After Fatal Police Shooting in 2002, Richmond Rebuffed Investigations, Reform
Decisions made about the future of the Richmond Police Department amid protests and civil unrest have left many people in the community scratching their heads. Mayor Levar Stoney asked former Police Chief William Smith to step down earlier this month, shortly after the department came under fire for violent, and some argue, unconstitutional treatment of protesters. Stoney himself called some of the officer’s actions “unwarranted.”
“I have high expectations for the Richmond Police Department,” Stoney said the day Smith stepped down. “At a very minimum, I expect them to be willing to come around the table with the community to reform and reimagine public safety. So it boils down to whether the leadership of RPD embraces the change or stands in the way.”
The same day, Stoney said he’d selected William “Jody” Blackwell as interim chief, promising to do a nationwide search for a new leader, “eventually.” He expressed confidence that Blackwell was up to the challenge of leaning into reform and building community trust.
“As law enforcement professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure we treat all citizens fairly and equally in all of our dealings,” Blackwell said during his first press briefing as interim chief. “We want to partner with our community to continue to strengthen our relationships and continue to strengthen our city.”
But Blackwell would only serve 10 days amid skepticism and criticism over his record, which includes the fatal shooting of a Black man in 2002.
King Salim Khalfani said he was traumatized and enraged to see him in the spotlight again. Khalfani was head of the Virginia Conference of the NAACP the year Blackwell shot and killed 26-year-old Jeramy Gilliam.
“And he comes in in this first news conference, talking about ‘We've got to take our city back,’ ‘I didn't ask for this job and neither did you,’ and all of that. That’s the wrong frickin person to put, even if it's just interim. He didn’t deserve that kind of play,” Khalfani said.
Blackwell said he was frustrated that his officers were being judged by “people who refuse to even sit down and talk to us civilly,” but activists say they’ve never received an invite.
Chelsea Higgs Wise, a member of the Justice and Reformation coalition which formed to demand systemic reforms after the police killing of Marcus-David Peters in 2018, said the police have never met with them, despite several requests.
Last Friday, Stoney abruptly announced that he’d hired Gerald Smith out of North Carolina as the city’s new permanent chief. Smith was officially sworn in to the department July 1. Blackwell’s new assignment is chief of staff, according to an RPD spokesperson.
But critics questioned Stoney’s judgement in installing Blackwell in the first place.
A Deadly Officer-Involved Shooting Leads to Repeated Calls for Reform
Advocates and civil rights groups like the NAACP were calling on city officials to create a citizen’s review board the year Blackwell shot Jeramy Gilliam, almost two decades ago. That incident was the last in a string of five shooting deaths by police that year. In four of the five cases, police say the individuals brandished firearms or shot at officers. In the case of Verlon Johnson, he was fatally shot on his front porch by a detective who stood trial three separate times but was never convicted.
City council did not create the review board following those deadly officer-involved shootings.
Khalfani accused council members at the time of not standing up to law enforcement and pushing for necessary reforms.
The NAACP also asked the FBI to investigate some of these cases, including Blackwell’s, to determine whether Gilliam’s civil rights were violated. There were reportedly no independent witnesses to the struggle between Blackwell and Gilliam. And the revolver Richmond Police say Gilliam pointed at a Blackwell didn’t have his fingerprints on it. Blackwell told VPM Wednesday he was on administrative leave for three months, while the incident was fully investigated by local and federal authorities.
VPM has filed an open records request for the results of the FBI investigation with the help of the organization Muckrock.
Blackwell’s case went before a grand jury that did not return an indictment.
“I still vividly recall the events of that day, almost 18 years ago. I also know that his family bears a great burden. Any loss of a life is a tragedy,” Blackwell told VPM in a statement. “The impact is felt for generations; this is not to be taken lightly.”
In the decade before Gilliam was shot and killed, Richmond’s homicide rate was among the highest in the nation for cities with populations larger than 100,000. Back then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said these deaths were mostly related to gun violence.
William J. Pantele, a Richmond City Councilman at the time, said the community was more focused on curbing the city’s violent crime rate than officer accountability.
“I remember the city administration having a pretty dim view of it,” Pantele said of calls for a citizens review board.
“I think that kind of oversight ultimately brings out the best result."
- Manoli Loupassi
Then-councilman Manoli Loupassi said he was against the review board at the time.
“We're now 15, 20 years or 18 years later. And I have a different opinion. I totally have a different opinion,” he said in an interview with VPM Tuesday.
“I think that kind of oversight ultimately brings out the best result,” he said.
Investigations into Excessive Force Allegations Were Never Followed Through
But the city’s refusal to create a citizen’s review board wasn’t the only lost opportunity to heed calls from the public for accountability.
