PolitiFact VA: Stoney Flops on Police Chief Search
On June 16, Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney forced city Police Chief William Smith to resign and pledged a national search for a replacement who could improve community relations and “reimagine” the way police work.
Ten days later, Stoney announced he hired Gerald Smith - the deputy police chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, N.C. - to head Richmond’s force. The fast turnaround has led some activists to accuse Stoney of breaking his pledge to conduct a thorough search for a chief while, at the same time, seeking community advice on how to reshape the police department.
"Hearing that Mayor Levar Stoney is not fulfilling his promise or commitment to involve the public and the advocates that have been doing this work is not surprising to any of us," Chelsea Higgs Wise, a longtime activist with Richmond for All, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in a June 28 article. "It just shows that his choices are not one that are keeping the public in mind."
We took a look on the Flip-O-Meter whether Stoney changed his position on conducting a national search.
The controversy arose from the May 25 death of George Floyd, a black man, underneath the knee of a Minneapolis policeman. Protests spread across the nation and began in Richmond four days later, leading to vandalism, some looting, and clashes between the demonstrators and the city’s police.
A key moment came on June 1 when police sprayed tear gas into a peaceful group of protesters gathered at the statue of Robert E. Lee on Monument Ave. Stoney repeatedly apologized to an estimated 1,000 demonstrators who voiced outrage outside City Hall the next day. He promised to involve citizens in reforming the department.
On June 16, Stoney announced he had requested and received the resignation of Chief William Smith. The mayor promised a painstaking search for a new chief who would bring change to the department and improved community relations.
“There is no timeline,” Stoney said. “We will do a national search, eventually. Right now, we have to do a number of things on our plate, right? A lot of police departments across the country have a lot on their plate and what we want to do is a national search.”
More immediately, Stoney said he’d be setting up a citizens’ review board to give the community a voice in changing police policies - including use of force and dealing with people experiencing mental health crises.
In the meantime, Stoney named police Maj. William “Jody” Blackwell as interim chief, creating a new controversy. Blackwell fatally shot a man, Jeramy O. Gilliam, while on duty in 2002. Although a grand jury cleared Blackwell of wrongdoing, many residents, protesters and Gilliam’s family were critical of his promotion to interim chief.
Stoney said he was aware of the shooting when he appointed Blackwell.
Ten days later, Stoney announced he hired a new chief. “I talked to a number of candidates. Chief Gerald Smith was on the top,” he said at a June 26 news conference. “I think he’s the sort of leadership we need at this time.”
Reporters asked Stoney how the quick hiring squared with his pledge to have the community involved in reshaping the police department. “I’m still the mayor of the great City of Richmond and plan on being mayor of the great City of Richmond for the next five years - four years - and I will say that we all recognize what we need right now,” he replied.
Stoney said the next day that he worked constantly on finding a new chief since the firing of the old one and the hiring of the new one, and he “solicited the advice and the recommendations of policing leaders across the country.”
There’s no doubt, however, that Stoney changed his national search plans.
On June 28, the city ran an ad in the Times-Dispatch saying it was beginning a national search for a police chief that day, which was two days after Smith had been hired. The ad said the city would begin reviewing applications on July 26.
The job posting also debuted on the city government’s employment site on June 28 - again, two days after it had been filled.
It finally should be noted that while there is criticism of the process through which the new chief was hired, we have not heard complaints aimed at Gerald Smith or his qualifications for the job.
Stoney promised a deliberate, national search for a new police chief, then filled the job in 10 days - two days before the first advertisements appeared.
We rate that a Full Flop.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “New police chief arrives less than two weeks after Mayor promises nationwide search,” June 28, 2020.
Mayor Levar Stoney, News conference comments, June 16, 2020 (19:15 mark).
Stoney, News conference comments, June 26 and 27, 2020.
Times Dispatch, police chief ad on Page F-5, June 28, 2020.
Richmond On-Line Staffing System, posting for police chief, June 28. 2020.