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Richmond Police Chief Speaks: One Year After Protests Rocked Richmond

Chief Gerald Smith
Chief Gerald Smith addresses the media during a May 26 press conference at Richmond Police headquarters. (Whittney Evans/VPM News)

This week marks one year since the start of summer-long protests in Richmond, setting off clashes between protesters and police.  

The Richmond Police Department is now facing several lawsuits over its response – Chief Gerald Smith recently spoke to Whittney Evans about the last year and what changes, he says, are underway at the department.   

Chief Smith: We are working really diligently to develop what we are calling, it's the working title right now, the Richmond Community Academy, which would be on top of the police academy training that the state has for us. And it's learning about the identity of who we are as police, our history. We're going to be talking about our values, about the history of Richmond, who Richmond is, where it's been. And we're also talking about and bringing in the people of the community who we will be serving. We still have a long way to go to get trust to the level that we would all be comfortable with. That's where we are right now. 

Whittney Evans: Mayor Levar Stoney, when he brought you on, he referred you as a change agent. How have you worked to change the culture of the department? 

Smith: Changing culture takes time, and we're working on it. The Richmond Police Academy is one way that we're changing the culture. Before, the academy concentrated on the minimal standards across the state of Virginia. Those are great. They're needed. We need to be proficient in all of those skills. These are our values. We value communication. We value partnership. We value community-spirited leaders who will come into the Richmond Police Department that make this area better. 

Evans: If protests were to break out again next week, how would this department handle those protests differently than they handled protests a year ago?. A lot of people were upset with the way RPD handled that. 

Smith:  To help facilitate their first amendment rights and to protect life and property.  

Evans:  Have you made a single policy change?  

Smith: A few.  

Evans:  What are those specific policy changes?  

Smith:  You're gonna have to give me a chance to go back and pull some of those. We changed the chemical munitions policy. The way chemical munitions are used and when they are used. 

Evans:  What is that new policy?  
 
Smith:  You're asking very specific questions that you did not prepare me to go get -- I that would have to get the policy. I've made changes and how our CMT operates. Leadership is on the street now. Okay, when it comes down to protest.?  

Evans:  What does that mean to have leadership on the street?  

Smith:  I think we were kind of ahead of the game. Not to say that other organizations weren't. But that gives those who are in charge of making those decisions of when chemical munitions are used, what tactics what strategies to use, are right there on the street. They're not in a command center somewhere. And I think that's what you saw, as the protests moved on. 

Evans:  I mean, the community has been calling for big sweeping changes. You know? These seem like very small changes.,  

Smith:  What big, sweeping changes are you referring to?  

Evans:  Transparency. Accountability. 

Smith: Yes. And yes. We’re doing those things.   

Evans:  Help me understand how? 

Smith:  The FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests that come in, we are addressing those as quickly as we can. And they have increased tremendously when staffing has not. Transparency? What was the other one that you said? 

Evans:  Accountability. 
 
Smith:  I have created the Office of Professional Accountability, and it is to help officers making sure that they're accountable for their careers and that the organization is accountable for making sure that they are given what they need to have the best career here.  
 
Evans:  What do you see are the changes that need to be made in policing today? 
 
Smith:  The reimagining committee came up with a list of things that we are working very diligently on. Those need to be addressed. If we ignore those things, then people have a right to say, well, this is how we want to be policed. One of those things is officer wellness. This should be a concept that spread throughout the organization. The sacrifices that they have made officers are essential employees. They came to work every day last year COVID accounted for more deaths of officers than car wrecks and bullets. No one sees that.