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Mayor’s plan weakens proposed Civilian Review Board powers and independence from the police

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

Editor's Note: This story was updated on April 1, 2022, with information from Mayor Levar Stoney's office.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has advanced a proposal for establishing a Civilian Review Board in the city. But activists and experts say it threatens to defeat the purpose of the board by weakening its powers and tainting its independence from the police. 

The mayor’s plan comes months after the Richmond City Council Task Force to Establish Civilian Oversight presented its own proposal laying out their vision for the board, which would investigate police misconduct, to the full City Council. 

One power that would be stripped by the mayor’s proposal: the ability to discipline officers who commit misconduct. Dr. Eli Coston, who was a member of the task force, says that was one of the task force’s key recommendations.

“Overall, the proposal falls significantly short of the recommendations outlined by the task force for establishing civilian oversight, which were really rooted in community demands for independent oversight of the police department,” Coston said. 

The task force’s proposal called for the board to have the power to make binding disciplinary decisions, including the ability to fire police officers. Under Stoney’s proposal, however, the board could only make recommendations to the City Council, the mayor and the chief of police. Coston says without the power to enact those recommendations, the influence of the board is almost nonexistent. 

“Ultimately, those recommendations would go back to the chief of police, who would then decide. So really, this only adds a small layer of civilian oversight onto the police department's current process, and only in a small number of cases,” Coston said. 

Administration officials say the decision to withhold binding disciplinary power from the board was based on the fact that the department “does not have a history of the kind of issues” that would necessitate intervention by the federal government. This choice, administration officials said, was also supported by the recommendation of VCU professor of criminal justice and policing Dr. Will Pelfrey.

While the board retains the right to ask a court to require the police department to provide witnesses and evidence under Stoney’s proposal, the kinds of cases they can investigate are limited. The task force recommended that the board have the ability to investigate any complaint brought to them against the police department, but the mayor’s proposal limits that to only internal investigations that have already been conducted and completed by the police department. 

“The police would still intake complaints. The police would still be the ones investigating complaints and making determinations. A small proportion of those cases would then be forwarded to the civilian review board, but for review only,” Coston said. “I believe that true independence would … mean that the civilian oversight body and associated staff would be the ones who investigate the complaints themselves, intake the complaints and also have final disciplinary authority in that process.”

The types of complaints the board can investigate are limited to officer-involved shootings, deaths that occur while people are held in police custody, serious injuries to people while in police custody, accusations of physical or verbal abuse by officers and citizen appeals regarding a decision by the police department under Stoney’s proposal. 

If the mayor’s proposal is approved, the board will be made up of seven voting members: three appointed by the mayor, three by council and one by the chief of police. Coston says allowing the police chief to appoint a member threatens the board’s ability to investigate the department without bias. 

“​​I don't think that this does speak to the spirit of what an independent civilian review board should actually be,” Coston said. “The interactions and influence of the police in the process should be relatively minimal. An independent CRB wouldn't have appointments from the chief of police.”

Administration officials emphasized that current and previous law enforcement officers and their families are barred from serving on the board. 

After the board is formed, some of their policies and procedures must be approved by the chief before they can be enacted under Stoney’s proposal. And any amendments to those procedures would also need the police chief’s approval. 

As of April 1, Richmond Police Department had not yet responded to a request for comment from VPM News.

To investigate police misconduct, the board would, under the mayor’s proposal, have the power to hire outside investigators. However, their ability to do so is limited in his proposal to the “availability of sufficient funds.” That’s a problem because under Stoney’s proposed budget, there isn’t enough money to hire these positions. 

The mayor’s proposal sets aside $200,000 for the board over the next fiscal year. That money, according to the task force’s calculations, would only cover the costs of hiring an executive director and paying board members’ stipends. For comparison, the task force recommended spending over $1.2 million to establish the board and hire its staff, including two full-time investigators, over the next fiscal year. 

“The reality is that the budget is not sufficient even to likely support the investigations that would be needed,” Coston said. 

Administration officials say Stoney’s proposed budget for the board is “based on the number and kinds of complaints received by RPD over the last five years.” They insist that the funding is sufficient to hire external, third-party investigators. 

According to the task force’s calculations, the cost of hiring a single third party investigator would be approximately $263,200. That cost exceeds Stoney’s entire proposed budget for the review board. 

In contrast, the mayor’s proposed budget for the police department next fiscal year tops $110 million, including $10.7 million to fund pay increases for officers.

Activists, including Princess Blanding, one of the leaders of Richmond’s Black liberation movement, say the mayor’s proposal is offensive and doesn’t meet the demands of protesters who marched for greater police oversight during the summer of 2020. Those protests were held partially in response to the killing of Blanding’s brother, Marcus-David Peters, by a Richmond police officer in 2018. 

“It has no teeth; you might as well not have it at all,” Blanding said of the proposed board. “You're not funding it, you're not giving it the resources that it needs to actually be successful. So you're setting it up for failure.” 

Council member Michael Jones agrees with Blanding that in order for the board to fulfill its mission, it needs adequate funding. 

“We can either give them the resources they need to complete their tasks or we can put them in a position where they're not effective,” Jones said. 

Kristin Larson, who also serves on the Richmond City Council, says the mayor’s proposal will require amendments before she’s comfortable voting for it. 

“My intent, and I think the intent of the committee, [is] really to work on amendments that hopefully are palatable to the rest of council as well as the administration,” Larson said.

Stoney’s proposal is currently under review by the council’s Governmental Operations Standing Committee. Its next meeting is at 5 p.m. April 4.