RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Richmond Chief of Police William Smith is out after 18 days of protests against police brutality in the former capital of the Confederacy.
Smith had overseen the department for the duration of the protests, including during a June 1 event that saw tear gas and pepper spray used on a peaceful crowd about 30 minutes before a recently enacted curfew was put in place. Two lawsuits against Richmond police have since been filed — one in federal court and the other in local court — against unnamed officers for what the protesters call a violation of their civil rights.
The first two nights of protests saw some destruction of public and private property, including a city bus burning to the ground as well as the looting of local businesses. That Sunday, the first night of curfew, police instituted a brutal crackdown, tear-gassing marchers and journalists alike and arresting over 200 people. Demonstrators reacted to that brutality the next day.
Protests continued peacefully with little police intervention for weeks. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney even joined in on some of the city-wide marches. But this past Saturday night, video emerged of a police SUV driving over a median and running over a protester’s bicycle. In response, protests Sunday and Monday night turned more confrontational with standoffs at police headquarters.
The exchanges saw a return to the use of tear gas and pepper spray late into the night after hours of police and protesters squaring off.
At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Stoney hoped to quell some of that unrest.
“We have a good police department in Richmond but I believe we can be better,” Stoney said before announcing he had requested and then accepted Smith’s resignation. “We need to do more to elevate the voices in our community and take a human services approach.”
Richmond had few national police scandals to its name considering its deeply racist past.
The city’s most famous street, Monument Avenue, is lined with monuments to Confederate generals and leaders. While the area had long been a source of pride for some and a reminder of bigotry and slavery for others, since the first weekend of protests it has turned into a meeting place for locals to organize and begin marches.
Demonstrators have also turned the monolithic monuments into canvases for graffiti. But some of the vandalism has manifested more powerfully. Last week, a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was ripped off its pedestal.
In what would be his last press statement as police chief, Smith said Monday evening that Sunday’s protest “escalated into rioting and violence” that “lasted throughout the night and into the early morning hours.”
“[Sunday] night’s actions far exceeded what is considered to be lawful First Amendment activity,” he said.
Smith’s account was contradicted by video showing police lobbing tear gas cans into a meandering crowd.
Richmond Police use teargas on protestors late Sunday night. https://t.co/kCsjnqbREL
— BK (@BradKutner) June 15, 2020
A local man who was present for that demonstration also said he didn’t see the level of violence Smith described. By the time he arrived at police headquarters around 9 p.m. that night, pepper spray was already deployed against the crowd.
“It was tense,” the protester, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said in a phone interview.
The protester was pleased to hear Stoney asked for Smith’s resignation, but he questioned whether it would make a difference going forward as locals continue to demonstrate.
“If you’re going to ask protesters to hold each other accountable, you should ask the same of your officers,” he said.
The Virginia ACLU has also questioned Stoney’s response.
"After-the-fact apologies are insufficient to remedy the harm and ongoing risk that individuals face when exercising their constitutional rights in this city," ACLU-VA Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga said in a letter sent to the mayor after Saturday’s incident involving a police car hitting a protester’s bicycle.
Meanwhile, Stoney, who is up for re-election this fall, promised a holistic approach to fixing the police department’s damaged reputation.
“I respect those who [peacefully protest and] I want you at the table,” the mayor said.
He called for input from those who had taken to the streets as well as those who have been advocating from home. He has also asked the Richmond City Council to create an independent civilian review board that oversees police and institute a mental health alert system named after a local man, Marcus-David Peters, who died at the hands of Richmond police during a mental health crisis in 2018.
“I believe we have to find ways to reimagine the way we keep the public safe,” Stoney added. “[Using police in these roles] does not make our country or city safer. That must change.”
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