Two Richmond Cops Face Charges of Assaulting Protesters

Police in riot gear advance on protesters as they attempt to clear the streets in Richmond, Va., on May 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — Two police officers in Virginia’s capital have turned themselves in to authorities after being indicted on assault charges linked to what the city’s police department described as a summer of civil unrest.

The indictments were announced Monday night by the Richmond Police Department. The two detectives, Mark Janowski and Christopher Brown, have both been charged with misdemeanor assault and battery. 

“These events are unfortunate,” Police Chief Gerald Smith said in a statement. “However, we must allow the legal process to work. The officers will be placed on administrative assignment until a verdict is reached.”

Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Colette McEachin said late Monday that she had presented 18 sealed indictments to the grand jury earlier in the day targeting the actions of eight officers during the protests, but only the two for Janowski and Brown were returned as “true bills.”

The charge is a misdemeanor which carries up to 12 months in jail and a $2,500 fine.

The summer of civil unrest described by the police department refers to the months-long protests, often drawing hundreds to the streets with occasional property damage, against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s Memorial Day death in Minneapolis police custody.   

Among the Richmond protesters was Kristopher “Goad” Gatsby, a local activist who has been observing demonstrators in the city since late May. He was displeased with the grand jury’s decision.

“Richmond police officers committed what would be felonies if they weren’t in uniform,” the activist said via text message while pointing to the myriad of online videos showing questionable police behavior over the last several months. “Two misdemeanors is extremely low and isn’t holding the department accountable.”

The viral videos – including footage of officers driving through protest lines, spraying chemical agents at people looking out their apartment windows, and tear gassing protesters ahead of curfew – lead former Richmond Police Chief William Smith to step down in June.

This is the second time McEachin, a Democrat, has acknowledged complaints of police violence in Richmond, after announcing in July that she found no wrongdoing based on a handful of complaints. A representative from her office declined to comment on the existence of any ongoing investigations into police-linked protest violencebut said it would consider any complaints from the public or from other members of the police department.

Unsealed documents from Richmond Circuit Court show the date of both offenses, May 31. The last day of May featured the hardest crackdown by police officers following two nights of destruction of property, but a time is not listed for the incident so it is unclear if it happened overnight Saturday or before midnight that Sunday.  

Additional records show the officers turned themselves in Tuesday and list the victims of the assaults as “another person.” Both were released on $2,000 bonds.

Todd Stone, a Richmond-based criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the grand jury would have been made up of Richmond citizens who looked over evidence presented by the prosecutor’s office before determining what charges could go forward. 

“Police officers have a lot of authority to engage in activities that might be considered an assault but are not,” he said, warning those who might hope a conviction is all but guaranteed. “There’s times when they use tear gas and its within their duties and they’re not acting with the intent required to prove a criminal case.” 

“But,” he added, “if a police officer goes beyond – and it needs to be is well beyond accepted norms – that’s when charges result.” 

Following the widespread protests in Virginia’s capital, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam called a special session to address police reform in August. But despite Democratic majorities in both the state House of Delegates and Senate, few changes in law have been made.

An effort to end qualified immunity for police officers was killed in the more moderate Senate, a running theme for legislative efforts from the more progressive House. And while the Senate has since passed a bill banning police from using the smell of marijuana as a pretext for searching a car, other efforts, like creating civilian review boards and mental health-driven emergency response teams, are still being debated. 

But at least one state lawmaker was less than pleased by the announcement of charges against the two Richmond officers: Delegate Lee Carter, D-Manassas.    

“Should be a lot more,” tweeted the delegate who was sprayed with a chemical agent by police in his district during one of the summer protests. “A LOT more.”

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