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Public housing residents say Richmond Police harass and threaten them

Buildings from road
Creighton Court, a neighborhood of homes owned and managed by a public agency, is heavily patrolled by Richmond Police. Residents tell VPM News that they don't feel safer with police. A spokesperson for the police department says they're trying to restore trust by showing up for community events. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Advocates and public housing residents say instead of making them feel safe, Richmond Police officers regularly harass and intimidate them and their neighbors. 

After reports on Richmond Redevelopment Housing Authority policies around banning people from public housing neighborhoods, and an automated license plate scanner program was announced, residents told VPM that they question the role of law enforcement in keeping their community safe.

“There’s a deep distrust with [city police]. So them being around doesn’t make people feel more comfortable. People look at them as more reactionaries, they react to things that happen. They don’t prevent anything,” said Esco Bowden, who spent some of his childhood growing up in Creighton Court, a public housing community owned and managed by RRHA.

As an adult, he advocates for public housing residents in the city and spends his time mentoring and providing for children who live in public housing. He says the police presence in these neighborhoods is constant and not only unhelpful but threatening to residents. 

“There’s always an awareness that the police are always somewhere near, always up the street,” Bowden said. “It’s definitely a hostile relationship.”

Richmond Police spokesperson Tracy Walker said officers are deployed based on departmental analysis, including “the volume of calls for service, crime and population density, and the severity of crime in geographical areas.”

police HQ
The City of Richmond Police Department headquarters. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

According to data released by the department, from 2020-2021 there were 605 reported crimes in the city’s six largest public housing neighborhoods. A majority, about two thirds, of those reported were nonviolent property crimes. 

The agency that manages Creighton Court and other public housing communities did not answer questions about over-policing outside of those about the  license plate reading program.

Mothers say police harass their children even while they're playing

The activists and residents who spoke to VPM said the hostile relationship is especially harmful to the children living in RRHA-managed public housing developments. People speaking out against law enforcement over-policing these neighborhoods say more than anyone else, police target young people with harassment.

“They mess with the children,” said Teenora Thurston, a resident and mother in Gilpin Court. 

Thurston says her sons were playing hide-and-go-seek with a group of children last December when police suddenly appeared on the scene. According to Yohance Whitaker, a representative of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s civil rights and racial justice program, the officers assaulted and detained one of these children. 

“He’s dodging, watching his friends, and suddenly two or three RPD trucks accosts the children, puts one of them in handcuffs, and runs his name through the system,” Whitaker said.

Thurston says she arrived on the scene in time to hear law enforcement questioning her sons’ friend, who was 14 years old. 

“At first they said he was looking suspicious. Then they said he looked like he was trying to break into the car,” Thurston said. “It’s just crazy how they just assume everybody are just bad people.”

Whitaker says this kind of police misconduct is typical in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods, but not in white or affluent parts of the city. 

“Children playing a game with their friends, hide-and-go-seek, in a different neighborhood, in a white neighborhood and in an affluent neighborhood, the kids would have been able to play freely,” Whitaker said. “And that really all folks want is for Black kids to be able to play a game with their friends freely, to exist freely, without the intrusion of the police in their lives.”

Activists say this incident points to a larger trend in the area of over-policing children. Bowden described another incident last year in which police scared a group of children playing outside.

“I was driving down a road and some kids were on the sidewalk, so I pulled over to talk to them and the police came up. And when they came up, two of them ran away,” Bowden said. 

Activists have to avoid police when trying to bring aid to neighborhoods

Bowden and Whitaker say no one, including activists visiting the neighborhoods to provide aid, are safe from police interference. 

“Black people and other marginalized groups have been labeled as criminals and domestic threats to the social order.” Whitaker said. “So what that means is that our neighborhoods are policed heavily. So it leads to poor interactions with the police, it’s led to mass incarceration.” 

The disproportionate policing of Black Richmonders was confirmed by a 2019 report from the Richmond Transparency and Accountability Project. RTAP is a community organization formed by policy analysts, legal experts and advocates working to increase safety and equity in the city by monitoring the police department’s conduct and holding them accountable for their actions. 

The organization analyzed the Richmond Police Department’s 2018-2019 internal data on citizen complaints, use of force, pedestrian contact and traffic stops conducted by officers in the city. 