City leaders at the time also reneged on promises to do a study looking into officers’ use of force that year. Following Gilliam’s death, police Chief Andre Parker announced an independent, third-party review.
But according to the same story, the study was called off on the advice of then City Attorney Jim Rupp after they already had a firm lined up that could conduct the review.
David Hicks, then Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney, was quoted saying the study was necessary to maintain trust and credibility.
"Something that is promised but not followed through on an issue this serious is really a concern, because the people of Richmond are going to think that we don't monitor ourselves," Hicks said.
After Years of Promotions, Blackwell Heads Unit Later Investigated
In October 2003, the Retail Merchants Association of Greater Richmond and the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce presented Blackwell with a valor award for shooting Gilliam. The awards “go to officers and firefighters who have acted beyond the call of duty.”
On October 21, 2005, the Richmond Times Dispatch reported that Blackwell was promoted to sergeant.
He took on a role as head of the department’s Confidential Informant Program in 2009. At that time, the program was under scrutiny for allegations that at least one officer, former Richmond Police Lieutenant Jason Norton, lied to obtain search warrants.
“At no time while assigned to the Special Investigations Division did I supervise Norton, nor did I approve or supervise any of his operations.”
- William Blackwell
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Richmond uncovered these problems, which prompted an FBI investigation in 2014. Federal authorities chose not to prosecute Norton. Blackwell left that position in 2011, and more than a dozen people had their sentences vacated after spending years in jail.
Blackwell told VPM in a statement that while servicing as a lieutenant in narcotics, he was responsible for managing the Confidential Informant Program and the paperwork that was filed.
“At no time while assigned to the Special Investigations Division did I supervise Norton, nor did I approve or supervise any of his operations,” the statement said.
A spokesman for the city told VPM that despite Blackwell’s title at the time, he was not an immediate supervisor to Norton and had little oversight responsibilities.
Were These Issues More Widespread?
But the problems may have been bigger than Norton.
Richmond Police Lieutenant Brian Corrigan testified in a 2016 Richmond Circuit Court hearing that when he took over as head of the informant unit in 2012, he found there were missing documents in informant files related not only to Norton, but other officers.
Corrigan testified that the unit had since “tightened the reins,” implementing policies that were not previously being followed.
Mike Herring, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney at the time, had already appointed a special prosecutor to look into the discrepancies. In 2015, he asked Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle to investigate.
Stolle’s office, which completed its investigation just this May, declined to press charges against Norton.
But in a letter to current Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, Stolle said many of the documents -- that would be necessary to review and potentially prove a crime was committed -- were missing, or no longer available.
The office considered four charges against Norton, including perjury, embezzlement and forgery of a public record.
The letter said some officers that investigators spoke to admitted to a “culture” of detectives signing as a witness to payments between officers and confidential informants, without actually witnessing the payment.
“Although Norton’s behavior may be perceived as suspicious, the lack of reliable witnesses and incomplete or missing documentation, as well as a complete absence of accurate recordkeeping, by not only Norton, but other members of the Richmond Police Department, prohibit us from pursuing any criminal charges in this matter,” the letter said.
There was no mention of Blackwell in the Virginia Beach report, or the role immediate supervisors played in the alleged scheme. Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stolle declined an interview request.
Two federal lawsuits [Editor's note: one, two] filed by citizens who were arrested and jailed with the help of Norton’s suspect search warrants were settled confidentially. So there was no further probe into Blackwell’s involvement or potential culpability.
Continued Calls for Police Reforms Lead to New Chief in Richmond
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is now promising transparency and accountability at the Richmond Police Department, as well as a deeper focus on community policing. He says the city can expect that with Gerald Smith, whom he calls an innovator, with a track record of engaging the community.
Smith comes from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which is also grappling with complaints of excessive force against protesters.
The day he was announced as Richmond’s new police chief, a North Carolina judge extended a temporary restraining order that banned Smith’s former colleagues from using chemical weapons and other tactics on protesters, according to North Carolina news outlets.
“They all say we want community policing and we're gonna have better relationships. But by the nature of the operation, it's a difficult proposition at best.”
- Manoli Loupassi
“I know we have challenges here. But the number one thing I have to do, as the mayor said, is listen,” Smith said during a press conference Saturday.
“So we're looking at the community being deeply involved in this police department. We're looking to be actually involved in the community. I think this is where we need to start.”
Former Councilman Manoli Loupassi, a self-proclaimed “law and order guy” who is critical of the protests, said he’s heard leaders make these promises before.
“They all say we want community policing and we're gonna have better relationships. But by the nature of the operation, it's a difficult proposition at best,” he said.
Community policing isn’t on the list of demands outlined by protesters. They’re calling for accountability. They want money diverted away from law enforcement and into social programs and a civilian oversight board with subpoena power.
It’s yet to be determined how receptive Smith will be to those conversations.