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Richmond Civilian Review Board Task Force Meets Some, But Not All Of Protesters’ Demands

People stand holding signs
Protesters demand reforms to the Richmond Police Department last summer. (Photo: Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

The task force to establish a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct presented their recommendations to Richmond City Council Monday afternoon.

The formation of a civilian review board in Virginia’s capital city comes as a direct result of over a year of protests and advocacy by Richmond’s Black liberation movement. During the summer of protests for Black liberation last year, establishing a civilian board to oversee the police became one of the key demands activists brought to the attention of city officials.

“The protests… [were] the extra push that was needed in order to have equitable change,” said activist Lawrence West. “I think that some of the elected officials understand that, you know, this is the way forward and they are responding to that call to action.”

Those calls for action were sparked by the police killing of Marcus-David Peters in 2018 and by the assaults of hundreds of protesters by Richmond police officers last summer. But if the task force’s recommendations are adopted by City Council, the people in those cases won’t be able to seek justice through the board they played a critical role in creating.

Meeting some of the protesters’ demands

The task force’s recommendations meet several of the demands Black liberation protesters made. Most notably, they recommend City Council establish a civilian oversight board with subpoena power. That would give the board access to the same information the police department’s Internal Affairs Division had when making their determination on a case, including witness testimony, police testimony, video evidence and written documentation.

According to Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, granting that power is a critical step in creating an effective oversight body.

“The ability to do good work as a civilian oversight entity is the ability to have access to information,” McEllhiney said. “The truth of the matter is so many civilian oversight agencies who have subpoena power, really don’t have to use it. But it's so important to have it as the backup for when they do have someone who is impeding them in carrying out their mandate.”

The task force’s recommendations don’t stop at giving the board the power to collect information. They also recommended to City Council that the board should be empowered to discipline law enforcement officers found guilty of police misconduct. These disciplinary powers could include termination, according task force co-chair Eli Coston, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It would include termination, if that was an appropriate penalty for something an officer did,” Coston said.”[If] the CRB essentially found evidence of criminal activity, then it would not go through the CRB but [would be] turned over to the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.”

Retroactive disciplinary power

The task force’s recommendations specify, however, that the board only has the power to discipline law enforcement officers for crimes or misconduct they commit after the board is formed.

That means those previously harmed by RPD, like Marcus-David Peters’ family and protesters assaulted by Richmond police last summer, won’t qualify to seek justice through the board. Instead, the task force is recommending the board investigate previous claims of misconduct for “record keeping” purposes only.

According to Coston, that decision was made based on advice from Richmond’s Office of the City Attorney.

“ In the state of Virginia, there was no legal precedent for being able to [look at cases] before the formation of the board,” Coston said. “We came to that decision because there was no legal precedent. We knew that in some cases, even if a complaint was made, that there wouldn't be additional things that could be done about it. But we do know that record keeping is important, even if discipline can't be imposed for those things.”

Richmond City Attorney Haskell Brown said he could not comment on any advice his office may have provided to the task force. However, because the legislation authorizing localities to establish law-enforcement civilian oversight bodies in Virginia didn’t go into effect until July, there isn’t much precedent either way on whether these boards can have retroactive disciplinary power in Virginia.

Civilian oversight has existed in some limited form in the U.S. since the 1920s, according to McEllhiney. But, it wasn’t until last year that the country experienced a wave of support for civilian oversight of police.

“By 2020, there were approximately 200 civilian oversight entities that weren’t codified,” McEllhiney said. “These are ones that actually come out of city charters or municipal ordinances following the murder of George Floyd. Our organization alone has talked to over 130 municipalities.... who are looking at implementing and working towards implementing civilian oversight. So in the next five plus years, we have the possibility of doubling the number it took us to get to by 2020.”

If Richmond were to give its civilian review board the power to investigate retroactive complaints against law enforcement, McEllhiney said it wouldn’t be the first.

“It’s definitely more common in the climate that we're in right now. I think what we're seeing, and what I've seen nationally, particularly with those who are looking to implement oversight, is that they really are taking time to look at what are the effective practices of civilian oversight? How can we make proactive change? How can we truly understand the landscape? And I think by doing that, you're seeing more instances where there's a recommendation for things like being able to look retroactively,” McEllhiney said.

The families of victims want more

The families of two men shot by police say  while they support most of the recommendations, granting the board retroactive power is an essential step in finally getting justice for their loved ones.

Princess Blanding, the sister of Marcus-David Peters and a candidate for governor of Virginia, said both her brother and the protesters who fought for his cause deserve to pursue justice through the board.

“Both my brother’s case and the protesters' cases need to have their day in court. The police officers involved in all of those cases need to be held accountable for their actions,” Blanding said. “Be it older cases or new cases, in order for there to be any accountability the board has to have the power, subpoena power, and be independent of the police department.”

Jennifer Carter is the mother of Orlando Carter, a young Black man who was shot three times in the back by Richmond police officers last New Year’s Eve. Carter says police shot her son in the back; the department and individual officers have given conflicting accounts of the shooting, and have not released an official report detailing his injuries. Carter says she hasn’t filed a complaint because she doesn’t have faith the police will properly investigate themselves.

“I don’t feel like they will be really impartial,” Carter said.

That’s why Carter says giving the board the power to investigate retroactive cases like Orlando’s is the only way to get justice for her son.

“I really don’t think that it’s fair that they get away with what they did,” Carter said.

Activists look to the future

Lawrence West has been leading the movement occupying Marcus-David Peters Circle for more than a year. He says that despite never getting any justice for his and his fellow occupiers' experiences of police violence and harassment, he’s mostly looking towards the future instead of focusing on the past.

“At the end of the day what I’m looking to do is have the best quality of life going forward,” West said. “The way I see things, we do have a rearview mirror, and we do need to look back to make sure that things in our past are not repeated in our future. But our windshield is probably ten times the size of our rearview mirror. So we need to look forward to what is ahead of us to make sure that we’re creating a greater future for our family.”

Council members weigh in

Two City Council members already say they generally support the task force’s recommendations.

“How can the police police the police?” said Council Member Mike Jones. “I am for subpoena power.”

Jones also supports the task force’s recommendation that the board not have retroactive disciplinary power, because he says there are simply too many complaints against RPD for the board to investigate. 

“How far back can they go then? Can they go a year, two years, you know, so I think you’re opening up Pandora’s box there,” Jones said. “That’s not to minimize what just happened, but I believe it’s wise of the task force to say, ‘Okay, we have to start somewhere.’”

Council Member Stephanie Lynch says she supports both subpoena power and retroactive disciplinary power for the board. She says both are critical to ensuring that Richmond’s police officers are acting appropriately in their service to the community.

“I've always supported subpoena power, when we initially put up the legislation and supported it when the legislation went into the General Assembly and still support it today,” Lynch said. “I've personally always been a big believer in their retroactive policy, because most of the most egregious and unjust behavior has occurred in the past.”

Moving Forward

City Council didn’t take any action to approve or dismiss the task force’s recommendations on Monday. According to Council President Cynthia Newbille, the recommendations require further review and vetting by the council’s public safety committee. The public safety committee’s next meeting is on Sept. 28.

If you want to get involved in the debate over the formation of Richmond’s civilian review board, you can find contact information for your City Council representative here.