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Local activists applaud RVA police chief resignation

Several community organizations are applauding the June 16 resignation of Richmond Police Chief William Smith following allegations of “blatant police abuse and outright lies” over police response to recent protests. 

Interim RPD Chief Blackwell

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney requested and received the resignation of Richmond Police Chief Will Smith Tuesday. Soon after, Stoney named Major William “Jody” Blackwell, a 16-year veteran of the department, as interim chief.

The United Front and its member organizations, including Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project (RTAP); Southerners On New Ground (SONG); Virginia Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality; Justice and Reformation; Leaders of the New South; Rev. Dr. James Henry Harris & Antonio Redd, Second Baptist Church – West End; and Richmond For All, among others, noted they had planned to issue a statement detailing the alleged police abuse and Smith’s lies while calling for his firing or immediate resignation.

Among the noted issues, according to United Front’s statement:

1 – On Sunday, May 31, Smith held a press conference where he gave an emotional, tearful account of how, early that morning, protesters had “intentionally” set fire to a multi-unit building on West Broad Street, trapping inside a family with a small child, and then physically prevented fire trucks from coming to the rescue. These false claims, which were covered by national and international media, were later directly contradicted by a highly unusual release from the Richmond Fire Department. The release quoted Richmond Fire Lt. Christopher Armstrong as stating that the house – located on Monroe Street, not Broad Street – became inflamed after a nearby car fire spread to the house, adding that only the exterior of the house was affected. It stated that fire rescue teams initially were not impeded by protesters, but rather by burning trash cans. Further, when fire crews arrived, the occupants of the house were already safe outside and were unharmed. We have yet to see an apology from Chief Smith for his outrageously false claims.

2 – That evening, Richmond police rounded up 233 peaceful protesters who were continuing to march against police brutality after the 8 p.m. curfew requested by Mayor Levar Stoney and imposed by Gov. Ralph Northam. Protesters were first told to “go home,” but when they tried to leave the area they were “kettled” and forced onto buses to be taken to the city jail. The handcuffed protesters were held on those buses for hours, some as long as overnight.

According to Chief Smith, “Our enforcement of the curfew was directed solely at those that were involved in violence and destruction of our city.” This was a blatant lie meant to vilify the protesters in the public mind. In fact, the vast majority (if not all) of those 233 people were only charged with violating the curfew, a misdemeanor that normally would result in a written citation, not arrest.

Further, Chief Smith claimed at a June 1 press conference held in front of City Hall that most of those arrested were from outside the city, implying they were organized agitators. The truth? Many of those arrested were local university students, so of course their home addresses were outside the city.

3 – Later on June 1, a half-hour before the curfew again was to take effect, Richmond police officers fired multiple tear gas canisters at a peaceful crowd of protesters at the Lee Monument. At 8:08 p.m. the RPD tweeted this comment (@RichmondPolice): “To our peaceful protestors:  We are sorry we had to deploy gas near the Lee Monument. Some RPD officers in that area were cut off by violent protestors. The gas was necessary to get them to safety.”

That was followed by another tweet at 9:47 pm.: “Chief Smith just reviewed video of gas being deployed by RPD officers near the Lee Monument and apologizes for this unwarranted action. These officers have been pulled from the field. They will be disciplined because their actions were outside dept protocols and directions given.”

To date, there has been no news of any of the officers being named or disciplined, noted United Front.

4 – On Saturday evening, June 13, a Richmond police officer drove his patrol car into a group of unarmed protesters at the Lee Monument. Video footage from the incident clearly shows the deliberate nature of the attack. An RPD statement said the police car only drove forward into the protesters after officers were trapped inside their vehicle, one was assaulted through an open window and objects were thrown at the vehicle, breaking the back window and causing other damage. But video posted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch does not show any officers being assaulted, and only shows objects being thrown at the police car AFTER the vehicle was driven into protesters, knocking down at least one youth.

This incident came just days after a self-admitted KKK leader drove his car into a group of Black Lives Matter protesters headed for the Confederate A.P. Hill statue on Laburnum Avenue, and after one of three carloads of heavily-armed white people rammed into a young Black man and his bicycle at the Lee Monument.

5 – And on Saturday evening, June 14, without any apparent provocation, riot-equipped Richmond police officers outside RPD headquarters pepper-sprayed protesters who were demanding the firing and indictments of the officers who have committed the above abuses. They also arrested a 22-year-old BLM activist, telling the crowd they would not process her to be released until all protesters had left the area, in effect holding the young woman hostage. We since have learned that Michaela Hatton has been charged with assault and battery of a police officer and conspiring with others to incite a riot, felonies, Meanwhile, no charges have been filed against any police officers.

“The Richmond police officers responsible for the above abuses must immediately be fired and indicted for assault and battery and related crimes, noted United Front in its statement.

“The past two weeks obviously have been a challenging time for both the people of Richmond and its government. With public consciousness and outrage about police abuses at such a heightened level, this must be a time of zero tolerance for further police abuse.”

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