Virginia

Henrico yanks funding for job after prosecutor hires BLM supporter

(VM) – Henrico County leaders quietly quashed plans to hire a prosecutor dedicated to investigating complaints of police misconduct after learning earlier this month the lawyer selected for the job made frequent social media posts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.

The new position would have been the first of its kind in the state, according to Commonwealth Attorney Shannon Taylor, an independently elected constitutional officer who said she was aware of the posts and saw nothing disqualifying about them when she extended the job offer to Misty Whitehead, an Army veteran who has been practicing law in the county for 13 years.

But in an unusual turn of events, Taylor was effectively overruled by County Manager John Vithoulkas, who has no formal say in hiring decisions in the prosecutor’s office but froze county funding for the position when he was alerted to Whitehead’s postings on Facebook, where she wrote about the need for police reform, praised departments working to build bridges with activists and criticized others for their response to protests and demands for change.

“When I saw what I saw I immediately thought, you know, this is not what Shannon Taylor and I discussed,” Vithoulkas said, calling the writings a clear indication of anti-police bias. “A county manager can’t tell a commonwealth’s attorney who to hire, but he can recommend whether or not local funds are included to supplement that salary. And in this case, I absolutely will not do it under any circumstances.”

The dispute offers a window into just how contentious and polarizing matters of police reform can become as they filter down from the General Assembly to the local level, raising questions about who will be allowed to serve in new oversight roles state lawmakers plan to create and what perspectives they should bring to their jobs.

In an interview, Whitehead said she considered her life experience and point of view an asset in a position where she would be expected to represent the rights of victims of police misconduct. And she stresses none of her writings are anti-police — just anti-police brutality, calling it troubling that county officials would conflate the two.

“I think what this demonstrates is leadership knows the value of putting the public face forward, making people think reform is happening,” she said. “But when it comes down to the teeth behind the reforms, they’re not willing to commit to that. A lot of folks are pinning hopes on civilian review boards. But once one is created, what teeth is it going to have?”

A native of the Philippines who describes a transient and at times troubled childhood that included giving birth to her first daughter while in the 10th grade, Whitehead joined the Army after graduating to fund her eventual college education. She later enrolled in VCU and attended William and Mary Law School on a full scholarship. After a stint at Williams Mullen, she opened her own practice in Henrico in 2007, where she practices criminal defense and family law.

She says she’s long been passionate about issues of police brutality and social justice and has shared her views frequently and publicly on her Facebook page — a fact she believed would lend her credibility, especially in cases where she decided charges were not appropriate and would have to deliver that news to people making complaints.

Vithoulkas, meanwhile, argues the views she expressed made it clear to him that she would not approach the job objectively and worried her hiring would make it impossible for the county police department to hire and recruit officers. The only post he specifically cited in in an interview this week involved photos she shared of herself and her family at the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, which was covered in graffiti — much of it anti-police — during a wave of protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Shannon Taylor

The site, which activists have renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle after a high-school teacher shot and killed by a Richmond police officer in 2018 during a mental health breakdown, has morphed into a community gathering place that frequently features dance, music and cookouts drawing a diverse crowd of visitors from around the region and state.

Vithoulkas called it a “more innocuous” example, but said he was worried how it would be perceived by police. “If you’re a police officer or a family member of a police officer and you see that, do you come away with any kind of impression?” he said.

Otherwise, he did not point to any single post she made that he viewed as particularly troubling or concerning. “The whole body of work led me to the conclusion that she could not maintain the objectivity that would be required to do this job,” he said.

In public posts on her Facebook page she sometimes offered sharp criticism of police leadership in other localities. In one, she shared a news story about Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith opposing a proposal to examine the budget for opportunities to divert police resources to mental health and substances abuse programs. Smith had argued that it would hurt officer morale and imply a “loss of faith and lack of support” for officers, potentially leading to longer response times and police misconduct.

Whitehead chastised the chief’s position, writing, “Honestly, good officers should feel offended that they are being characterized as such petulant toddlers by their own boss. Also — name any other job where your perceived lack of people liking and supporting you gives you the right to not only stop doing your job correctly, but to violate the law and the rights of others???”

John Vithoulkas

She also questioned the differing police responses to racial justice protesters and militia groups that oppose them — a common criticism in the Black Lives Matter movement. She contrasted the friendly exchange between police and gunman Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the city police chief’s comments the next day blaming protesters for violating curfew. In a private post visible only to her friends, she condemned officers in Hanover and Goochland for what she viewed as overly familiar interactions between officers and armed groups counterprotesting racial justice events. “The guy is leaning on the squad car, for goodness sake. This is the alliance that is at the root of White supremacy,” she wrote. “This is why policing as it stands must go.”

