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PolitiFact VA: Stoney contradicts past statements on involvement in police chief decisions

Levar Stoney speaks at a podium with microphones
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney speaks at a 2021 event. Stoney recently said he was not involved in the resignation of police Chief Gerald Smith. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney
Statement: “I don’t get involved in the hiring and firing of police chiefs.”
Date: Oct. 26
Setting: News conference

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is downplaying the role he may have played in the recent resignation of city police Chief Gerald Smith and his hiring in 2020.

“I don’t get involved in the hiring and firing of police chiefs,” Stoney said during a news conference on Oct 26, one day after Smith stepped down.

We fact checked Stoney’s claim and found it to be at polar odds with statements he made in 2020 taking credit for hiring Smith as well as the hiring and firing of his predecessor.

Smith had been under fire for low morale in the department, rising attrition of officers and a “no confidence” vote in December 2021 from the city’s police union.

Smith capped his downfall by providing false information to justify his unsubstantiated claim that Richmond police foiled a mass shooting allegedly planned for July 4 at Dogwood Dell. Before the story unraveled, Stoney ballyhooed the supposed police victory at a July 6 news conference with Smith, saying, “it saved lives.” The story made national headlines.

Smith resigned during a meeting with Lincoln Saunders, Stoney’s hand-picked chief administrative officer. Stoney was asked by reporters the next day if he had requested the resignation and repeatedly answered that he did not attend the meeting.

Asked why he would stay out of such a significant meeting, Stoney replied, “I don’t get involved in the hiring and firing of police chiefs.”

History

Let’s flashback to June 2019 when another Smith — William Smith — was hired as Richmond’s police chief. Stoney announced the hiring at a press conference. A news release issued by his office put the selection firmly in his hand with the headline “Mayor appoints Interim Chief William Smith to be next chief of Police Department.”

The news release quoted Stoney saying, “The chief of police is one of the most important jobs in any city government, requiring skills that go well beyond policing itself.”

It described “an extensive national search” to find a new chief that landed on William Smith, a 24-year veteran of the Richmond Police Department.

William Smith, at the news conference, thanked Stoney and his then chief administrative officer, Selena Cuffee-Glenn, “for their continued faith in me.”

A year later, William Smith was in deep trouble over police conduct during protests in Richmond following the Minnesota murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. In tense standoffs, Richmond police dispersed protestors with rubber bullets and tear gas. On one occasion, police fired tear gas without warning into a peaceful crowd at the Robert E. Lee statue. Stoney apologized for the widely-criticized action.

Two weeks later, Stoney announced that he had requested and received William Smith’s resignation.

"I have high expectations for the Richmond Police Department, our law enforcement," Stoney said. "At a very minimum, I expect them to be willing to come around the table with the community to reform and reimagine public safety. So it boils down to whether the leadership of RPD embraces the change or stands in the way."   

Stoney promised a national search for a new chief who would bring change to the department and improve community relations.

Ten days later, Stoney announced he hired Gerald Smith — the deputy police chief in Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, North Carolina — to head Richmond’s force. “I spoke to a number of candidates,” Stoney said at a news conference on June 26, 2020. “Chief Gerald Smith rose to the top. I think he’s the sort of leadership we need in this time in the city of Richmond.”

Stoney’s explanation

We asked Stoney’s press office to explain the mayor’s claim that he doesn’t get involved in the hiring and firing of police chiefs. We received a written statement that Saunders, the chief administrative officer, issued on Oct. 27, the day after Stoney’s news conference.

Saunders said he called Stoney to tell him about Smith’s resignation and the outgoing chief’s request to be placed on administrative leave through the end of the year. Saunders said Stoney agreed with his recommendation to appoint Rick Edwards, a 20-year veteran of the Richmond police department, interim chief.

“Handling personnel matters is the responsibility of the [chief administrative officer],” Saunders wrote. “However, when it involves members of senior city leadership, especially members of the team that will serve in the mayor’s cabinet, I always discuss my recommendations, and the reasons behind them, with the mayor, as the chief executive.

“If the mayor concurs with my recommendation I move forward, if he does not, I come back to him with additional recommendations for consideration,” Saunders added.

Saunders included in his statement a portion of the city’s charter that lays out the chief administrative officer’s power.

Our ruling

Stoney said, “I don’t get involved in the hiring and firing of police chiefs.”

The mayor said he didn’t have a role in the recent resignation of police Chief Gerald Smith, and we can’t put the ax in his hand. Gerald Smith’s resignation was received by Stoney’s chief administrative officer.

But Stoney took credit for Gerald Smith’s hiring in June 2020. And he took credit for the hiring and firing of Smith’s predecessor — William Smith. Stoney said so at press conferences announcing these events and in news releases issued by his office.

Based on the mayor’s own words, we rate his statement False.

Sources

Levar Stoney, news conference, Oct. 26, 2022
Stoney, news conference, July 6, 2022
Stoney, news releases, June 26, 2019, June 16, 2020
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Amid scrutiny, Richmond police Chief Gerald Smith resigns,” Oct. 26, 2022
PolitiFact Virginia, “Stoney makes U-turn on national search for new Richmond police chief,” July 1, 2020
Richmond City Charter, Chapter 5, accessed Oct. 27, 2022
Lincoln Saunders, statement, Oct. 27, 2022