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For Protests, RPD Spent Over $200K on Tear Gas, Vans, Meals

Police in cloud of chemical agents
Police stand in yellow  smoke during protests on June 1. The Richmond Police Department bought 150 yellow smoke grenades later that month, among other purchases. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

*Ben Paviour and Roberto Roldan reported this story

The Richmond Police Department spent at least $126,000 on rental vans, chemical agents and other equipment to respond to anti-police brutality protests in the city.

Purchase order data VPM obtained through a public records request show RPD bought 1,025 units of chemical agents in various forms from June 1 through July 7. The department spent roughly $18,000 on hand-held and gas grenade forms of O.C. spray, commonly called pepper spray. The agency also spent just over $19,000 on C.S. tear gas canisters, excluding shipping costs.

Richmond Police declined to answer questions from VPM about how much of the newly purchased equipment has been used.

Credit card transactions show RPD spent an additional $97,000 on other supplies from May 30 to July 5, most of it prepared food. That includes $8,400 on a July 4 order at Extra Billy’s Smokehouse in Midlothian. VPM reported last month that the protests cost the department nearly $2 million through July 3, most of it in overtime costs.

Speaking at a recent City Council Public Safety Committee meeting, Police Chief Gerald Smith defended the use of less-lethal weapons at a protest on July 25 and said they can be useful tools when protests become “riotous.”

“I believe just the other night, under some of the things I already put in place, these [chemical agents] were used effectively and used with restraint and used in a way that did not produce any kind of injury to anyone in the crowd,” he said. “That crowd, which was also an unlawful assembly, was riotous.”

Smith also said at that meeting that, when he started at the department on July 1, RPD did not have written criteria for when to use so-called “non-lethal” weapons and command-level staff had not been trained on their use.

After hearing of the RPD purchases, Councilwoman Stephanie Lynch questioned whether the expense was truly worth the outcome. Lynch attended a protest in June where she said tear gas was used indiscriminately.

“From that first night onward, we saw the tear gas and rubber bullets had the opposite effect of tamping down the protests,” she said in an interview with VPM. “We actually saw the number of protesters grow in size because they were angry, and rightfully so. It was night after night of them watching friends, residents, neighbors get tear gassed.”

Lynch has been an outspoken critic of the police department’s response to the ongoing protests. Along with Councilman Michael Jones, Lynch has introduced a resolution to block police use of less-lethal weapons on protests that are deemed by RPD to be “unlawful assemblies.”

Richmond Police acquired the pepper spray and tear gas from three Richmond-area suppliers: Town Gun Shop in Richmond, Southern Police Equipment Supply in Chesterfield, and Strohman Enterprise Inc. in Henrico. Shipping costs for the equipment totalled more than $9,000.

In addition to pepper spray and tear gas, Richmond Police also rented numerous “club wagon style” vans. RPD declined to answer questions from VPM about how these rental vans were used during protests, but videos posted to social media show unmarked white vans driving alongside marked police vehicles during protests. Some protesters also claim to have witnessed the rental vans being used to transport police officers.

Richmond Police spent a relatively small amount on so-called “non-lethal” impact rounds, mostly foam bullets and rubber pellet grenades. On June 18, RPD purchased 50 Stinger rubber pellet grenades and 150 foam bullet rounds, some of which could also be loaded with pepper spray powder. The total cost for the less-lethal munitions was about $10,000, excluding the cost of shipping.

While these less-lethal rounds are marketed as “crowd management” tools, at least one protester told RVA Magazine that they were shot in the eye by a rubber bullet that may result in permanent damage.

The totals do not include spending made by Virginia State Police, who provided assistance during the protests. VSP told VPM last month they had not yet disaggregated protest-related spending and have yet to respond to a public records request sent this week. 

Correction: A photo caption has been changed to accurately reflect the actions of law enforcement. VPM News regrets the error.