In other posts, she delved into legal analyses of alleged misconduct cases. After a grand jury in Kentucky declined to indict officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor, she outlined the conflicting laws at play that in her view made murder charges inappropriate. Instead, she argued the case illustrated the need for further reforms. “I’m right there with y’all, trust,” she wrote. “But we have to do this the right way.”

And she wrote voicing support for officers and police departments pursuing reforms. After police in Colonial Heights partnered with a Black Lives Matter activist, she wrote “I’m sure both men are catching flak from different sides but kudos to them for recognizing that we must be open to all paths to positive change. The goals of social justice advocates and of law enforcement don’t have to be mutually exclusive.”

Taylor said the hiring process included a review of her social media accounts and said Whitehead’s overall passion figured into her office’s ultimate decision to offer her the job. “There was nothing that we saw that said all police are terrible, defund them,” she said. “What I saw was thoughtful analysis of the current events we are all living through since George Floyd was murdered and what she was saying was not different than what I had said publicly.”

Taylor announced the job on July 1, calling it a “ground-breaking position” that would give county residents the confidence “that if any encounters with police seem wrong and not lawful, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office will intervene.” She listed job duties that included reviewing body camera footage from use-of-force complaints, determining when charges against officers are warranted and serving as a point of conduct for citizens and their lawyers to report allegations of misconduct.

Commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices are funded by the state and technically independent from the city and county governments where they work. But in practice most local prosecutors look to county officials for extra funds that allow them to pay their employees more than the relatively low base salaries of about $60,000 a year for an experienced lawyer.

That was the case in the position offered to Whitehead, which would have paid $121,000 a year through a mix of state and county funds, according to Vithoulkas, who said he agreed to the new position in concept when Taylor first proposed it to him but grew concerned after someone — he wouldn’t say who — alerted him to Whitehead’s social media posts.

Though Whitehead had received a formal offer letter on Sept. 1 setting a Sept. 28 start date, on Sept. 17, she received a curt email from the county’s human resources department informing her that funding for the position had been frozen.

Taylor said she objected and disagrees with Vithoulkas’ contention that having an aggressive prosecutor for the position would dampen the county’s ability to recruit and retain officers. She argued victims of police misconduct deserve the same vigorous representation as any other crime victims.

“Our job is not being the lawyer of the police,” she said. “If the community did not feel like they could go and make complaints to the police department directly, then we needed to provide them an avenue to voice their concerns. … This has been about giving the community confidence that we want to be accountable and transparent in Henrico County’s criminal justice system.”

Vithoulkas, meanwhile, said he has no second thoughts about his decision to pull the funding. “I’m absolutely resolute that this is the right decision,” he said, adding that Taylor is welcome to hire someone for the job at the base salary without county support.

Taylor says she’s still considering her options. “This was a big deal when we made the announcement,” she said. “And I want to stay true.”

Henrico, a diverse suburb of more than 330,000 outside of Richmond, is governed by a five-member board of supervisors made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, though the county’s electorate has leaned Democratic in recent statewide elections. The dispute reflects political tensions that only occasionally emerge in a changing county that prides itself on efficient, drama-free government.

Since George Floyd’s death, county leaders haves taken symbolic steps to address racial justice issues, removing a Confederate name from a community center and dropping the Rebel mascot from a high school. A proposal to create a civilian review board has drawn more controversy, with some Republican board members questioning whether independent police oversight is necessary.

Supervisor Tyrone Nelson, a Democrat who represents a majority Black part of the county and proposed the review board in June, called the decision to scuttle Whitehead’s position disappointing. He said he reviewed her posts after he was informed the position had been frozen and saw nothing he viewed as an impediment to serving the county in the new role.

“I didn’t see anti-police rhetoric,” he said. “I just saw somebody who was against police abuse, and I would hope that that’s the direction we are going in — not just as a county, but as a country.”

GOP members of the board said they backed Vithoulkas. “I trust the manager,” said Supervisor Pat O’Bannon, a long serving Republican member who is among those who challenged the need for a review board. “He is obviously protecting the county from any future problems. That’s his job.”

To Whitehead, the episode suggests the county isn’t all that interested in police reform.

“The whole role was about police accountability,” she said. “Everything I post is about police accountability. If I’m somebody who doesn’t meet the bill, he’s not looking for somebody that’s about police accountability.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.