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"Progressive Reformer" Challenges Richmond's Top Prosecutor

Man seated
Tom Barbour is mounting a primary challenge to Richmond's top prosecutor, criticizing her office for failing to deliver progressive reforms. (Photo courtesy of campaign)

Richmond’s top prosecutor is facing a challenge from within her party. Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin, a Democrat, announced last month that she would seek re-election. Now Tom Barbour, a criminal defense attorney who calls himself a progressive reformer and innovator, is moving to unseat her in a June primary.

Barbour said the office lacks racial diversity, and has an inadequate system for holding police officers who are accused of misconduct accountable.

“We have huge discrepancies between singular events like this last summer's movement for criminal justice reform, where over 200 protesters were arrested, while only two officers ended up being charged,” Barbour said.

He said the office should be focused on adopting a community-driven, social services approach to criminal justice. He claims McEachin’s office is underusing programs that offer alternatives to incarceration, stating that fewer than 20 people were accepted into Richmond’s Adult Drug Court and the General District Court’s mental health diversion program from October to January.

Barbour founded the Virginia Holistic Justice Initiative, has his own criminal defense practice and was previously a prosecutor for Richmond and policy advisor to former Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Mike Herring. 

He responded to questions Wednesday during a press conference announcing his bid for election, including how he plans to address Richmond Police officers accused of using excessive force on protesters and members of the media last summer.

“I would stand up and I would prosecute police misconduct, by publicly enforcing clear, community-driven standards for use of force,” Barbour said.

On his first day in office, Barbour commits to publishing public criteria for how the office decides to charge officers for excessive force.

“People will be able to look at this specific charging guidance, look at a particular incident in the street, and say, ‘There goes Tom Barbour charging the police like he said he would,’ or, ‘Hey, Tom Barbour is not holding up to his commitment.’”

But Barbour said he’s not going to retroactively prosecute officers involved in summer protests.

“I’m not going to open that box and prosecute backwards,” he said. “’I’m going to prosecute better forwards.”

Barbour has other ideas for holding police accountable, including implementing what’s referred to as a do-not-call list, which excludes police officers from testifying in court if they have a history of bias or a known motive to falsely testify.

McEachin

In an interview last month, McEachin commended the work her office has done to prioritize accessibility and transparency.

“I want to make sure that all members of the public are aware that they have access to this office and that they don't have to wonder what we're doing that they can call and ask and it's our responsibility to answer that question,” McEachin said.

And she lauded her efforts to hold police officers accountable. McEachin announced in July a new policy of publicly releasing the names of officers indicted for their abuse of authority or excessive use of force while on duty.

“We all heard loud and clear what people's fears and expectations were this summer. And it's our job to make people feel as though especially in my line of work, that public safety includes them as the public and includes my desire for them to feel safe,” she said.

Two police officers were charged after McEachin presented 18 indictments  to a grand jury over conduct during the protests.

McEachin said  RPD publishes their General Orders on Use of Force on the city’s website.

“My public report on the death of Marcus David Peters described the legal standard for use of force so the public can be aware of what I consider,” McEachin said.  

And she said Barbour’s suggested “do not call” list may subject taxpayers to a libel suit.

In a follow-up email with McEachin this week, she refuted some of Barbour’s claims, including his criticism that too few people have been accepted into drug and mental health diversion courts.

“Richmond has been ahead of the curve, and leading the pack on alternatives to incarceration,” she said in the January interview.

McEachin said there are currently 36 people on the Mental Health Docket and 35 people on the Drug Court Docket, numbers that are still lower than previous years because many of those individuals are self-quarantining due to COVID-19.

“The Drug Court staff and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office are sensitive to their need to quarantine and looking forward to their safe return to the programs,” McEachin said.

When asked whether her performance during the protests this summer will help or hurt her chances at re-election, McEachin responded “Both”.

“I am aware that there is like the rest of the country is split of opinion and a polarization between I'm not gonna say law and order, but one side versus the other,” McEachin said. What I have to do is look at the law and facts that are applicable to each case and apply that to each case and make a recommendation.”

Richmond voters will rate her performance during the June 8th primary.