Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin has cleared city police officers of any criminal wrongdoing in several complaints related to the recent civil unrest, including one in which a marked SUV was driven through protesters blocking its way.
Missing from the complaints, five of which were detailed in a report the prosecutor’s office released by email around 3:15 p.m. Monday, is the June 1 incident in which officers tear-gassed a crowd of protesters at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument 20 minutes ahead of curfew.
“This is not a complete list of all of the allegations that our office is still reviewing, and I will announce my findings when those investigations are concluded,” the report reads.
The report comes more than 50 days after the first demonstrations took place in Richmond on May 29, ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody four days earlier.
Since June 1, McEachin said a group of experienced attorneys in her office, which does not have investigators, has been reviewing complaints from the community, reports from the police department’s Internal Affairs Division, footage from officers’ body-worn cameras and social media, and interviews from witnesses.
Two of the allegations do not appear to have involved a potential crime. One involves a tattoo on an officer’s arm that some claimed was “the emblem of an unknown white nationalist or white supremacist organization,” the report said. “In fact, the tattoo is the logo of Northern Red, a company that had provided firearms training to the officer.”
Another instance involved a photo, taken years before the officer joined the department, in which the officer appears to have darkened their skin. The report found that rather than painted brown or black, the officer’s skin was reddened as if sunburned for a beach-themed college party.
“A comparison of the social media photograph with the original photograph clearly demonstrates that the social media picture had been altered to appear as though the officer was in ‘blackface,’ ” the report said.
Two other complaints stem from the aftermath of the June 1 tear gas incident, which the report only obliquely references. As demonstrators fled the chemical haze around the monument, an officer appeared to target a man nearby with OC spray, commonly referred to as pepper spray.
McEachin’s report stated that the man who was doused was throwing water bottles at police, and photos to support the findings were attached.
“One frame of the footage captures what appears to be a water bottle in his throwing hand while another shows the object flying through the air at police as the officer deploys his OC canister to prevent any further violence,” the report said.
The report also dismissed an allegation that officers appeared to spit on a detained person — a video posted on social media sparked outrage as viewers referenced the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The officers were unmasked and “affected by their exposure to chemical agents,” the report said. “(Body-worn camera) video footage clearly shows individual officers spitting onto the street in an effort to clear their throats. No officers spat on or in the direction of the seated protester.”
The prosecutor’s office did its own frame-by-frame comparison and found a video posted to social media “was the result of the distorted visual perspective,” the report said.
It also cited “an unsolicited forensic report” published by a forensic video consultant on the online publishing platform Medium to corroborate its finding.
The day after the June 13 SUV incident, Mayor Levar Stoney publicly called for an investigation, and asked the police department to place the officer who drove through the crowd on administrative leave. Later, Stoney told officers in a private meeting captured on video that he did not see anything criminal based on the body-worn camera.
Only one of the three officers in the SUV turned on their body-worn camera, according to a supplementary report specific to this incident. That officer was seated in the front passenger seat of the SUV.
That video, along with three others provided by onlookers, were reviewed as part of the prosecutors’ report. Prosecutors spoke to a witness who said “he did not see the SUV strike anyone nor did he see anyone strike the SUV.”
McEachin reached out directly to a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter who witnessed the incident, but the newspaper declined to give a voluntary statement to authorities.
Several people on bikes had formed a blockade at the entrance of the traffic circle on Monument Avenue where it intersects with North Allen Avenue at the Lee monument, for hours leading up to the encounter.
Around 9:30 p.m., as the SUV slowly approached, more joined. The report does not say why the SUV approached the crowd, but said the mood of the crowd “changed” as the officers got closer to the monument.
“The protesters deliberately created a ‘standoff” with the police,” the report said. “Given a volatile situation and limited options, the police chose to leave the scene to avoid a face-to-face confrontation with the protesters who were blocking the street. The videos show the SUV slowly reversing while blowing its horn and then slowly turning right, away from the protesters, and going onto the grassy area where there are no people at that time.
“There are no people in the path of the SUV for seven seconds while it is circumventing the protesters. It is only when the protesters realize that SUV is about to get away from them that they then run over and re-engage the police by standing in front of or hitting a moving vehicle. Contrary to many news reports or social media posts, there is no objective evidence that the SUV was deliberately driven through an unsuspecting group of protesters. Any contact that occurred between any person and the SUV was due to that person’s individual decision to make contact with the vehicle.”
In prior reports, The Times-Dispatch has described the incident as follows:
No one was injured when the SUV forced its way through the protesters, who had been blocking the intersection of Monument and North Allen avenues for hours leading up to the encounter. After the SUV mounted the curb to avoid the protesters, the crowd moved in front of the SUV, standing against its bumper as it revved forward. The scene was recorded, and witnessed by two Times-Dispatch reporters. Police have said the driver was assaulted through the open window.
The prosecutor’s report says the officer was punched in the head and that several things were thrown at the vehicle throughout the encounter. As the SUV fled down Monument Avenue, its rear window was shattered.
“It is against the law to drive a motor vehicle on the city sidewalks. It is also against the law for any pedestrian to interfere with or deliberately stop a vehicle someone else is driving for the sole purpose of impeding its progress on the road,” the report said.
McEachin ended the second report saying she found no evidence that the officer driving the SUV “operated the vehicle in a malicious, unlawful, reckless or improper manner.”