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Police Reform, Protest Response Crucial in Richmond Mayor’s Race

Protestors around Lee monument
Richmond, like many U.S. cities, was engulfed with protest following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Many protesters called on City Council to seek reform within the police department. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

A prominent issue in this year’s Richmond mayoral race is how candidates have responded to ongoing calls for police reform and protests that rocked the city over the summer. 

On June 1, a day after protesters set fires and damaged businesses in downtown Richmond in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of protesters gathered at the Robert E. Lee monument. With the sun still beaming down, roughly twenty minutes before a city-imposed 8 p.m. curfew, Richmond police deployed clouds of tear gas on the crowd.  

The incident was widely panned.  Mayor Levar Stoney apologized the following day. 

“I can’t stand here today and give you every single answer,” he told protesters who were gathered outside city hall. “But what I can do is commit to you that such a thing will never happen again.”

But the gassing was a signifier of the days to come, in which tear gas and rubber bullets would be commonplace. Numerous unlawful assemblies would be declared and protesters arrested. 

The incident also signified the beginning of Alexsis Rodgers’ campaign for mayor. 

“I regret that this mayor and even some of my opponents only recently have determined that it’s okay to examine ways to change our police in the city of Richmond,” Rodgers said during a mayoral debate hosted by 8 News WRIC and Virginia Union University. 

Rodgers has promised to reduce the scope and scale of Richmond Police, which would include moving funds away from the department and toward mental health and substance abuse programs. She wants a civilian oversight board with subpoena power so it can compel witnesses to testify or provide evidence. And officers who misuse their power, Rodgers said during a VPM / NBC12 forum, should be publicly named. 

“The same way, unfortunately, we've seen protesters get named before they're even convicted of a crime, police officers, if they're being investigated, should be named,” Rodgers said. “So the public can be aware and that we can hold the police department accountable.”

Campaign volunteer Andrew Breton said Rodgers is the only mayoral candidate taking police reform seriously. 

“Even the mayor, who has in many ways used progressive language around the need for new policing, did nothing to actually bring about true accountability to the system,” Breton said. 

But according to the most recent poll, Stoney leads the race with the same level of city-wide support he had as a first-time candidate. The poll - which was conducted by the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University and the Richmond-Times Dispatch - shows that Rodgers is tied for second place with City Councilwoman Kim Gray. Justin Griffin and Tracy Mclean came in third and fourth place respectively. This is motivating Breton and other volunteers. 

“We kind of feel like we’re the underdog. Right? So that kind of makes it exciting,” Breton said. “It feels like it’s important.”

Councilwoman Gray is widely billed as a “law and order” candidate. She’s criticized some of the tactics used by protesters and fervently called for those who destroyed property to be prosecuted. 

During the VPM and NBC12 forum, Gray promised voters integrity. 

“We have a mayor who will say one thing to the police in one room and encourage protesters in the next breath and then tear gas protesters in the third breath,” Gray said. “So we have a lack of integrity in our leadership in our city.”

Back in July, the city council voted 7-2 opposing a resolution to examine the police department’s budget for money that could be moved elsewhere. Gray said she wasn’t prepared to meddle with the budget during an economic crisis brought on COVID-19.  She did, however, endorse a measure setting up the creation of a civilian review board.  But she’s hesitant to give the group subpoena power because she said it could jeopardize public safety.

“We always have to work in the interest of public safety and protecting informants and individuals who work in our public safety arena,” Gray said at the VUU debate.

Pierce Homer, a former state secretary of Transportation, said he respects Gray and believes she’s sensitive to the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for racial equality.    

“But when people take advantage of that and use that as an opportunity to destroy small Black businesses, she’s going to stand up for them,” Homer said. “And she did.”

Protesters have argued the police department escalated violence in the streets by using projectiles, gas, and smoke against them, and silenced free speech with declarations of unlawful assembly. Stoney has stood behind the police department in its efforts to curb unrest in the city. 

“I've always felt that I've been sort of caught in the middle as a Black man, but also the chief executive of a municipal government,” Stoney said during the VUU debate. 

And Stoney maintains he’s made headway on police reform. 

“We have a new leader at the top of Richmond Police Department in Gerald Smith, out of Charlotte. He's a change agent and a reformer,” Stoney said. “Also, we have a task force made of community leaders and experts and academics, who are focused on reimagining and reforming the way we police.”

And Stoney has the support of the state’s top elected official. 

“Levar has been a leader, he listens, he takes action,” Governor Ralph Northam said last month during a press conference announcing Stoney’s bid for re-election. 

Northam said Richmond has become more progressive, more innovative and more inclusive under Stoney’s leadership. 

But the mayor’s race will hinge on community trust, not just high-profile endorsements. And trust is hard to come by for many activists, who called for change long before a Minneapolis police officer pinned George Floyd to the ground in a deadly chokehold. 

Princess Blanding still wants justice for the death of her brother Marcus David Peters, who was shot dead by Richmond Police in May of 2018. Blanding says the mayor’s reform efforts are too little too late. 

“I was remiss if I didn’t say, where were you back in 2018?” Blanding said. 

Peters’ name is now emblazoned on a sign at the Lee Monument traffic circle, where protesters were gassed nearly four months ago. 

Blanding said she’s not formally endorsing anyone in the race but is disappointed in both Gray and Stoney’s positions. 

“I think it’s clear to many that they are not the individuals who should take on that strong, very important leadership role,” Blanding said. 

Undecided voters will likely be key in determining who should be the city’s next mayor.  They make up 30 percent of the people who participated in the Wason Center poll. But if the numbers stay consistent, that will mean residents are willing to ride out the next four years with Stoney at the helm.