Richmond police didn’t include any of the high-profile incidents of force during the recent unrest when the department this week published its first monthly update of use-of-force data since the protests began May 29.
Police blame a backlog of cases related to the daily demonstrations that have often led to forceful dispersion by police, but it’s not the first time the department has published incomplete data on how often it uses violence. And records show that when the department does report using force, it’s overwhelmingly against Black people. Officers reported using force against Black people in five times as many cases as they did against white people, according to a review of the reports that include 2018, 2019 and the first half of 2020.
The latest batch of reports were updated late Friday, more than three days after the Richmond Times-Dispatch inquired about the omissions and delay. The new file includes the June 1 incident in which police have admitted to wrongfully tear-gassing protesters kneeling at the base of the Monument Avenue statue of Robert E. Lee. The site has become the epicenter of the uprisings and the flashpoint for many clashes between protesters and police.
On Thursday, police first updated the reports of force from May and June that are typically posted at the start of the following month. There was no mention of the June 1 tear gassing for which it faces two lawsuits and a criminal investigation.
“We have seen the videos and felt the use of force on our own bodies in recent weeks yet the RPD data doesn’t reflect any of our experiences nor what’s on tape,” said Chelsea Higgs Wise, a member of the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project responsible for getting the department to post the data after a years-long battle. “Our fight to be heard has always been about transparency of data to validate the reports of the people. The efforts to skirt around the people’s demand of transparent reporting is habitual behavior of our RPD and (Mayor Levar) Stoney’s administration.”
The use of force report and a report on the type of complaints being handled by the department’s internal affairs division were first made public in 2018 after calls from RTAP, a group formed after Marcus-David Peters was shot and killed during a confrontation with a Richmond police officer in May of that year.
The original report from 2018 didn’t initially include any of the four officer-involved shootings, including Peters’, and a review of the reports since shows that the department still doesn’t fully account for the times that officers fired a gun at someone.
A police spokesman said the report the department posted online Thursday wasn’t intended as a complete list of incidents for the past two months, but is rather a “snapshot” of cases that have been reviewed. The department also added a note Friday to the top of its June report stating that it doesn’t reflect the use of force during protests and demonstrations.
“As you know, there have been many,” Gene Lepley, spokesman for the Richmond Police Department, said Thursday evening in a phone call about the data, citing the backlog. “We don’t wait until it’s all complete to post. What’s posted on the first of the month, it’s a snapshot of where we are.”
Richmond police self-report uses of force and are supposed to fill out a form explaining it before their shift ends.
“We’re way behind,” Lepley said. “It’s been an extraordinary time.”
The first night of demonstrations, May 29, pepper spray was used to disperse a rowdy crowd that had gathered outside the police department’s headquarters on 200 W. Grace St. A fire that had been set inside a car parked on the street outside the building caused the car to explode and break windows of the headquarters. Officers in riot gear sprayed the crowd, clearing it from the parking lot across the street.
On May 30, a man was doused with pepper spray as police walked below his second-story window. The next night, after a state-imposed curfew went into effect, tear gas and pepper spray was used to clear people from downtown streets — 233 people were arrested.
On June 14, a marked SUV drove through a crowd of protesters, who had blocked it from entering the Monument Avenue traffic circle from Allen Avenue. Several people were knocked to the ground, though no one was seriously injured. The city’s prosecutor is also investigating the incident.
None of these incidents, among others reported over the past 43 days of protests, were included in Thursday’s or Friday’s updates.
But eyewitness accounts and videos of police responding to protesters have led some city leaders to demand a different approach from the department, which is on its third chief since the protests began.
Council members Michael Jones, the 9th District representative, and Stephanie Lynch, the 5th District representative, have sought to ban police from using tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades in the city, after experiencing the violence two nights in a row last month.
There are other inconsistencies in the data — police count all uses of force from the same event as one, even if multiple officers are involved or just one civilian is involved. For instance, police added just three incidents to its total tally in Friday’s update, even though 12 individual uses of force were added, all dated June 1.
If each entry is counted individually, the number of incidents climbs to 104 for the first half of this year.
Other examples of force include the use of an asp or baton, K-9, a Taser, a gun or physical force. Physical force accounts for more than three-quarters of all uses of force, according to the available data.
There’s not a single entry with a firearm listed as the force used by an officer in 2019 or 2020.
There were two officer-involved shootings in 2019 that don’t appear in the police data, and on June 2, two officers and a 19-year-old man were shot in an exchange of gunfire on Semmes Avenue. That shooting was also not among the updated data. It’s unclear if the shooting has any link to the protests, though police said one of the three individuals they attempted to stop before the shooting had attended the demonstrations earlier that day.
“This is the same thing that happened when the department found out RTAP had identified missing cases of officers using firearms against citizens that weren’t reported in the Use of Force stats,” said Eli Coston, another RTAP member. The original data posted in 2018 didn’t include any of the four officer-involved shootings that year, until RTAP brought it to the department’s attention. “It was mentioned on Twitter and they fixed it the next day. I am not shocked that the Use of Force during protests isn’t documented, unfortunately. The general orders already have a broad exception in which departmentally approved techniques don’t need to be documented.”
The data is self-reported by the officer involved. According to the department’s general order: “whenever any department-issued less than lethal weapon is used, whether the contact is intentional or unintentional, officers shall complete a PD-35 (form). While not limited to this situation, this requirement must be followed whenever the O.C. Fogger is used to disperse large or unruly crowds.”
The order also stipulates that only in cases of deadly force is an officer allowed to complete the PD-35 form after a 48-hour recovery period instead of by the end of the officer’s shift.