The report found that 65% of the department’s documented field interviews involved Black people. That means 1 out of 6 Black pedestrians in Richmond were stopped and questioned by police over that time. Black people were nearly three times more likely than white Richmonders to be reported by police as engaging in “suspicious activity,” and were also three times more likely to be pulled over by Richmond police. 

According to residents and activists, that pattern of over-policing is even more severe in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods. 

“I’ve experienced targeting in public housing myself, just even driving through or just waiting outside in my car, waiting for a friend to come out of their home. I’ve been approached by police and taken out of my car and [they] said that it was on suspicion of trespassing,” said Omari Al-Qadaffi, housing organizer for the Legal Aid Justice Center’s economic justice program. 

Thurston says police officers sweep through her neighborhood at Gilpin Court once or twice a day, every day. According to both her and Whitaker, they come around not to help, but to instigate confrontations with residents. 

“Earlier today, I was in a public housing neighborhood and I was talking with a resident and we watched as three uniformed police officers walked down the street looking for God knows what, but most likely an opportunity to interact with a resident,” Whitaker said. “It leads them to the belief that the police are ever present, that they can’t be trusted within their own neighborhoods. Some people feel unsafe with that type of police presence in their neighborhood.”

Walker says  police are deployed in these neighborhoods proactively, and intended to deter crime. 

“Directed patrol adds visibility, whether in vehicles or on foot, when and where more crime is expected, i.e., hot spots. Violent crime is given the highest priority,” Walker said.

Residents say they're stopped for unlawful searches even when they need help

When police do come across residents or visitors in public housing, activists say they’re regularly subjected to unlawful detention and search.

“When I first moved around there back in 2012, I couldn’t even walk out the front door without getting stopped and frisked. I would say it’s definitely gotten better over the years, but it’s definitely still prevalent. It happened to me probably a month ago,” Bowden said. 

Thurston recalls an incident two years ago, when her husband had a heart attack, and she was rushing from her home in Gilpin Court to the hospital when she was pulled over by police. 

“I didn't know if he was going to make it or not so I was rushing and… I didn’t run the stop sign, they called it a stop and roll, and by the time they stopped me at the stop sign in Chamberlayne. Four of them got out of their truck and all four of them had guns pointed on me. I was crying. I was hysterical,” Thurston said. 

Thurston, who is 43, says she wasn’t frightened of the police growing up in Richmond’s Southside. But over the years that’s changed, and she says that’s because trust between law enforcement and the community has been lost. 

“Somewhere down the line the police just lost the trust in the community. They can’t be trusted. The communication is not there,” Thurston said. “People don’t speak up because they don’t want retaliation. They don’t speak up because they don’t want, every time the police see them, to be stopped.” 

Walker acknowledged the mistrust residents described, and said the department is trying to develop closer, more collaborative relationships with community engagement.

“RPD participates in community events and provides public safety presentations, and we participate with other jurisdictions and organizations in crime prevention initiatives,” Walker said.  “It is our intention to establish liaisons with community organizations, other community groups, sectors, and precincts to transmit [or] receive information between the department and the citizens.” 

The Richmond police have established several local outreach programs including the Police Athletic League and the Law Enforcement Intervention Focusing on Education  program in recent years. They also partner with mental health professionals, faith leaders, and citizen leaders on projects intended to increase public safety and health in Richmond. 

New technology brings increased surveillance

It’s not just the police officers parked up the street or patrolling the neighborhood that contribute to the community’s feeling of being watched, advocates say. That’s because in August, the Richmond Police Department announced plans to install license plate readers in mostly Black neighborhoods, including within RRHA’s properties. 

Advocates call these license plate readers a further invasion into residents’ privacy and security. 

“We don’t really know how it’s going to be used and residents don’t feel that any of this surveillance with the cameras or the license plate readers is the most effective thing for keeping their community safe,” Al-Qadaffi said. 

Angela Fountain, who runs public relations for RRHA, says the license plate readers are “a public safety tool that is capable of impacting crime from the perspective of prevention, intervention and enforcement.” She said RRHA does not know how information collected by these license plate readers will be used, but that RRHA can request information collected by the license plate readers from the department. 

According to Walker, those license plate readers have yet to be installed. She said when they are, the department plans to have an open discussion with community groups to answer questions about the license plate readers. 

This is part one in our series on over-policing in Richmond’s public housing neighborhoods. Part two will cover how RRHA and the police work together to bar individuals from neighborhoods where public housing residents live.