Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney on Monday backed a change in how city police respond to people suffering from a mental health crisis, having law enforcement tap mental health professionals to be the first responders. He also said he wants the city to explore an independent civilian review board.
Stoney addressed the reforms, sought by Richmond activists after a police officer shot and killed high school biology teacher Marcus-David Peters in 2018, during a news conference Monday at Richmond’s Slavery Reconciliation Statue. There, nearly a dozen elected officials, along with community and faith leaders, condemned the riots that filled the city over the weekend. Protests on Sunday night were more peaceful but resulted in more than 200 arrests as demonstrators violated a state-ordered curfew.
As more people call for systemic change to policing, Stoney said the city needs to act.
“We want to go further — in a faster manner — and the only way, the only way we do that, is doing it together,” he said. “As we push forward, we have to look at the accountability of those in law enforcement. I recognize that. We’ve all seen it across the country.”
In the case of Peters, a city police officer shot the naked and unarmed Henrico County resident in May 2018 after he threatened to kill the officer and charged at him, screaming expletives. Michael Herring, then the city’s commonwealth’s attorney, later ruled it to be a “justified” shooting.
His death prompted calls, most notably from his family, to provide a system that provides “help, not death.” Peters’ family again called on city leaders Monday to take “concrete measures” to “ensure that our community never again has to face that kind of unnecessary tragedy.”
“This is your opportunity to take the lead, to take the first steps forward for our city, our state and our nation by putting in place policies, procedures and accountability to immediately put an end to police brutality, to the unjust murders of Black people and to ensure that Black Lives Matter,” the family said in a statement. “Our nation is crying out, and as long as our cries, our pleas, our demands continue to go unheard, the waves of local and national demonstrations will continue.”
Specifically, the family — along with community organizers who have pushed for the changes for two years — asked for a “Marcus Alert System,” which would mandate that mental health professionals be the first responders in a suspected or confirmed mental health crisis. In those situations, police would serve as their backup.
“We have to make the Marcus Alert happen in this city,” Stoney said Monday.
Richmond Police Chief William Smith backed calls for reform, calling the agency he leads imperfect. He added that RPD is “working diligently” on a “Marcus Alert.”
“We are committed to making sure that we provide intervention instead of death,” he said.
The family has also asked for an independent civilian review board that has subpoena power — a panel that would oversee community grievances against police. “We do not trust the police to police themselves,” the family said.
Stoney said the city would consider it.
An online petition in favor of the two changes had received nearly 13,000 signatures as of 5 p.m. Monday.
In their statement, Peters’ family also asked that police drop all charges against people arrested in recent protests against the death of another unarmed black man, Minnesota resident George Floyd, last week.
Police arrested 233 people overnight Sunday during the third night of protests over Floyd’s death and the first with an 8 p.m. curfew authorized by Gov. Ralph Northam. Sunday night’s protests were far different than what the city saw Friday night, when a GRTC bus was set ablaze, and Saturday night, when rioters looted and vandalized dozens of buildings.
Standing in front of the Reconciliation Statue on the corners of 15th and Main streets, not far from the city’s former slave market in Shockoe Bottom, prominent elected officials, including Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., decried the riots.
“We’ve got to keep the focus on the behavior and the trauma, rather than giving people ammunition by trashing minority businesses or small businesses,” Kaine said. “Then they’ll use that to take everybody’s eyes off the trauma that has to be solved.”
Richmond NAACP President JJ Minor encouraged families to light a candle in their home every night through next Monday in honor of Floyd.
“We cannot move forward with violence and uncontrolled outrage,” he said.
The news conference, initially scheduled for Sunday, drew a crowd of roughly 100 community members, some of whom criticized city police’s use of tear gas and pepper spray in breaking up the weekend’s protests. All in attendance agreed that law enforcement policies should change to prevent police brutality.
“It must stop,” McQuinn said. “All of us need to be able to breathe.”
She added: “If there are enough sparks festering because of social and economic disparities and brutality and anger and prejudice and frustration, eventually there will be an explosion. America is now facing her explosion.”