjacking. Officers made contact with the man in a driveway, who then fled inside a home and was stabbing a woman when a Henrico officer fired his service weapon, fatally striking the man.
Given the recent unrest, however, Henrico supervisors agreed that changes should be considered now, even if there have been fewer protests or calls to action in the county. The board seems receptive to the idea, though there could be differences of opinion on how much authority and power it will give to the community panel.
“The pain that people are experiencing doesn’t know boundaries. Just because people are standing at the Robert E. Lee monument [in the city] doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect people in Henrico,” said Supervisor Dan Schmitt. “It requires us to be better and have conversations. I think that’s what Tyrone Nelson is trying to do with the five of us.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, the first since Nelson pitched the idea a week ago, Nelson said he anticipates that the board will discuss a new civilian review board next month. “We are not ready yet,” he said Tuesday.
Nelson said he wants to make sure the review board is led by residents rather than county officials or police officials.
“That’s not a knock against our police. We have a really strong police department,” he said. “There’s just some distrust there.”
Melissa McKenney, an organizer with the progressive activist group Together We Will Henrico, said she and others are conferring with city activists to study models of how an effective civilian review board can be formed.
“It’s important to have independent oversight of police forces so they’re held accountable to an outside authority, one that really has the ability to review information and make decisions about how things should be handled,” she said.
Their ideas may get some pushback from police.
Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police and Foundation, of which Henrico Police Chief Humberto Cardounel Jr. is a board member, said the association is “considering a ton of reform suggestions,” but a civilian review board is not among them. On Tuesday, the association rolled out its recommendations calling for higher standards in hiring; pushing all departments toward certification; limiting police unions; and, above all, more funding.
Schrad said the association doesn’t support civilian-controlled review boards because “it can be tricky to protect the privacy of an employee’s personnel record when a group of citizens is empowered to weigh in on review and discipline in police matters.”
When a violation by an officer is more serious, the association recommends that a “chief can move swiftly to properly discipline the officer through retraining, demotion, suspension or termination,” without waiting to consult a board. If the officer could be charged with a crime, chiefs usually bring in outside investigators, but this is rare.
“This approach has worked successfully for many years,” Schrad said. “Citizen review boards rarely do better than a professional internal affairs investigation process, and more often don’t do as well.”
“Membership on these boards can turn over frequently, so they lack the ability to apply consistency and fairness across the review and disciplinary process that ensures fair and equitable treatment of the officers.”
Chesterfield County police handle complaints internally, similar to Henrico and Richmond.
The department’s Office of Professional Standards includes three sergeants — who investigate most of the complaints — as well as a lieutenant, a captain and several civilian support staff members.
“All completed investigations go through the OPS captain, who determines whether a policy violation occurred,” said Liz Caroon, the department’s spokeswoman.
If a policy was violated, the officer’s division commander recommends a corrective action, and depending on the severity, it could be reviewed up the chain of command.
“We recognize there is a strong desire to make wide, sweeping changes to a system that has not historically administered justice equally, fairly or impartially,” Caroon said. “We encourage our residents to take a deep dive into what we do, including the safeguards and accountability measures we have in place, and make suggestions for changes and improvements based on that.”