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Richmond police agree to release video, audio around tear gas incident at former Lee statute

Protesters kneel in front of the former statue to Confederate general Robert E. Lee
Protesters kneel in front of the former statue to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee just before tear gas was released in June 2020 by the Richmond Police Department. Late last week, RPD acknowledged that there was no need for tear gas to be used at the monument and retracted its earlier statement. (File photo: Coleman Jennings/VPM News)

A civil rights lawsuit filed against Richmond police for tear gassing a crowd of protesters at the former Robert E. Lee monument has concluded with a settlement — the terms of which were not all made available to the public.

As part of the agreement, the city must donate to the Library of Virginia documents and videos detailing what took place at the Confederate monument two years ago. The cache is set to include police body-worn camera footage, records of the department’s radio traffic, officer narrative reports, department policies pertaining to its response to the demonstrations and a list of officers present during the tear gassing, including their ranks.

As part of the settlement, the police department was also required to retract a social media post it published about 30 minutes after the 2020 incident. The department had previously tweeted that it deployed tear gas to enable officers to leave the area safely because they were cut off by protesters. On Friday afternoon, the day before the Fourth of July holiday weekend, the department acknowledged on its Twitter account that the narrative was false.

Below is a retraction the City agreed to publish as a result of tear gas being dispersed in response to public safety threats regarding the J.E.B. Stuart Monument in June 2020.
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— Richmond Police (@RichmondPolice) July 1, 2022

“There were no RPD officers cut off by violent protesters at the Lee Monument,” the tweet said. ”There was no need for gas at Lee Monument to get RPD officers to safety.”

Footage of the incident shows protesters kneeling with their hands up 20 minutes before a city-mandated curfew when police discharged a cloud of chemical irritants.

The body-camera footage that will be made available to the library includes about 70 different perspectives from between 7 and 8 p.m. at monuments to Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart and Lee.

A spokesperson for the Library of Virginia said once the city provides the materials, it will archive them, but that process could take some time. The public will be able to contribute their own videos and photos to the repository as well.

“One of the reasons to make all of this information available to the public in this way is so that there won’t be the dispute that somebody is simply spinning the story or coloring it according to partisan perspectives,'' said Andrew Bodoh, an attorney for the protesters. 

Bodoh said some of the information, including the police report narratives, the formal process in which an officer describes his or her observations, were not made available to attorneys.

VPM News contacted Mayor Levar Stoney’s office for a comment but did not receive a response by deadline. The Richmond Police Department declined to comment when asked about the settlement during a Wednesday press conference.      

Bodoh said he hopes the public can draw some conclusions from the stockpile of information. But he still has a number of questions. He said he’s curious about why officers responded to both the Lee and Stuart statues — despite reports that protesters were trying to take down Stuart with ropes and saws.

“There’s no verbal orders or direction to respond specifically to the Lee monument,” he said. “But the officers are responding to Lee monument, even though the call came from Stuart monument.”

Bodoh said he still wonders why the officers observed two to three minutes of what was happening at the Lee statue after receiving calls to deploy tear gas and then chose to continue with orders to do so.

“Why did all those other officers around, who were there at the same time, had the same opportunity to see that the protesters were not being violent, were not being aggressive, and had no reason to disrupt this protest, why didn’t they speak up to the command and say, ‘No something’s wrong here, we shouldn’t be gassing these protesters,’” Bodoh said.

Warning: The video contains disturbing images and language. On June 1, 2020 Richmond law enforcement supported by the National Guard deployed tear gas and pepper spray at the controversial Robert E. Lee Monument. The gas was deployed around 7:40 p.m. in advance of the 8 p.m. curfew, disrupting a planned protest in response to the death of George Floyd. Last week, Richmond police acknowledge that its use of tear gas was unnecessary.

 

Stoney, in a May 2021 New York Times op-ed, apologized for the tear gassing. He called it a “violation of the social contract and a breach of trust by those assigned to protect us.” He added the city determined after the incident that ​​it had been used “unintentionally.”

This frustrated Bodoh.

“[The incident] certainly intended to disperse this crowd with teargas. That’s clear,” Bodah said. “Was it unintentional by the commander who gave them the 10-4 to use tear gas? He may have been mistaken. He may have been meaning ‘use it at Stuart monument, not at Lee monument’ and been careless in his communication, but it certainly wasn’t unintentional.”

He said the public might never get those answers.

“But this gives us enough information for people to ask more questions and to press forward in trying to get serious answers from the city and serious change from the city,” Bodah said.